India Looks Eastward

(Karachi) On 31st May, Modi took his oath as the Indian Prime Minister for a second term in a grand ceremony with an even grander mandate, after his Bharatiya Janata Party cruised through another successive election victory, earning a record percentage of votes and gathering a majority without even accounting for its coalition partners.

Keeping with the tradition set in 2014, The newly elected government invited leaders of the Indian neighbouring countries to Delhi, but this time with a twist. Instead of a South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation countries’ (SAARC) heads gracing the ceremony, it was now a Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) states – Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. With almost all the member states of the two bodies the same, what even was the difference? A very notable one: the exclusion of Pakistan.

The move was more than just symbolic, as Delhi has lately become uninterested in anything to do with SAARC, largely because of Pakistan – who it blames for sponsoring terrorism and waging proxy wars inside Indian borders.

The country under Modi has tried to adopt a more active eastward foreign policy and the latest event just marks another instance towards that shift

What led to that in the first place? For years, South Asian cooperation has been stalled due to the Indo-Pak rivalry and the deep-rooted mistrust, with the two states not missing an opportunity at any international forum to lash out at each other. In terms of SAARC, the effect has been devastating as India and Pakistan are the biggest two states in the body.

With a “Pakistan-less” regional approach, Delhi might be willing to get things moving faster as a BIMSTEC mandate is unlikely to be compromised due to security considerations and an ongoing battle of intimidation between the two nuclear states.

Doing away with Pakistan, however, is not the only purpose this Bay of Bengal body serves. Beneath the move lies a set of new realities, including the increasing economic importance of Southeast Asian countries while India’s western borders gets more tangled in militancy. It makes sense for Delhi to distance themselves from their troubled neighbour and look for opportunities on a front where they are plenty of opportunities and relatively fewer hurdles.

Not only that, Delhi will have far greater leeway here thanks to its might in all aspects compared other countries in the bloc. While Nepal and Bhutan – two landlocked countries – have traditionally enjoyed close ties with India out of both cultural proximity and necessity, Bangladesh has long been under the influence of Delhi, going back to the country’s bloody independence from Pakistan.

This alliance makes sense for other nations also, with Thailand and Myanmar having a ‘Look West’ policy, while Bangladesh is seeking to expand its footprint in multilateral bodies. Not only that, these smaller states are also looking for the patronage of a regional power to counter growing Chinese influence in the region. And who else serves that role better than India?

However, BIMSTEC suffers from the same dilemma as all other multilateral bodies in South Asia long have, and this one even more amplified: a lack of interest. Despite the organisation being founded in 1997, there have been only four summits so far, with the last permanent secretariat occuring back in 2014. Fiscal and human resource constraints are a major issue for the organisation with an allocated budget from India – the largest donor – in 2016-17 at even less than $650,000. Compare that to SAARC – not the most liquid organisation – which has project budgets approaching $150 million.

All of this has manifested itself into a lack of results: BIMSTEC for the past 15 years has been trying to broker a free trade agreement, with nothing having materialised as of yet and unsurprisingly, not much has been done to fulfill the promises it has made either.

But the question really is, would excluding Pakistan from the regional equation serve India or further harm it? Just turning to east and ignoring the western border is perhaps not the best strategy as India continues to engage in an arms race with Pakistan and spend extraordinary resources on its military, which otherwise could have been diverted towards human development in the region. The only way to have a truly stable and connected region is for Delhi and Islamabad to address the issues, for which more dialogue and interaction – bilateral or multilateral – is required and SAARC is well-suited to do exactly that, but only if the largest members decide to benefit from it.