Understanding Modi’s Revived Interest in BIMSTEC

The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral, Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is a multilateral organization comprising seven member states: five deriving from South Asia, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and two from Southeast Asia, including Myanmar and Thailand. BIMSTEC was established through the Bangkok Declaration on June 1997, and prioritizes 14 sectors ranging from tourism and cultural cooperation to trade and investment. 

In recent years, Indian policymakers have made considerable efforts to reinvigorate the more than two decades old sub-regional organization. From inviting BIMSTEC countries to the 2016 BRICS outreach summit in Goa to introducing initiatives such as the annual BIMSTEC Disaster Management Exercise and the first-ever military exercise of BIMSTEC countries in September 2018, Indian interest in the sub-regional group has been on the rise. However, the most significant outreach made by the Indian government was the invitation of BIMSTEC leaders to Mr. Modi’s second oath taking ceremony on the 30th of May. 

For PM Modi’s first oath taking ceremony in 2014 such invitation was awarded to SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) leaders. The decision to invite BIMSTEC leaders instead of re-inviting SAARC leaders to PM Modi’s second inaugural ceremony serves to illustrate a major shift in India’s foreign policy towards the East. 

India's sudden renewed interest in BIMSTEC can be largely attributed to two determining factors: national security (Pakistan and China) and economic development. On the security front, a series of cross-border Pakistani-sponsored terror (Pathankot, Uri and Pulwama) attacks hampered PM Modi's neighborhood push in diplomacy and forced New Delhi to stray away from its western neighbor and the SAARC. Things really went south after the Uri terror attack, as India, along with Bhutan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh decided to pull out of the 19th SAARC Summit, which was to be hosted by Islamabad in November 2016. However, even before the Uri attack, Indian policymakers had felt that the vast potential of SAARC was being undermined and opportunities were being lost due to either lack of response or because of Pakistan’s obstructionist approach. 

Moreover, on the economic front, BIMSTEC provides significant economic opportunities for greater regional integration between India and its eastern neighbors. Despite economic challenges, all seven BIMSTEC countries have been able to sustain an average annual growth rate between 3.4% and 7.5% from 2012 to 2016. With a combined GDP of approximately $2.7 trillion and the Bay of Bengal being the route for about 25% of global trade, the sub-regional organization would serve as a valuable channel to facilitate the seamless movement of people, services, and goods between and within South and Southeast Asia. The potential for enhanced trade with BIMSTEC countries has also drawn PM Modi’s attention to the long-forgotten multilateral organization. According to a 2018 World Bank report, intra-regional trade accounts for only 5 percent of South Asia’s total trade, yet there is potential for a substantial increase from $23 billion to upwards of $65 billion in intra-regional trade if countries become more economically intertwined. India’s total trade with the six BIMSTEC countries has grown at an annual rate of 10.4 percent. Regardless of this growth, BIMSTEC as a region only adds up to 3.7 percent of total world trade, and intra-BIMSTEC trade has grown at a meager rate of less than 1 percent annually.

PM Modi’s decisive shift towards BIMSTEC comes as a consequence of China’s renewed imperialistic ambitions, which have served to completely change the strategic geography and regional security architecture of the Asian continent. India’s robust relation with BIMSTEC nations would ensure its access to huge untapped natural resources especially in the energy sector in the form of natural gas reserves in the Bay of Bengal region over China. 

Access to vast quantities of natural resources is not only crucial to aid in the development of India’s economy, but would also assist New Delhi’s efforts to counter President Xi Jinping’s massive pet project: the “Belt and Road” initiative (BRI). The Bay of Bengal serves as a funnel to the Malacca straits - the second-largest oil trade chokepoint in the world after the Strait of Hormuz. Subsequently, the Bay of Bengal as an access route to the Indian Ocean is seen as vital for Beijing’s trillion-dollar global development project. Beijing has made considerable efforts to finance and develop infrastructure projects in five BIMSTEC nations (Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand), thus India’s decision to strength ties with such countries could prove to be a powerful force to counter growing Chinese prominence in the region and circumvent their ever-growing sphere of influence. 

For many years, successive Indian governments have struggled to get a grip on India’s neighborhood. At first, the struggle with Pakistan sucked a great part of India’s diplomatic capital. Today, it is widely believed that the Chinese are the greatest threat to India’s future economic development and subsequent ascent to “regional hegemon” status. As Beijing’s economic and political engagement in India’s periphery has grown considerably, New Delhi has almost been forced to accept the reality of a “new world order” especially relating to South Asia. Nevertheless, PM Modi takes no threat lightly, and his push for revitalizing the BIMSTEC illustrates just how preoccupied he is about Chinese incursions in the Indian Ocean. While BIMSTEC can be considered a somewhat outdated organization, it is certainly the best tool at the disposal of Indian policymakers to counter Chinese imperialistic ambitions and at the same time bolster economic growth and raise the living standards of millions of Indians.

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