Reviving BIMSTEC as alternative to SAARC will only stunt it
This Thursday and Friday, Kathmandu is hosting the fourth summit of the Bay of Bengal Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) involving heads of state/government from its seven member nations, namely Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
The fact that the group’s first summit, as BIST-EC (Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand Economic Cooperation) took place way back in June 1997 in Bangkok, and their second summit was held in India in 2008 and the third in Myanmar in 2014, shows how, so far, BIMSTEC has remained neglected and sidelined. Therefore, how can one anticipate any game-changing outcomes from one more summit, as these are usually seen as retreats for these leaders, taking them away from domestic firefighting to present a talking shop with photo opportunities?
The promise of BIMSTEC today lies clearly in India’s newfound enthusiasm about promoting it as the new locomotive for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Act East” and “Neighborhood First” policies. This new enthusiasm can also be explained in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) becoming dysfunctional since November 2014 when a long handshake between the newly elected prime minister of India and Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan had created ripples of hope and promise.
This sentiment was to hit its peak during Christmas of 2015, which saw Modi, returning from Moscow, making an unannounced surprise stopover in Lahore to congratulate Sharif on his birthday. This saw them not only warmly embracing at the Lahore airport but riding together in a Pakistani helicopter to Rawalpindi to attend Sharif’s granddaughter’s wedding. South Asia appeared to be changing, finally.
But the terrorist attack on India’s Pathankot Air Force Station in January 2016 followed by another attack on Indian Army brigade headquarters in Uri, Jammu and Kashmir, killing 17 army personnel and injuring 30 others in September 2016, compelled India to decline from participating in the 2016 Islamabad SAARC summit.
Citing “prevailing circumstances,” New Delhi also managed to persuade Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan likewise to decline from participating, leading to cancellation of the summit that was scheduled to be held in November that year.
This SAARC-BIMSTEC linkage is important to underline, as it was in midst of these “prevailing circumstances” between September and November of 2016 that India hosted the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit in the coastal city of Goa. This was where India decided to reinterpret the regional “outreach” of BRICS differently. According to this interpretation, BRICS heads of state/government would reach out not to SAARC but to BIMSTEC leaders. Since then BIMSTEC – of which Pakistan is not a member – has come to be flaunted as an alternative to SAARC.
Prima facie, both SAARC and BIMSTEC involve member states that hold similar sets of rapidly developing economies, and the two groupings have similar sizes of collective gross domestic product, markets and population. This makes both very noticeable as pregnant with possibilities.
But this completely misses the level of enduring institutionalization and centrality of SAARC to the geopolitics of South Asia, which can never be at peace until nuclear-armed India and Pakistan have learned to live with each other.
Over the last 32 years, SAARC has been assiduously nurtured through a multitude of meetings and initiatives, including 18 summits. This has seen it evolve a whole set of conventions, organs and mechanisms and a network of more than a dozen regional centers and other institutions, with a secretariat in Kathmandu. By comparison, the BIMSTEC secretariat was created in Dhaka only in 2014 and to date has a total staff of not more than 10, including three directors and a secretary general.
The enormous difference in the two groupings’ size, scale and stature should guide expectations and keep BIMSTEC out of unwanted comparisons with SAARC, which should be revived
The enormous difference in the two groupings’ size, scale and stature should guide expectations and keep BIMSTEC out of unwanted comparisons with SAARC, which should be revived.
India, seen today as a force behind this sudden spurt in BIMSTEC meetings and initiatives, was yet to appoint its director for the BIMSTEC secretariat even as it invited BIMSTEC leaders to join the BRICS outreach meeting in October 2016. Two years after the BIMSTEC secretariat being set up in Dhaka, an Indian defense accounts service officer was finally nominated. His two counterparts in the secretariat belong to their respective diplomatic services.
Likewise, at the time of the 2016 BRICS summit outreach, India’s contributions to BIMSTEC amounted to less than US$17,000 for the financial year 2015-16, yet that annual allocation was raised for the following year by nearly 40 times. No doubt India has since gone into overdrive with BIMSTEC meetings and initiatives, yet it is essential to restrain anticipations from the current Kathmandu summit and avoid projecting BIMSTEC as an alternative to SAARC, which it can never be.
So, as Nepalese Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli told his parliament last Friday, while BIMSTEC holds great possibilities, there is nevertheless urgent need to revive SAARC. These two regional organizations can surely thrive together and even prove complementary. And being the biggest in stature and size, India surely holds the key to reviving SAARC summits while strengthening BIMSTEC at the same time.
India also needs to be far more pragmatic in its support for BIMSTEC , which will largely determine future trajectories of the grouping’s various initiatives. For instance, India seems a bit too preoccupied with pushing counterterrorism at all of its multilateral meetings. Here as well, this was the first decision it made during its 2016 Goa outreach with BRICS leaders, and when India hosted the first BIMSTEC national-security advisers’ meet during March 2017.
This was followed by New Delhi hosting the first meeting of the BIMSTEC Task Force on Traditional Medicine, resulting immediately in India’s Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research launching the BIMSTEC Tele-Medicine Network to provide quick and effective medical relief across seven member countries.
Further, next month will see India hosting the first BIMSTEC army exercises in Pune, where the closing ceremonies will see their army chiefs holding an inaugural meeting. Neither SAARC nor the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have had any military component like this.
October will also see India hosting a BIMSTEC disaster-management exercise to evolve quick, coordinated and comprehensive responses.
At the current two-day summit, India is expected to push for an early ratification of the BIMSTEC Convention on Cooperation in Combating International Terrorism and the Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters that were adopted after the 2008 New Delhi BIMSTEC summit. It will also be pushing for early adoption of the BIMSTEC coastal shipping and motor-vehicles agreements and for proposing BIMSTEC as a “common security space” in its Kathmandu Declaration that could even outline a broad frame of “common responses” to various exigencies of insecurity.
The host, Nepal, seems even more ambitious. Other than adding new “Blue Economy” and “Mountain Economy” themes to BIMSTEC’s already unwieldy list of 14 priority sectors, Prime Minister Oli hopes to launch a BIMSTEC Development Fund and BIMSTEC Charter during this summit.
The summit is also expected to provide further direction to reports by various mechanisms on these 14 themes – which include customs, connectivity, technology, counterterrorism, transnational crime, agriculture, poverty alleviation and public health – and to rationalize their priorities.
Perhaps far too much is being anticipated from this BIMSTEC summit. This calls for a Kathmandu Declaration that seeks to consolidate the groupings’ gains rather than expanding its remit, and for sure avoiding any illusions of emerging as an alternative to SAARC.