India is a dominant force in the Indian Sub-Continent and the Indian Ocean Region

The Bay of Bengal links Indian Ocean to the Pacific and carries one-fourth of the world’s trade. Its member-states are wary of big powers in the region

by Nitin Gokhale

Is India attempting to build an alternative to SAARC (South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation)? New Delhi’s diplomatic manoeuvres since October 2016 seem to indicate a concerted move to throw away the albatross of Pakistan around South Asia’s neck and revive BIMSTEC, a regional grouping that has been in existence since 1997 but has not realised its full potential so far. BIMSTEC or the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral and Economic Cooperation had until 2016 failed to be effective or even cohesive. In 2016 however, India, one of its seven members — the others are Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka — took the initiative to revive the regional grouping. BIMSTEC, made of countries around the Bay of Bengal, have no raging bilateral disputes between member countries. So it is easier to establish cooperation in various fields.

So India took the initiative and organised a BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach Summit and BIMSTEC leaders retreat in Goa in October 2016. The leaders agreed to an ‘Agenda for Action.’ Since then, several steps have been taken to inject urgency in the organisation. BIMSTEC has 14 priority areas. Every country is assigned a lead role for particular subject(s). The areas are: Counter-terrorism and transnational crimes; transport and communication; tourism; environment and disaster management; trade and investment; cultural cooperation; energy; agriculture; poverty alleviation; technology; fisheries; public health and people-to-people contacts.

One of the important decisions the leaders arrived at, during their 2016 retreat, was to take a comprehensive look at all aspects of security. The outcome document had said: “…recognizing that terrorism continues to remain the single most significant threat to peace and stability in our region, we reiterate our strong commitment to combat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations…we recognize the need for urgent measures to counter and prevent spread of terrorism, violent extremism and radicalization, we express our determination to take concrete measures to step up cooperation and coordination among our law enforcement, intelligence and security organizations.”

So New Delhi moved quickly to institutionalise an annual conclave of National Security Chiefs of BIMSTEC member nations. Mooted by India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval to improve coordination and cooperation on several aspects of security, the forum had its first meeting in Delhi in March 2017.

Last week, Bangladesh hosted the second edition of this forum. The National Security Chiefs have now decided to specifically take up four issues with India taking the lead in putting in place the necessary mechanisms. One, to prepare a comprehensive plan of action to enhance maritime security cooperation among the member-states; two, to establish space security cooperation to benefit all nations; three, to host a sub-group for counter-radicalisation and four, have an annual track 1.5 dialogue among member-nations.

From New Delhi’s point out view, the Bay of Bengal, covering nearly 2.2 million square km of maritime space and host to a third of the world’s population, and its security is of prime concern. The National Security chiefs have, therefore, decided to enhance regional maritime domain awareness by setting up Coastal Radar Surveillance System (CSRS) including radars, electro-optic and automatic identification system, arrive at a regional agreement on white shipping information (that is unclassified merchant ship information), increase HADR efforts and tsunami early warning system and undertake coordinated patrols to prevent transnational crimes like illegal fishing, piracy and armed robbery, trafficking of human beings and poaching.

In space, India as a leading space power in the region has proposed to share the remote sensing data covering the region, establishment of ground stations across the BIMSTEC region to meet downlinking requirement, training on data processing, image processing and establish space based surveillance system. A team of scientists from ISRO and nominees from BIMSTEC countries are working on the way forward in this field so that all those in the region can benefit from India’s expertise in space application.

Clearly, India as the biggest economy and a leading power in the region has seen an opportunity to move away from the moribund and problem-ridden SAARC to forge a new cooperative framework. As the largest bay in the world, Bay of Bengal is a pivot for BIMSTEC countries. Their combined GDP — at 2.85 trillion US Dollars — and one of the largest combined population in the world, gives BIMSTEC an inherent advantage. The Bay of Bengal links the Indian Ocean to the Pacific and carries one-fourth of the world’s trade but its member-states are also inherently suspicious of big power dominance in the region. China and to a lesser extent the United States are seen as overweening powers by smaller countries in the region. They would rather unite in a BIMSTEC-like association that gives them multilateral clout to deal with the bigger players. India has rightly identified the forum as the means to enhance regional connectivity even as they realise their own potential to provide better prosperity and security for their citizens. In the process, countries like China may see this development as an attempt to reduce its influence in the region in the long run. But that’s the risk BIMSTEC nations will have to run if they have to look after their own national interest.