BIMSTEC genesis: What lies ahead?

Is it not proper to bring into BIMSTEC fold issues pertaining to Law of Sea and transit rights to know of our oceanic territory and rights over its resources?

Geopolitics is the underlying reason for the birth of BIMSTEC. Caused by the Indian Ocean becoming the strategic pivot where India and China’s geo political rivalry is paramount. India’s control of the Indian Ocean, with the backing of the US, could be the ‘Chicken’s Neck’, as a matter of speak, to China’s national security with more than 60% of China’s oil traversing it and having, critically, to pass through the Malacca Strait, which is under US Navy control.

Yes, the visionary PM Rao pursued his ‘Look East’ policy wishing to build economic linkage founded on the glorious civilizational connectivity with all ASEAN countries and southern India following his opening up of India (be it  reluctantly) to globalization. In 1995, Myanmar has joined the WTO and desired to also join the globalization process. Thus in 1996 , Thailand announced its ‘Look West’ policy wanting to enter the  Myanmar and South Asian markets as a prelude to its ambition of becoming an industrial nation by mid-21st century.

It would appear that India’s ‘Look East’ policy and Thailand’s ‘Look West’ provided a perfect fit to jointly get Myanmar out of the clutches of China as well as sow further, the seeds of democracy and obtain transit passage to each other’s markets. Things look even more appealing as BCIM-EC was agreed to in 2013 following a meeting between PM Li Keqiang and PM Man Mohan Singh. It was envisaged that Yunnan, China would be connected to both Kolkata (India) and Chittagong (Bangladesh)  with a link to Mandalay, Myanmar.

Come 2014, with PM Modi in power ‘Look East’ is converted to ‘Act East’ and BCIM-EC is practically ignored. Clearly, overt actions by India to keep China, which overshadows both ASEAN’s Indo-China sub region and SAARC does not go down well with Thailand in the throes of political instability leading to a military junta rule and Myanmar now seeking support from China as mediator for peace with its many rebels originally backed by China militarily.

Moreover, Thailand, as the second largest economy and second strongest country militarily, has its own geo strategic aspiration to be the leader of the Indo-China peninsula as a sub region in the ASEAN. This CLMT vision can only be possible if supported by China who has political formidable influence over Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.

All the above factors and forces account for the fits and starts that BIMSTEC has been undergoing. Its progress has been abysmally poor--worse than SAARC’s. Founded in 1997 it created a Secretariat only in 2014! It has no Charter and no Vision Statement.

Will the 4th Summit to be held in Kathmandu, in November 2017, create a breakthrough? Indian strategic analysts inform us that BIMSTEC will now reach a new high with SAARC in the geo political intensive care unit, as it were, with the Islamabad Summit kept in limbo: and Pakistan choosing to stick by the book.

Pakistan insists on holding the Summit as its right. Ironically, the SAARC Secretary General is Pakistani. All this demonstrating that SAARC is still a political outfit more driven by the motto ‘think national and act regional’. Further, India has come forth with BBIN, a sub-regional concept that is less ambitious than SAGQ was under PM Gujral and its successor, the ADB’s SASEC. The recent launching of South Asia Satellite adds a new hope. And with BIMSTEC, India seeks inter-sub-regionalism as an additional thrust.

What are these challenges? (a) Members are at different stages of development – LLDC (2) ; LDC (2); DC (2) and MIC (1) with competing economies and all, except Thailand, suffering negative balance of trade and budgetary deficits; (b) India as the largest and most powerful country has a below average per capita income -- $ 1701 compared to BIMSTEC average of $ 1831 creating doubts over its financial capacity to lead with projects, the essence of regional cooperation; (c) centred on the Bay of Bengal, which is bigger than the Mediterranean Sea, larger than the Gulf of Mexico and two times as big as the Sea of Japan, no sea connectivity is available between littoral member nations and air connectivity remains abysmal; (d) little interest in the private sector to be engaged in regional investments particularly because domestic business climate is poor, there is no capital convertibility, except in Thailand, for private sector to even think of doing business sub regionally; (e) all BIMSTEC nations face internal political and security challenges to progress BIMSTEC dynamically and, finally, (f) it must be recognized that BIMSTEC does not have the same order of priority to all nations –  SAARC is more important and so too OBOR/BRI.

Nepal as a founding member of SAARC and serving as the SAARC capital must be pretty clear about what it fundamentally seeks from BIMSTEC.

So far its role has been peripheral. Is it not proper to bring into BIMSTEC fold issues pertaining to Law of Sea and transit rights to know of our oceanic territory and rights over its resources?  The Blue Economy is beginning to come to the forefront of international politics. Should Nepal as a Himalayan economy not call for linking the Green Economy with the Blue Economy since rivers flow into the Bay of Bengal? Also, by bringing issues of highland-lowland linkages, so central to mountain economies, by integrating the river and its basins as by going beyond dialogue on river management only?

SJB Rana is former Special Advisor MOFA and former Finance Minister