India’s Neighbourhood First Policy- Has BIMSTEC Become a Priority?

 

                                                                                    June 18, 2019 By Vishakh Krishnan Valiathan

 


During the first tenure of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the government focused immensely towards its east and west policy. Now being re-elected for a second term, it is imperative that the Indian Government under his leadership emphasise on its neighbourhood ‘first’ [i] policy. India’s former Foreign Secretary, S Jaishankar [ii ] has replaced Sushma Swaraj as the External Affairs Minister in the current cabinet. Interestingly, the Indian Prime Minister invited the head of states of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral, Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) nations and Krgyzstan - the chair of Shanghai Cooperation (SCO) for his swearing-in ceremony; the Prime Minister of Mauritius was also invited [iii]. The invitation can be assessed as the follow-up for the new government’s immediate Neighbourhood First Policy. Post the ceremony Prime Minister Modi held talks with the BIMSTEC countries and bilateral talks with Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan[iv].

Has BIMSTEC become a Priority?

In 2014, Prime Minsiter Narendra Modi had invited all the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries including the then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif [v] for his swearing-in ceremony whereas in 2019 he decided to invite all the BIMSTEC nations[vi] avoiding Pakistan for the same. This hints that India is looking forward for a neighbourhood policy which alienates Pakistan and enhances the former’s role with BIMSTEC as a priority. Formed in 1997, the regional organisation covering the Bay of Bengal comprises around one-fifth of the world’s population and possesses a combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 2.8 trillion US dollars[vii]. Additionally, the region has the potential capability to be a trade force in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) as one-fourth of the world’s trade moves in and around the Bay of Bengal yearly, which also includes massive untapped resources[viii]. Moreover, BIMSTEC could be drawn as a parallel to SAARC but this is an opportunity for India to energise and develop the regional organisation as majority of the member nations of the former have also joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)[ix], only exceptions include India and Bhutan. Hence, it also indicates the declining importance of SAARC and emergence of BIMSTEC as an alternative.

Back in 2016, during the BRICS summit at Goa, India invited BIMSTEC leaders to the BRICS outreach meeting [x]. This conveyed India’s interest in BIMSTEC as an alternative for SAARC since then. However, the recent invitation to the neighbouring nations is a signal to India’s positive approach towards regional organisations especially keeping in mind the overall regional benefit. Apart from this, the government could also link its projects with BIMSTEC and augment its Act East policy aiming at a larger economic stability. At the same time the smaller countries in BIMSTEC would also look at India as a market to increase and prosper their trade.

India’s Concern

The first term of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government focussed more on its think west and act east policy over its neighbourhood policy. But from the second half of 2018, the government tried to build their immediate neighbourhood policy as the former External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj visited the neighbouring nations [xi][xii]. The second tenure of the Narendra Modi led government has started off with bilateral meetings with the neighbours. Moreover, India’s major concern would be that of China’s influence with the BIMSTEC nations. It is imperative to note that the growing influence of Chinese investments in these countries through BRI [xiii] could strategically cost India in the future.

Over the last decade, India has started to take a note of the challenges posed by its neighbouring economic giant-China in the IOR. Firstly, the growing economic debt traps in the Bay of Bengal and Indian ocean littorals; which could help China acquire their infrastructural and port facilities in those nations. Secondly, the larger Chinese presence in the IOR would be a challenge to India’s maritime security. Thirdly, India’s less engagement with the BIMSTEC nations has made them prefer the attractive Chinese market. Hence India is forced to redefine its policies as BIMSTEC is crucial for the former. The immediate bilateral meetings after the swearing-in signal that India has taken its first step in developing and deepening its relations with the neighbours.

Adding to it, the regional organisation was established to contribute towards regional economic development but has not made substantial contribution yet other than the economic corridor project which is still under process. However, it is imperative that the Indian government engage beyond economic and technical areas in the fields of defence, security, and communications.


Ambitious Future

Currently, India’s focus would be to enhance its relationship with its immediate neighbours to increase its regional prowess. Concurrently, the south Asian giant also shows interests in other regional organisations such as Shanghai Cooperation and ASEAN. Connectivity and Trade has been the area of interests with BIMSTEC while it is also time for India to focus on bilateral strategic partnerships for a strong foundation which would assist the latter to evolve as a dominant player. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first visit after the swearing-in was to Maldives and Sri Lanka [xiv] and at the same time Minister of External Affairs made his first visit, after taking up the position, to Bhutan[xv]. Moreover, there has been a positive approach towards prioritising our immediate neighbourhood policy since more than a year and the re-elected government has the opportunity to build it further. Perhaps, India’s increased involvement with its neighbours could help the former gain a robust support at multilateral organisations as well.

References
 

1.    Sood,R. “Reviving ‘Neighbourhood First’”. The Hindu. 9 May 2018. Retrieved on 12 June 2019: https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/reviving-neighbourhood-first/article23816290.ece

2.    “S.Jaishankar is the new foreign minister, will replace Sushma Swaraj”. Wion. 31 May 2019. Retrieved on 11 June 2019: https://www.wionews.com/india-news/s-jaishankar-is-the-new-foreign-minister-will-replace-sushma-swaraj-223083

3.    Mohan, G. “Neighbourhood first: India’s big diplomatic outreach at PM Modi’s swearing-in ceremony”. India Today. 31 May 2019. Retrieved on 3 June 2019: https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/pm-narendra-modi-swearing-in-india-diplomatic-outreach-1538075-2019-05-30

3.   ibid

4.    “List of leaders attending, missing Narendra Modi’s swearing-in”. News18. May 26 2014. Retrieved on 12 June 2019: https://www.news18.com/news/politics/list-of-leaders-attending-missing-narendra-modis-swearing-in-690376.html

5.    Siddiqui,M. “Invited for Modi’s Swearing-in, Are BIMSTEC Nations Now India’s Preferred Choice Over SAARC ? “. CNN News18. 30 May 2019. Retrieved on 3 June 2019: https://www.news18.com/news/india/invited-for-modis-swearing-in-bimstec-nations-are-indias-preferred-choice-for-engaging-with-neighbours-2164735.html