The Geopolitical Realities and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Co-operation (BIMSTEC)

Regional Cooperation By Binoj Basnyat *

Regional Cooperation

BIMSTEC, despite its dearth of a Charter and strong institutional mechanism, has performed a military exercise for common efforts to control international terrorism, illicit drug trafficking, cross border organised crime, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief operations, and mutual legal assistance in criminal matters.

Political and economic institutions, intergovernmental bodies, international organisations, geopolitical unions, sub-regional forums, legal agreements, and project based partnerships are set up either in the aftermath of major wars or when nation states feel the need for cumulative efforts to address changing socio-political realities. The League of Nations was formed after the First World War, but the importance of such a supranational organisation was realised more strongly after the Second World War. The United Nations was formed in 1945, and its various organs particularly the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank (WB), and World Trade Organization (WTO) have framed the political and economic order of our times. These alliances and institutions have brought the world together, shaped the global economy and guarded our race against annihilating escalations.

While China and US’ trade war and tariff feud continue, Indo-US security co-operation has moved forward after the 2+2 dialogue with the signing of the COMCASA for secure communication. The agreement puts emphasis on necessitating work in extending cooperation with allies and partner countries to encourage transparent, responsible, and sustainable debt financing practices in infrastructure development with respect to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

This year witnessed renewed global interest vis-à-vis great diplomatic and geopolitical maneuverings in the Indo-Pacific region, which could spell either a shift in global geopolitical focus or conflict at reconfiguring international security. The magnitude of the Asian order will occupy a fundamental position in the years ahead. President Trump has stressed from time to time on making America great again, while China is moving forward with economic strides to replace the US’ global footing. Under such circumstances, India’s course of action will command attention and be vital for both the United States and China.

It is imperative for smaller nations to see the larger geostrategic picture and understand geopolitical trends to foster a strong bond with both India and China as the two complete for Asian Hegemony.

Geo-Strategic Picture

US policies for the Indo-Pacific, Rising China, Resurging Russia, and most importantly Rising India will play an important part in the South Asian growth story.

With the four strategic policy papers, the Indo-Pacific region on Washington’s radar has three visible feeders: one, strengthening security arrangements through partnership and alliances; two, competitive diplomacy with larger use of economic tools, like fair and reciprocal trade agreements, and sanctions on China, Russia and Iran; and third, the global economy is a component of the American Might and must be protected from Chinese intervention. In Aug 2017, US expressed its desire for India to take a more constructive role in South Asia (SA) as a means of incorporating the region in the US’ strategic sphere.

China’s geopolitical theory for the Indo-Pacific region has largely been that of a “String of Pearls” around India vis-s-vis geoeconomic development and influence through the mammoth Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI covers parts of Eurasia and Central Asia, encompassing more than 60 countries with the joint GDP of $21 trillion that have articulated their growing need for infrastructural connectivity. The scheme comprises of countries that collectively account for about 65 percent of the global population, 1/3 of the world’s GDP, and quarter of all the goods and services in the world. South Asia features the flagship project of the initiative, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that connects China through the Himalayan corridor to the warm-water Arabian shores of Pakistan, besides other stretches covering Nepal and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Corridor.

India’s policies to counter China’s South Asian ambitions are highly significant. There are clear inclinations of India’s efforts to reinforce relations with Russia, in the view of growing Moscow-Beijing relations. Strategic harmonisation with Japan and defence relations with Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam has revealed new training exercises. Access to ports for logistical support in France, Oman, Singapore, and Indonesia has extended India’s sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean (IO). The second Tri-Service Joint Exercise, after the first with Russia, has been agreed with the US. As part of the US policy and strategic worldview, India has agreed to a familiar communication in the Indo-Pacific, Afghanistan, and North Korea; broadened collaboration on counter terrorism; and the strategic convergence in the Indo-Pacific or South China Sea with the steadfastness to work for a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region with right to sovereignty, territorial integrity, rule of law, good governance, free and fair trade, and freedom of navigation and over-flight.

India has stressed upon its Act East Policy, to play a connecting role for larger Indo-Pacific space, but at the same time has developed visible informal channels with China. India under Prime Minister Modi has been explicit about its Neighbourhood First Policy which is yet to be fully realised but does not presage a clear policy vis-à-vis US and China, and it indicates her inclination to the Rebalancing Approach.

Significantly important for smaller nations in South Asia can be the informal and unscheduled Wuhan meet between PM Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Nation states under the Himalayas, such as Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Nepal, are land locked and have access to sea routes through different political, diplomatic, and security arrangement. Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Pakistan have access to the Indian Ocean and can figure in the policy of containment of China by the US and its allies.

BIMSTEC Summit

The year 2016 saw the leaders of Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) revive and participate in the (BRICS)-BIMSTEC Outreach Summit in Goa. The first such uncommon arrangement, the summit brought back to the table the importance of BIMSTEC and its potential as a sub-regional corporation in the Asian age.

SAARC and its limitation as a South Asia Forum were discussed. Pakistan’s former PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi visited Nepal soon after KP Oli took office with hopes to transpire the 19th SAARC Summit. There were speculations about India trying to isolate its north-western neighbour diplomatically to counter Pakistan’s state sponsored terrorism on India soil. Trump, in the policy paper, has urged India to take a leading role for peace and stability in Afghanistan. If so, India’s diplomatic maneuverings must not be a strategic diplomatic slip.

When South Asia as a region seemed scattered with road blocks in SAARC, the BIMSTEC Summit got a nod from sub-regional leaders coming together to stress the importance of a regional organisation for peace and stability. Seven head of governments of South Asia and South East Asia (SEA) except for China and Nations of South West Asia (SWA) met in Kathmandu on 30-31st Aug.

SA nations, SEA nations and Central Asian Nations (CAN) are part of regional, intergovernmental and sub-regional organisations like SAARC, BIMSTEC, Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal Motor Vehicle Agreement (BBIN MVA), South Asia Sub-Regional Economic (SASEC) and Central Asia Regional Economic Co-operation Program (CAREC).

Five SAARC nations, excluding the island nation of Maldives that lies in the IO and two nations in SWA Afghanistan and Pakistan, and two of the ten members of ASEAN are a part of BIMSTEC. Afghanistan and Pakistan, with nine other nations of CAN, are a part of the Central Asia Regional Economic Corporation (CAREC) grouping with imperatives that CAN resources be utilised for the economic and political stability of the region. South Asia must act as a bridge between East and Central Asia for justifying the blitz of globalisation and make the most of regional assets, resources and geographical advantage.

BIMSTEC started with focus on economic enhancement driven by six sectors: trade, technology, energy, transport, tourism, and fisheries, and expanded to embrace nine more sectors: agriculture, public health, poverty alleviation, counter terrorism, environment, culture, people-to-people contact and climate change in 2008. Nepal and Bhutan formally joined BIMSTEC in 2004 after seven years of its establishment upgrading it into a seven state intergovernmental organisation. It can be viewed as a gateway or an economic corridor to East Asia through SEA via both land and sea.

BIMSTEC summit admits arguments of India losing its influence and goodwill with in its immediate neighborhood and the growing of Chinese influence. The fourth summit ended with an 18 point declaration focusing on strengthening capacity by preparing the preliminary draft of the Charter, long term vision, priorities for co-operation, establishment of BIMSTEC Permanent Working Committee (BPWC), and a Secretariat with finance and human resources. Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on grid interconnection for optimisation of energy resources in the region and to promote efficient and secure operation of power system supplementing energy security was signed. The 14+2 priorities were categorised into five lists and are at hand for arrangement. India’s proposal for a seven nation BIMSTEC military exercise to strengthen relationship and address common challenges and threats was taken with suspicion.

“I believe that there is a big opportunity for connectivity – trade connectivity, economic connectivity, transport connectivity, digital connectivity, and people-to-people connectivity,” PM Modi addressing the inaugural session of the fourth BIMSTEC summit in Kathmandu.

BIMSTEC and the Military Exercise

PM Modi in his speech came out on BIMSTEC Combined Military Exercise that was held in Pune from 10-16 Sept. with affirmation to participation from the member countries. Amidst India’s push for BIMSTEC Alliance Military Exercise, politicians, intellectuals and civil society in Kathmandu argued on two main issues; one, BIMSTEC is still working for a strong institutional mechanism, vision and charter for capacity development; two, if there was a change in Nepal’s diplomatic principles of opting out of military participation in the first ever regional military alliances exercise for peace efforts vis-a-vis the fear of its growing relationship with China. Nepal’s Foreign Minister, Pradeep Kumar Gyawali, was quick to clarify that Nepal would not join any military alliances or be used against friendly nations but would only prepare for natural disaster expressed the sensitivities. The Ministry of Defense articulated of being unaware of the military exercise with respect to the question of civil control and supremacy. The preparation progressed with a communiqué in end of May with preliminary planning on 19-20 June and the final arrangement was conducted on 2-3 August.

Military exercises weather joined, combined, or alliance are conducted for stability, peace and order, forming alliances to counter opposition and competitors. The imperative idea is to align with nation states that adhere to international system of governance for protection of common interests.

Military Exercise conducted in any form has political, security and diplomatic impacts. Joint, combined military exercises between nation states can be in bilateral and multilateral forms. Regional and Sub-Regional alliance exercises can be conducted in continental, intercontinental, tri-continental, and global arrangement. These exercises replicate the assurance and belief of the participating countries that joint co-operation on the basis of incorporated military agreement, understanding, and co-ordination is the foundation to confronting common threats and dangers that challenge growth and stability.

Asia has more or less four alliance military exercises: Axis of Resistance, Organizations of Eurasia Law Enforcement Agencies with Military Status, Peninsula Shield Force, and Shanghai Co-operation Organization (SCO). Pakistan, along with 23 nations Middle East, participates in the Gulf Shield Exercise. Eight SCO countries including China, India, Pakistan, and Russia with other Central Asian Nations culminated in Russia for SCO Peace Mission Exercise on 29 August.

BIMSTEC, despite its dearth of a Charter and strong institutional mechanism, has performed a military exercise for common efforts to control international terrorism, illicit drug trafficking, cross border organised crime, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief operations, and mutual legal assistance in criminal matters.

Nepal has been part of bilateral and multilateral joint military exercises and actively organised combined military exercises for peace keeping efforts of United Nations and Multinational Force and Observers. Nepal has been consistently putting effort on global alliances under the UN flag but was reluctant to partake in Iraq, Afghanistan under NATO or the US banner.

With debates and opinions flowing in all circles, the government decided that the Nepali Army would not participate in the BIMSTEC joint military exercise but would send observers. Thailand, owing to prior commitments, also sent observers instead of troops. The joint military exercise saw platoon level troops of five nations.

Budge Onward

The recently adjourned 4th BIMSTEC Summit is an opportunity for Nepal and other nation states to strive for better co-ordination, more efficient access and appropriate delivery mechanism to and fro the IO. Trading surplus resources, clean energy, fresh water, and natural gas within the region with appropriate trade and transit agreement come with optimistic possibilities.

Being a component of the Act East and Act West policies for utilising resources and trading energy would be advantageous as long as it helps with closing trade deficit. Implementing policies and prioritising BBIN MVA and SASEC for connectivity and cross-border energy trade agreement would improve natural gas and hydroelectric export/import for economic growth, contributing towards regional stability and prosperity. Nepal’s goal of producing 15000 MW in the next 10 years would be equipped to sell abroad the excess through Bangladesh to Myanmar and Thailand. MOU with India on cross-border energy trade policy, if agreed, would facilitate the export of electricity to third countries via India. Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB) has signed an agreement with India’s NTPC Vidyut Vyapar Nigam (NVVN) which will allow it to import electricity generated by the Upper Karnali hydro project which is being developed by an Indian company through the Indian power grid.

Security co-operation for non-traditional threats through military conventions, physical connectivity, and energy security received precedence without political savor. In distinction to political and economic attainment, the consensus on security related co-operation to combat common threats and dangers, international terrorism, illicit drug trafficking and mutual legal assistance in criminal matters mandates armed forces to have clear records. It is also important to establish defense diplomacy by initiating Defense and Military conference — SAARC/BIMSTEC Defense Ministers Conferences (S/BDMC) and SAARC/BIMSTEC Chief’s Conference (S/BCC) of defence, police and intelligence. The Nepali Army Chief should have been part of the Chief’s conclave in the first ever BIMSTEC military exercise together held with other six member nations’ Army Chiefs.

BIMSTEC after addressing its vision statement, charter and capacity structure will not position itself as an alternative for bilateral, regional or multilateral co-operation arrangements like SAARC but rather be complementary. South Asian prosperity vis-a-vis connectivity and access to Central Asian resource rich nations is similarly imperative.

Bhutan, India, and Nepal should group with the 11 members Central Asia CAREC, which would be another bridge from South Asia to Central Asian Nations, enhancing political and economic relations.

The grouping, if agrees to several measures including a protocol for coastal shipping agreements and dedicated line of communication, would give sea access to three landlocked countries: Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Nepal.

The possibilities of countries like Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, and Vietnam are likely to further board the co-operation spectrum, falling in lines with India’s Act East and Thailand’s Act West policies. Strengthening BIMSTEC would also supplement the Mekong Ganga Co-operation (MGC). So it is important that regional networking via bilateral, trilateral and multilateral regional associations of SAARC, BIMSTEC, SASEC and BBIN MVA galvanise keeping aside bilateral misunderstandings.

Creating an environment of diplomatic isolation may culminate in strategic fallacies; hence, India’s Neighbourhood First Policy is important for strengthening the existing institutions in hand. The Indo-Nepal relationship resumed the Eminent Persons Group status and has been sub divided into specialised fields to keep a check on misapprehensions, difference of opinion, and disagreements.

Unless India presents a clear appealing proposition, it will remain without a strategic vision in the immediate neighbourhood. India ought to emphasise on the five point agenda with its immediate neighbours for strong regional relationship and people to people contact through (STRENGTH): S-pirituality; T-radition, Trade and Technology; R-elationship; E-ntairtainment; N-ature Conservation; G-ames; T-ourism; H-ealth and Healing.

The struggle of nations under the Himalayan arc, juxtaposed between two major and competing rising powers is a reality. It will be useful to identify areas in which the region can cooperate, instead of working on a win-lose or no-win basis. The traditional security theory will continue to negate all attempts to find a feasible way forward. India’s tie with its immediate neighbours is special and time-tested because of deep geographical, historical, cultural, and familial links. The strategy should focus not just on changing policies but also on changing outlook.

Holding annual meeting of associations is essential for substantive results. The fundamentals of Central, South, South West, and South East Asia connectivity is vital and imperative for the New Asian Order.

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