Regional priorities change as BIMSTEC replaces SAARC

The hard-hitting speech by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, frontally taking on Pakistan sponsored terrorism, was the centrepiece of India’s diplomatic effort in this year’s UN General Assembly session.

Published: 14th October 2017 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 12th October 2017 10:03 PM   |  A+A-

The hard-hitting speech by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, frontally taking on Pakistan sponsored terrorism, was the centrepiece of India’s diplomatic effort in this year’s UN General Assembly session.  This was accompanied by carrying forward of the Modi Government’s policy of isolating Pakistan in South Asia, by shifting the focal point of regional cooperation in South Asia, from SAARC to BIMSTEC. This policy took shape last year at the BRICS Summit in Goa. New Delhi invited its partners in BIMSTEC—now comprising India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Philippines, and not all members of SAARC—to the Goa summit. Pakistan, which has opposed India’s efforts to counter terrorism while undermining all efforts for economic cooperation and integration in SAARC, was thus excluded.

Addressing a meeting of the SAARC foreign ministers in New York, Swaraj spoke of India’s contribution to promoting cooperation in SAARC. She stressed that primacy needs to be given to countering terrorism regionally. Backed by Afghanistan, Bhutan and Bangladesh, India effectively ruled out any possibility of Pakistan hosting the SAARC Summit this year. This was only natural, as Pakistan is today ruled by a government whose Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, has been debarred from office, with the army calling the shots. There is now little prospect of the SAARC Summit being held in Pakistan in 2018, which is their election year.

Progress on crucial issues such as economic integration and regional connectivity has been halted in SAARC, because of Pakistan’s objections. Pakistan undermines India-Afghan trade by denying road connectivity. It has also not implemented the provisions of the SAARC Free Trade Agreement. Worse still, Pakistan tries to divert attention in SAARC Summit meetings, by seeking to make China—not a South Asian country—a full member of SAARC, primarily to undermine India. Its policies block Indian investments and prevent regional agreements on investment promotion.

In a recent BIMSTEC ministerial meeting, Swaraj noted that BIMSTEC had an “immense unfilled potential for deeper economic integration”, while calling for early conclusion of agreements on Free Trade, Trade Facilitation and Customs Matters. Significantly, the Asian Development Bank (ADB)—BIMSTEC’s development partner—is actively involved in promoting and financing regional connectivity in BIMSTEC. There are also plans for energy corridors linking India with Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Even as Pakistan blocks westwards connectivity with Afghanistan, India is undertaking projects for regional connectivity through its northeastern states such as Manipur and Mizoram. A ‘Trilateral Highway’ will link Moreh in Manipur to Maesot in Thailand, through Tamu and Mandalay in Myanmar. ADB has, meanwhile, finalised a report for promoting regional connectivity. India is linking its landlocked northeastern states to the Bay of Bengal, through the Sittwe Port in Myanmar.

Regional cooperation in BIMSTEC will be boosted if Bangladesh, Myanmar and India cooperate in expeditiously devising plans for the early return of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and India, to their homes in Myanmar’s bordering the Rakhine Province. New Delhi is committed to assisting in the economic development of Rakhine.

Given its friendly ties with all its eastern neighbours across the Bay of Bengal, India can, in course of time, discuss measures to promote maritime cooperation with BIMSTEC members. India has, unlike China, settled its maritime borders with all its eastern neighbours. South Asian members of BIMSTEC—Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh—would welcome efforts to develop institutional links between BIMSTEC and ASEAN on economic cooperation and issues of maritime security and disaster management, across the Bay of Bengal.

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