Last week, a Kathmandu-based Thai diplomat came to talk to me about BIMSTEC. He sought my views on the way forward for the organization, with Thailand now on the cusp of taking over its rotating chairmanship. I am by no means an expert on BIMSTEC, but then who in Nepal is? Compared to their knowledge on SAARC, even seasoned foreign policy analysts here know little about BIMSTEC, mostly out of choice.
Nepali foreign policy establishment and analysts are reluctant to own up BIMSTEC, something they see as an Indian construct that is being promoted to isolate Pakistan, India’s arch-enemy. By contrast, they feel a kind of kinship towards SAARC, an outcome of collective effort of smaller countries in the region, mainly Nepal and Bangladesh. India is promoting BIMSTEC to secure its larger strategic interests, the thinking goes, while the interests of smaller South Asian states is best secured via the SAARC channels.
BIMSTEC is getting a charter after over two decades of its formation, and India is pushing for its greater institutionalization. But it won’t make headway so long as smaller countries like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka (all members of both SAARC and BIMSTEC) remain suspicious of Indian intent. It’s not just about intent either. Prior Indian commitments on connectivity projects and infrastructure development have been mostly unrealized. This is in contrast to the reputation of China as an actor that gets things done, and one which has a much bigger investment purse.
This is also why many in Nepal believe BIMSTEC is all about minimizing China’s presence in the neighborhood, not the least because of the country’s unwavering support for Pakistan. India had grown increasingly suspicious of SAARC after Nepal and Pakistan started pushing for China’s inclusion as a full member. India, as even Indian commentator acknowledge, had to somehow take Pakistan out of the picture, and hence BIMSTEC.
Conceptually, there is nothing wrong with any initiative that aims to lift people’s living standards through greater connectivity and trade. Historically, too, South Asia and South East Asia have since time immemorial exchanged people and ideas. Yet the hard reality today is that India has simply refused to open its territory for third-country trade. Nepal and Bangladesh are, at their closest, just 27 km apart. But trade between them remains miniscule partly owing to India’s reluctance to allow the two countries to open a passage via its ‘chicken neck’. This narrow piece of land connecting mainland India with its northeast territories has become an even more sensitive place—and thus more impervious to outsiders—following the recent India-China border tensions.
If Nepal cannot freely trade with Bangladesh, can it realistically hope to do so with Myanmar and Thailand, either via land or rail routes? BIMSTEC is not just about cross-border trade. All kinds of other co-operations are envisioned in areas as diverse as fishery to climate change. Yet no regional grouping can today prosper without extensive exchange of goods and people, as is the case with more successful regional bodies like ASEAN and EU.
As the fulcrum between the two regions and by far the biggest economic power in the grouping, the onus is on India to show it is serious about regional trade and connectivity. It must also do a better job of assuring smaller countries on delivery. SAARC has always been hobbled by India-Pakistan rivalry. BIMSTEC, on the other hand, has been hostage to India’s lack of strategic vision. One can only hope that the compulsions of economic revival after the Covid-19 pandemic will prompt a rethink in New Delhi.