A moribund Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is likely to come alive with the two Asian giants – India and China – coming closer to realise their ambitions through the execution of massive connectivity projects across Asia.
There was enough evidence of it at the Fourth BIMSTEC summit held in Kathmandu on Aug 30-31.
The proceedings of the summit indicated that the group, comprising India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal, is waking up from its 20-year long slumber and gearing up to face realities and exploit emerging opportunities.
The secret behind the waking up is that India, the most important and powerful among the members, is no longer indifferent (at times even resentful) towards BIMSTEC but wants it to be a platform for the launch of its new and ambitious cross-national connectivity projects to enable it to project its power in the Asian region.
India’s thirst for power projection in this manner arises from its rivalry with China over hegemony. China has been using connectivity projects to project its power in the region since 2013 with Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
However, the rivalry with China notwithstanding, India is now forced by circumstances to feel that it cannot avoid China altogether.
The inter-connectivity projects India has up its sleeve will not be viable unless those are dovetailed with China’s projects in the BIMSTEC region under BRI.
India has therefore shed its shyness about accommodating China and has proposed cooperation in the Kunming (China)-Chittagong (Bangladesh) connectivity project by allowing China access to Chittagong through its North Eastern States. India has also said that it will allow “limited Chinese funding” of this project.
On its part, China has said that it is all set to collaborate with India in any project, anywhere in the world, and that it does not insist that India formally endorse its BRI if it think it is hurting it in the Pakistan sector where the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a BRI project, passes through Gilgit-Baltistan which India claims.
All this augurs well for BIMSTEC. China’s BRI projects in BIMSTEC countries will one day have to coordinate with BIMSTEC’s or India’s own projects to make them viable and meaningful.
SETTING THE HOUSE IN ORDER
While having India and China on board has its positive spinoffs, BIMSTEC itself will have to set its house in order if it is to deliver its decades old promises of development, growth, and poverty alleviation through multi-modal connectivity.
One of the most important things that the Kathmandu summit did was to have a BIMSTEC “Charter” with clearly stated goals and an organisational system to deliver on ideas propounded by the heads of government.
The Charter would clearly delineate the role and responsibilities of the different layers of the institutional structure and decision-making processes.
It was also decided to establish a Permanent Working Group to deal with financial and administrative matters of the BIMSTEC Secretariat and other BIMSTEC entities. The Permanent Working Group will also prepare schedules of meetings and prioritise and rationalise the organisation’s activities.
Till 2014, BIMSTEC had been working without a permanent Secretariat and without a full time secretary general. Of course, committees had been appointed, and these were submitting reports. But in the absence of any follow up action, the scholarly reports had been only of academic interest.
The summit also resolved the issue of setting up a BIMSTEC Development Fund with members’ contributions, though its projects would derive most of the funding from international funding agencies like the Asian Development Bank.
EMPHASIS ON CONNECTIVITY
Coming to the question of programmes, BIMSTEC had for the past two decades given itself many functions and areas of operation. But in the coming years, the most important of these will be connectivity.
The emphasis on connectivity is largely due to India, which has taken up the cause of connectivity as a mission thanks to Narendra Modi becoming prime minister in 2014.
The BIMSTEC Declaration said that it would establish “seamless multi-modal transportation linkages and smooth and synchronized and simplified transit facilities through the development, expansion, and modernisation of highways, railways, waterways, sea routes and airways.”
In this context, the Declaration called for the early conclusion of the BIMSTEC Coastal Shipping Agreement and the BIMSTEC Motor Vehicle Agreement.
LACK OF LEADERSHIP
Though founded in 1997, BIMSTEC had been in deep slumber till recently. One of the main reasons for the somnolence was the lack of leadership.
India, the biggest country with the largest economy in the region, was indifferent to BIMSTEC. Fearing a gang up against it (as in SAARC for example), India had been more interested in tying up with other countries on a bilateral basis or in having ties with established and successful organisations like ASEAN.
But India’s attitude changed with the election of Modi as prime minister in 2014. Under him, the “Neighbourhood and Look East Policy” got a sharper profile. Modi’s passion for multi-modal connectivity across borders, probably inspired by Xi Jinping’s Belt BRI, resulted in his going beyond the traditional confines of trade and investment.
With China largely promoting infrastructural development and connectivity in all the countries in BIMSTEC, barring India, New Delhi had had to take up similar projects in order not to disappear from the radar screens of countries which had once been in its sphere of influence.
And connectivity is now universally recognised as a tool to exert influence internationally.
India is now part of the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) sub-regional hub. It is also part of the Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor proposed under Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
ACCOMMODATION OF CHINA
China’s pushy and well-funded infrastructural programme under BRI has made India sit up and take notice of what is happening in its neighbourhood. All the countries in BIMSTEC have signed up with the BRI and are to execute BRI projects.
With China’s massive presence, Indian or BIMSTEC infrastructural projects will have to coordinate with BRI projects to make them economically viable.
Countries like Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, which have close relations with both India and China, are ready to bring the two Asian giants to cooperate on their development projects. They want peaceful cooperation between the two. What they do not want is to become a Sino-Indian battleground.
DE FACTO ACCEPTANCE OF BRI
Theoretically, India does not accept BRI on the grounds already stated, but India has accepted all other projects under BRI even as it formally “opposes” BRI.
This has come about as a result of several meetings Modi had had with Chinese President Xi Jinping after the excruciatingly long military standoff in Doklam between June and August 2017.
On its part, China has said at the highest levels that it does not insist that India should endorse BRI formally and that it is ready to work with India everywhere outside CPEC.
This is a de facto détente between India and China. And that augurs very well for the smooth functioning of BIMSTEC’s connectivity projects.