Rajya Sabha TV-The Big Picture: BIMSTEC vs. SAARC
External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar recently said that India would aim to enhance regional cooperation under the BIMSTEC grouping as there have been certain problems with SAARC. He added that implementation of developmental projects in neighbouring countries and elsewhere will be one of his key focus areas.
SAARC, BIMSTEC and Their Relevance:
- Citing continuing support to cross-border terrorism from Pakistan, India has maintained that it is difficult to proceed with the SAARC initiative.
- The last SAARC Summit was in 2014, held in Kathmandu. In the past few years, India has been pushing for regional cooperation under the BIMSTEC umbrella.
- In 2014, PM Modi had invited all SAARC leaders, including the then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for his swearing-in ceremony, in a major initiative to reach out to the neighbourhood. However, this time, the BIMSTEC leaders were invited, which was seen as an attempt to avoid inviting Pakistan for the event.
- Besides India, BIMSTEC comprises Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan.
BIMSTEC=SAARC- (Pakistan, Maldives and Afghanistan)+(Thailand and Myanmar)
- Founded in 1997, BIMSTEC currently represents over 1.5 billion people and has a combined gross domestic product of 3.5 trillion US dollars.
- BIMSTEC has become a bridge between SAARC AND ASEAN.
- Tensions between India and Pakistan have led to New Delhi shifting focus from SAARC to BIMSTEC.
- During Modi’s first term, India began focusing on BIMSTEC after a series of terrorist attacks on Indian defence establishments in Uri and Pathankot.
Has SAARC Lost its Utility?
- The South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation has come under serious scrutiny in the last few years.
- Even after three decades of its existence, SAARC’s performance has been less than satisfactory, and its role in strengthening regional cooperation is being questioned.
- SAARC faced another setback after the 19th summit scheduled to be held in Pakistan in 2016 was suspended for an indefinite period, as member countries declined to participate, pointing to what they said was the absence of a conducive regional environment.
Why is India shifting towards BIMSTEC?
According to a recent World Bank report, South Asia is one of the most densely populated but poorly integrated regions in the world. Its intra-regional trade is less than 5% of the total trade of South Asian countries.
- The increase in trade could not be achieved through SAARC, as the organization has fallen victim to the bilateral dispute between India and Pakistan. Herein lies the opportunity that BIMSTEC provides.
- India can focus on connectivity projects in and around the Bay of Bengal region which will help unleash the potential of the seven northeastern states in India.
- The Sittwe port in Myanmar is closer to the northeast region than Kolkata.
- Physical connectivity with BIMSTEC would also help India integrate itself with ASEAN’s Master Plan of Connectivity 2025.
- India has already invested in the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project and the BIMSTEC Motor Vehicle Agreement.
- Better connectivity projects will help India leverage the untapped potential of BIMSTEC’s possible trade linkages.
- India has moved from Look East Policy to Act East Policy and Indo Pacific cooperation through its diaspora, culture and connectivity. This has led to India’s goodwill in the region.
What are the challenges for India?
- Overcoming weaknesses like project implementation in other countries as compared to China.
- Good relations between India & Pakistan will benefit both the countries. This would also mean Pakistan military losing its relevance.
- Preventing bureaucratization of the relations with neighbours.
- Improving inter-ministerial coordination.
Where is the way ahead for India?
- Ministry of External Affairs is engaging with PRAGATI model for timely implementation and delivery of its projects.
- Countries are wary of China as it is big but not benign. It looks for its own interests in other countries.
- Development of Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka by China has led to indebtedness of the former. Therefore, smaller countries are looking for India’s engagement.
- UK model may be used for implementing what Prime Minister has said by forming a body and giving them administrative and financial independence when he/she is not in office.
- India needs to accept the reality that it has a troubled relation with Pakistan but it has to be open to them once they are willing to cooperate because India has investments in Afghanistan & Pakistan is a key player there.
Both SAARC and BIMSTEC focus on regions which are geographically overlapping but this does not make them equal alternatives. SAARC is a purely regional organization, whereas BIMSTEC is interregional and connects both South Asia and ASEAN. Hence, SAARC and BIMSTEC complement each other in terms of functions and goals and India has a unique opportunity to connect with ASEAN through 3Cs (Commerce, Culture and Connectivity).