Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to invite leaders of Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) countries for his second oath-taking ceremony should not come as a surprise to those monitoring India’s diplomatic manoeuvres since 2016. Since October that year, New Delhi has shown a trend that suggests a concerted move to throw away the albatross of Pakistan around South Asia’s neck and revive BIMSTEC, a regional grouping that has been in existence since 1997 but which is yet to realise its full potential.
There was a reason why India adopted this approach. Except Thailand and Myanmar, all other members of BIMSTEC are also part of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) that counts Pakistan among its members. India wanted to limit its diplomatic engagements with Pakistan because of its continued support for cross-border terrorism. New Delhi had, in fact, led the boycott of the 2016 SAARC summit in Pakistan and most other countries supported India’s stand.
However, India wanted to keep its engagement with other neighbours on an even keel. So, in one stroke, the Prime Minister facilitated interaction between BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, China, and South Africa, besides India) and BIMSTEC members, and simultaneously isolated Pakistan.
The prime minister’s initiative to revive BIMSTEC in 2016 was also driven by the fact that it comprised countries around the Bay of Bengal (Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka). None had any raging bilateral disputes between them, so it was easier to push cooperation in various fields.
India called the BIMSTEC leaders for a Summit in Goa, gave it substance and new direction by organising a successful meeting of National Security Advisers or equivalent rank officials of the member states in New Delhi. This meeting was chaired by India’s NSA Ajit Doval within six months of the main BIMSTEC meeting.
The conference, the first of its kind, proved to be highly successful and has since been held twice as a regular forum. Modi could see the long-term importance of multi-faceted cooperation with BIMSTEC countries, not only on the economic front but also in the domain of security.
In April 2018, Bangladesh hosted the second edition of this forum. The national security chiefs have now decided to address four issues with India taking the lead in putting in place the necessary mechanisms. One, to prepare a comprehensive plan of action to enhance maritime security cooperation among the member-states; two, to establish space security cooperation; three, to host a sub-group on counter-radicalisation and four, an annual track 1.5 dialogue among member-states.
From New Delhi’s point out view, the Bay of Bengal, covering nearly 2.2 million square km of maritime space and host to a third of the world’s population, and its security is of prime concern. The national security chiefs have, therefore, decided to enhance regional maritime domain awareness by setting up a Coastal Radar Surveillance System (CSRS) including electro-optic and automatic identification system, arrive at a regional agreement on white shipping information (unclassified merchant ship information), increase HADR efforts and tsunami early warning system and undertake coordinated patrols to prevent transnational crimes like illegal fishing, piracy and armed robbery, trafficking of human beings and poaching.
India, as the leading space power in South Asia, has proposed sharing remote sensing data covering the region, establishment of ground stations across BIMSTEC member states to meet downlinking requirements, provide training in data processing, image processing and establish a space based surveillance system. A team of scientists from ISRO and nominees from BIMSTEC countries are working on the way forward in this field. Clearly, India, as the biggest economy and the leading power in the region, has seen an opportunity to move away from the moribund and problem-ridden SAARC to forge a new cooperative framework.