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‘Eastward Ho’ for India-led South Asia?

'Eastward Ho' for India-led South Asia?

(L-R) Leaders of Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand at the BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach Summit, India.

Trade blocs across the globe have often been just as much, if not more, instruments of geopolitics as they have been about commerce. A gradual but definite swell in cooperation between the South Asian nations east of Pakistan currently is playing witness to the age-old truism.

With South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) currently lying comatose due to the India-Pakistan conflict, India is now citing the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) as an alternative that may potentially isolate Pakistan in South Asia.

India’s increased activities within and with BIMSTEC nations is a clear warning by India to Pakistan over the current deadlock of dialogue between the two countries because of the terror attacks on Indian soil, almost all of which emanate from Pakistan.

After pulling out of the 19th SAARC Summit in Islamabad in November 9-10, 2016, which led to pull outs by all the remaining member nations too, India – along with Bangladesh – did not attend a three-day regional conference held in Islamabad beginning December 19 to  promote innovation for sustainable development and discuss strategy of the Asian and Pacific Centre for Transfer of Technology (APCTT). The conference, significantly, was held under the aegis of the United Nations.

On the other hand, India went out of the way to promote BIMSTEC at the 8th BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) Summit in Goa, India on October 15-16. Dubbed as one of the highlights of the Summit by many in India, the host nation facilitated a BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach Summit, where the BRICS leaders met the heads of government of the BIMSTEC countries.

The selection of BIMSTEC for engagement with BRICS was both significant and deliberate by India.

While it fits India’s long-term Act East Policy, which aims at strengthening trade and bilateral relations with the South-East Asian nations, with India’s northeast region as the transit base, the October invitation to BIMSTEC to the BRICS summit also suited India’s immediate concerns.

In a major victory for India against Pakistan, BIMSTEC Leaders’ Retreat 2016 Outcome Document reiterated its stand:

“We strongly believe that our fight against terrorism should not only seek to disrupt and eliminate terrorists, terror organisations and networks, but should also identify, hold accountable and take strong measures against States who encourage, support and finance terrorism, provide sanctuary to terrorists and terror groups, and falsely extol their virtues. There should be no glorification of terrorists as martyrs.”

The statement was a near replica of the one released later by the boycotting SAARC member states at the time of pulling out of the Summit in Islamabad in November.

In other words, by trade or by trick, India had managed to get all the South Asian nations—and indeed Thailand and Myanmar—together to send a message to Pakistan to put a lid on terror activities emanating from its soil.

It was as much a diplomatic victory for India as it was an expression of exasperation of the other nations with regards the comatose nature of cooperation in South Asia via SAARC due to the conflict between the two biggest member states of the Association.

The boycott of events and the pointed nature of joint statements is not an ad-hoc development. As stated earlier, it is India taking a lead out of the general exasperation of the South Asian nations – particularly India and Bangladesh—with the issue of Pakistani-originating terror completely bringing to halt any future-looking trade and development issues of the region.

To that effect, India in September 2016 approved $1.04-billion for constructing and upgrading 558 km of roads to link it with Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal and ease the movement of passengers and cargo within the region.

Funded equally by India and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the primary purpose of the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) road initiative is to increase the intra-regional trade by over 60%.

A much more expansive project than BBIN is the  Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC), which though was established way back in 2000 in Laos, is receiving renewed attention. Named after Ganga and Mekong, the two of the largest rivers of the region, the grouping is about building tourism, culture, education and transportation linkages between India, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

While MGC might not be moving as well as the promoters would’ve liked it to, there are other examples that actually are.

The Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project has been identified for special focus by the BIMSTEC Transport Infrastructure and Logistics Study (BTILS). It will connect the eastern Indian seaport of Kolkata with Myanmar’s Sittwe seaport by sea in the first phase – and then link Sittwe to Paletwa in the same country via Kaladan River route, before connecting Paletwa to the Indian state of Mizoram by road. Originally scheduled to be completed by 2014, it is running behind schedule, but moving well now.

Another one identified by the BTILS is the India–Myanmar–Thailand (IMT) Trilateral Highway, an under-construction highway that will connect Moreh in India with Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar. The road had a trial run in November 2015 itself, with Indian vehicles traveling to Naypyidaw in Myanmar via the Imphal-Mandalay-Bagan-Naypyidaw route and back. Myanmarese vehicles had joined the Indian vehicles on the return journey.

With a clear view of expanding the India-ASEAN Free Trade Area trade, India has proposed extending the highway to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.

The most interesting one, however, is the Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor. The multi-modal (road, rail, water and air linkages) corridor will be the first expressway between India and China and will pass through Myanmar and Bangladesh—covering a total area of about 1.65 million square kilometers.

This is interesting because it brings together two traditional and intense rivals, India and China—and also because China has put all its eggs in the Pakistani basket in the longstanding India-Pakistan conflict, the very reason for which India is looking and leading other nations eastwards.

There remain many miles before all the mentioned projects lay the final brick. But it is amply clear that the terrorism emanating from Pakistan—and indeed the steadfast refusal by the Pakistani government to both stop supporting the terror groups and acknowledging their presence on its soil—has led to a steady rise in activities on the east of South Asia. At the moment, it is indeed ‘Eastward Ho’ for the India-led South Asia.



Anshuman Rawat

Author of Conflicts, Geopolitics and Asia Volume 1: 2010-12 – A Short Diary of Notes from the Region, Anshuman Rawat is a geopolitical/international relations journalist, communications specialist and serial media entrepreneur from India. Founder-Director of a media company, he spends much of his professional calendar as an editorial, management and communications consultant. He is also the founder of 'League of India', a news action tank that is committed to the idea of shaping a progressive India by fostering centre-right liberal governance, a free economy and an open society.