One of the highlights of India’s foreign policy under the Modi government is its renewed engagement with the country’s littoral. Under its “Neighbourhood First" approach, New Delhi appears keen on extending its strategic sway to countries around the Bay of Bengal. This is a slight shift. While 2014 saw such a broad South Asian outreach, with leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) invited to attend Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inauguration, this year’s ceremony is expected to be graced by leaders of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical or Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) grouping, apart from the heads of Mauritius and the Kyrgyz Republic.
For some time now, New Delhi has been under pressure to counteract Beijing’s efforts to establish outposts in South Asia by forging economic and other ties with various countries in the region. Within SAARC, Pakistan’s presence makes it difficult for India to achieve favourable outcomes. The BIMSTEC thrust could possibly serve as an alternative. Set up in 1997 as economic bloc of sorts, it goes beyond South Asia to Southeast Asia, a region that is rapidly being integrated into pan-Asian supply chains for manufacturers.
Free trade agreements, of course, need to underpin any vision of borderless business. On this, India has had little to show so far. Our trade with BIMSTEC countries, despite low-barrier deals for mutual imports and exports, remains abysmal. Worse, almost no progress has been made on major transit plans for the region, including the BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement and the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport project. Logistical bottlenecks are in the way. If BIMSTEC is indeed envisioned as a tool for regional diplomacy, then it’s time for it to be deployed properly in the interests of the country.