The 2016 South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit was cancelled – throwing light on the fragile nature of relations between nations in South Asia. The Narendra Modi-led government applied substantial pressure on Pakistan and stated a clear intent on highlighting that when push comes to shove, diplomacy has to give way to tougher measures. In its efforts to sideline Pakistan for its unrelenting actions, India’s efforts at not allowing legitimacy for a Pakistan-sponsored regional summit were supported by Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan finally, leading to the cancellation of the summit as announced by the chair, Nepal. SAARC’s inability to contribute to the positive quotient in improving ties in South Asia is sharply contrasted by the neighbouring Southeast Asia, where the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been able to achieve some intra-regional cohesion. Amidst all the geopolitical power play, India has been pursuing its efforts to revive an age-old grouping, one which could work very well in augmenting its South Asia Policy minus Pakistan.


The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation or BIMSTEC has seen its rise from the ashes like a phoenix with a special position accorded to the grouping at the 2016 BRICS summit that concluded in Goa. However, an even more interesting fact is that BIMSTEC provides an alternative for the Indian government to engage its South Asian neighbours minus Pakistan. This move not only emerged as a game changer for BIMSTEC’s revival but also a mode to highlight India’s positive contribution towards regional engagement – a move which has been previously used and abused against it by its neighbours for domestic gains. There have been various instances to explain this dynamic. It is no secret that the origins of SAARC lay in the ‘big brother India’ rhetoric which fuelled Bangladesh to moot the idea in the 1980s.


However, India’s foreign policy towards South Asia has constantly grappled with its inability to build a positive image in its neighbourhood. There have been initiatives such as the ‘non-reciprocity principle’, which was introduced to reinvent India’s image in South Asia. India is also known to have adopted, and still adopt, a more benevolent attitude when it comes to trade. India’s unilateral move to reduce the Sensitive List for the Least Developed Countries at the SAARC summit in Maldives in 2011 could be seen as a case in point here. The constant bogging down of any agenda is fuelled in the end by Pakistan’s efforts to tie the various disputes with India to any progress, with SAARC leading to a rather permanent paralysis for any agenda to move forward. The latest instance has been the Indian offer to launch a SAARC satellite, which everyone except Pakistan welcomed.


The geopolitical outlook that a state proposes is crucial in determining where it can find a solution. In India’s case, the solution was in India’s immediate neighbourhood. The Look East, and now Act East Policy, found regional relevance in Southeast Asia and in the second phase, it extended to Japan and South Korea. The growing understanding not only opened up India to new opportunities in East Asia but also developed substantial avenues for investment in the country. However, China’s growing role on one end and the need to reconnect with South Asia on the other, resulted in thinking of a new geopolitical construct – BIMSTEC. After all, the Bay of Bengal has historically been the maritime node connecting the Indian sub-continent with East Asia. The distribution of Buddhist settlements, discovery of inscriptions along the ports and so on, point to active maritime trade between India and Southeast Asia. Till date, mainly in Cuttack and some parts of coastal Odisha, the Bali Jatra is celebrated which commemorates the voyages of traders to the islands of Bali, Java and Sumatra in Indonesia.


BIMSTEC was formed with a two-pronged approach that could serve India’s interest. One was to develop a close relationship with mainland Southeast Asia, particularly Myanmar. The second was to deal with the growing challenges with regard to security issues and economic developments of India’s Northeast. However, historically important and geopolitically significant Myanmar was largely in the shadows, kept deliberately so by its generals. Co-opting Myanmar was seen as both opportunistic and crucial for India as well as co-founder, Thailand. It was important for both the stability of India’s Northeast as well as counterbalancing the slowly growing Chinese influence in the country. Opening up of Myanmar and the increasing focus of the Modi government on India’s Northeast, coupled with looking for a medium term respite from a nay-saying Pakistan could be seen as palpable indicators of India attempting to cement its agenda through BIMSTEC in the current context.


The long-term solution of building an action-oriented regional grouping needs to look beyond the confines of regional constructs such as SAARC and for good reasons sub-regionalism provides viable solutions. Encouraging more interaction of BIMSTEC members also provides advantages for India’s strategy towards its neighbourhood. The strategy behind BIMSTEC’s invitation to a summit with BRICS countries also denotes a key principle of Indian Foreign policy, namely ‘mutual respect’, a policy that India has been willing to reciprocate willingly. While there are a number of key challenges for the grouping to achieve in the long run it very well compliments the Act East Policy initiatives, namely the 3 Cs (Commerce, Connectivity and Culture), which have been key pillars in engaging the larger East Asian region. BIMSTEC’s agenda would go well in supplementing the policy initiatives towards Southeast Asia. For instance, India heads the transport and communications sector in the BIMSTEC grouping. This augments well in connecting larger projects envisioned in the rest of Southeast Asia apart from the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway project and others.


India has often tried and tried too hard to accommodate Pakistan, even at a time when successful organisations such as ASEAN failed to find merit in promoting Pakistan beyond the position of a ‘sectoral dialogue partner’ (entry level), a position which both India and Pakistan secured together in 1992. In the current context, the geopolitics of South and Southeast Asia merit a fresh outlook. A dynamic government has taken a pragmatic step in showing that India still maintains a refreshing outlook in its foreign policy endeavours. Positive diplomatic manoeuvring will take India the right way in providing a strategic counter balance to the Pakistan conundrum in the region.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.