BIMSTEC preference indicates foreign policy focus of India

Sunday, 2 June 2019

From the first day itself, it was clear that Narendra Modi was not going to invite Pakistan’s PM Imran Khan for his swearing-in ceremony.

From the first day itself, it was clear that Narendra Modi was not going to invite Pakistan’s PM Imran Khan for his swearing-in ceremony. This is unlike the reach-out gesture that Modi had done five years ago when he took oath the first time as Prime Minister of India. This was a domestic compulsion for the BJP as the party liberally and widely used Pakistan as a bogey during its election campaign.

However, there is another angle to this. Modi did not invite presidents of Afghanistan and Maldives either, countries with which India has excellent relations. This must be seen as India’s preference for the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Co-operation (BIMSTEC) over the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC). BIMSTEC has become India’s priority.

The preference of BIMSTEC indicates the focus of India’s foreign policy in the coming days. The emphasis will be more on BIMSTEC which means ‘Act East’ policy and ‘neighbourhood first’. Though BIMSTEC came into being on June 6, 1997, it was never a pro-active regional group. It started with Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand (BIST-EC). Myanmar joined it the same year and it became BIMSTEC but when Bhutan and Nepal joined the grouping’s name was changed to the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Initiative for Technical and Economic Cooperation. 

The BIMSTEC consists of five nations from SAARC (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka) and two (Myanmar and Thailand) from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Thailand is also the chair of ASEAN. The BIMSTEC countries have a population of around 22 per cent of the world’s population. 

Unfortunately, SAARC is not moving forward. The last SAARC Summit was held in Kathmandu, Nepal, in November 2014. Pakistan was to held next in October 2016 but India opposed it following attacks on Uri in September. The other countries including Bangladesh, Afghanistan also opposed it and so SAARC was postponed. Since then no SAARC summit has been held and its future is uncertain. The delegitimising of the SAARC is not a healthy sign especially for the smaller and least developed countries of the grouping. As India and Pakistan are major players in the SAARC there tense relations have affected the goals of the regional grouping founded in 1985. The fact is SAARC and BIMSTEC can be complementary to each other.

India had carefully invited Sooronbay Jeenbekov of Kyrgyzstan. He is the chairperson of Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) of which India and Pakistan are now formal members. The SCO is primarily grouping of Central Asian nations of which China and Russia are major players. India is targeting Central Asian nations through Chabahar port, Iran and then to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) via Afghanistan. The CIS has also huge untapped oil and gas. On May 22, then India’s external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj attended an SCO foreign ministers’ meeting at Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, which was also attended by Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi. 

India and Pakistan’s PMs will come face to face in Bishkek on June 14-15. But, there is hardly any possibility of a meeting between two leaders on the sidelines of the SCO summit. Mauritius PM Pravind Jugnauth was also separately invited. He was a chief guest at the Pravasi Bharatiya Conference held in January. It also shows the close historic relations between the two countries. The PM is expected to visit Maldives before he goes to Bishkek for an SCO Summit. In last November he attended the swearing-in ceremony of the leader of Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) Ibrahim Mohamed Solih as Maldives President. The MDP has a close relation with India.
Modi hosted an outreach summit between leaders of BIMSTEC and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) during BRICS summit held in October 2016. By doing so India did send a message that in future India will give significant importance to BIMSTEC. Imran Khan congratulated Modi on his election win. Earlier on the eve of Pakistan’s National Day (March 23), Modi had sent a letter to Imran. The fact remains is Pakistan will continue to be in the centre of India’s foreign policy. Pakistan needs to be engaged for regional peace. The long-pending issues like Sir Creek, Sia Chin etc. have to be resolved for the welfare of people. People-to-people contact needs to be given importance and back channels must be revived. It cannot be achieved without an uninterrupted dialogue.

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