NEW DELHI: Foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on Thursday said a grouping of South and South-East Asian countries, called Bimstec, was fast emerging as a platform allowing India to realise its plans of connectivity and regional integration, indicating a shift in priority from a South Asian grouping that includes Pakistan.
Addressing a session on “Changing world, Changing India," Jaishankar, in his first public engagement after taking office a week ago, said India’s neighbourhood would be a priority for the Narendra Modi government in its second term as it was in the first.
But there was a shift of priorities—from South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation or Saarc that groups together Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Pakistan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka to Bimstec–a grouping that straddles South and South-East Asia.
Explaining the government’s thinking, Jaishankar said “the primary responsibility" for regional economic integration and connectivity in South Asia rested on India as the largest economy in the region. “Our growth can serve our neighbours. We need to incentivize 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," he said. Citing two of India’s neighbours Jaishankar said that in the past, he would have drawn on the example of Bhutan to show how a neighbouring country had leveraged its ties with New Delhi by turning its location and resources into “an enormous economic asset" —a reference to the two countries cooperating in hydel power.
But now there was also the example of Bangladesh where ties have been transformed, Jaishankar said referring to India extending nearly $8 billion in credit to Dhaka that has helped alter the perception of India to a regional partner. In Bangladesh, he said, there was more positivity now and an appetite for more “interaction with India."
“The thinking (in the government) really is any organisation or any platform that allows you to progress, you would like to use it," the minister said giving an insight into why Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited the leaders of Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan—countries situated around the Bay of Bengal—to his inauguration on 30 May. This was in contrast to Modi inviting Saarc leaders including Pakistan to his swearing-in the last time around.
“Saarc has certain problems. Even if you were to put the terrorism issue aside, there are connectivity issues, there are trade issues," Jaishankar said referring to Pakistan nurturing terrorist groups inimical to India which has stalled bilateral interaction as well as Pakistan’s refusal to cooperate in areas of trade and connectivity to take Saarc forward. In contrast, “I think what we see today is an energy in Bimstec, a possibility in Bimstec, a mindset in Bimstec which fits in with that optimistic vision of economic cooperation" that India is looking to take forward, he said.