13th June – A shift eastward

The last government was sworn in in the presence of leaders of the countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). But this year, the swearing in was observed by the leaders of a different regional grouping: The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).

shift eastward

This grouping, headquartered in Dhaka, includes Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan.

The right signals –
The government’s priorities were underlined by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to the Maldives and Sri Lanka.
A day earlier, the new foreign minister, S Jaishankar, travelled northeast, to the Kingdom of Bhutan, for his first overseas visit.
Mr Jaishankar, speaking during his first major policy discussion since he took office, said that BIMSTEC was “full of energy”, as distinct from the problematic SAARC grouping.

Neighbourhood first –
S Jaishankar also indicated a major and welcome principle for India’s relations with its neighbours: “We need to incentivise cooperation in the neighbourhood by stepping out ourselves. The one thing in this domain that I would not like to see is that it has to be somehow reciprocal.”
In other words, the foreign minister is clearly stating that India will have to take the lead, if necessary unilaterally, in improving and firming up relations with its neighbours, particularly to the east.

Keeping up the momentum –
Any rising power such as India must ensure that its neighbours are supportive of its quest for growth, or that quest may constantly be held back by numerous little irritants.
The best way to ensure their cooperation is to move beyond a transactional relation with the neighbours and ensure that they are in a position to profit from the shared growth of the region.
Operationally, the government will now have to ensure that pan-BIMSTEC plans such as transit permission for commercial vehicles get put into place at the earliest. A greater commitment to timely delivery of promises on infrastructure development is also needed in this term.

Balancing with SAARC –
The government’s focus on BIMSTEC is understandable, and the principle of unilateral leadership is also a very important one. However, it would be unwise and premature to abandon hopes for SAARC.
Investment in both of the groupings is possible — one does not cancel out the other. It is true that Indo-Pakistan relations have always bedevilled SAARC. But it is also true that SAARC is the stepping stone to Central Asia, another area — just like Southeast Asia — where India can hope to play a role and to build partnerships for growth.
Any opportunity to breathe new life into SAARC, in spite of the troubled bilateral relationship, should not be disdained.

SourceBusiness Standard

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