India’s Neighbourhood First Policy- Has BIMSTEC Become a Priority?
June 18, 2019 By Vishakh Krishnan Valiathan
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
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.
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.
“Reviving ‘Neighbourhood First’”. The Hindu. 9 May 2018. Retrieved
on 12 June 2019: