What is the rationale behind the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC)? Far from the Bay of Bengal, why is Nepal even a part of it? Is meaningful regional cooperation possible by undermining SAARC? If not, why is Nepal promoting it? As Kathmandu prepares to host the BIMSTEC Summit, the fourth in the 20-year history of the organization, many-many questions are being asked about BIMSTEC. There seems to be few answers. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs says climate change and poverty alleviation will be the twin focus of the Kathmandu jamboree. But then the Nepali parliament has just ratified a regional anti-terrorism bill that entails greater security cooperation with India. There are thus more than a few observers in Nepal who think BIMSTEC is an Indian ploy to isolate Pakistan (See Editorial).
“India has always had this paranoia about other SAARC countries ganging up against it, particularly Pakistan,” says Keshav Prasad Bhattarai of Nepal Institute for Strategic Studies. “It is using the BIMSTEC platform to undercut SAARC”.
Bhattarai says the idea of linking South Asia with Southeast Asia, as BIMSTEC aims to do, is alluring. But is it feasible? “For instance is India willing to allow our cargo trucks unhindered land access to Bangladesh and Myanmar? If not, it is futile to talk of BIMSTEC.”
Constantino Xavier of Brookings India, who recently authored a seminal paper on BIMSTEC, disagrees (Interview will be available online Sunday). He says the idea of linking South Asia and Southeast Asia is not new; the age-old trade links between them were severed only when the British colonized the Indian subcontinent. Also, compared to SAARC, says Xavier, “BIMSTEC is not hostage to cyclical India-Pakistan tensions.” But what is in it for Nepal? The BIMSTEC Summit, he says, is a chance for Nepal to “assume greater global visibility”.
The problem right now is that Nepal is unclear about what it wants from the forum, and hence the perception that it is happy to follow India’s lead. Perhaps the ‘BIMSTEC charter’ that will be drafted by this summit will offer some clues.