Raja Mandala: Bay of Bengal’s glad tidings

Dhaka and Colombo’s commitment to regionalism indicates that the climate is right for bringing South and South East Asia closer.

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Published:October 11, 2016 12:02 am
saarc, saarc meeting, modi, narendra moodi, pm modi, pm modi skip saarc summit, Bay of Bengal regionalism, saarc summit, south asian summit, india pakistan, regional cooperation, economic regionalism, political regionalism, south east asian nations, economic cooperation organisation, bbin, bbin sarc, indian express opinion, brics, India news Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s special interest in linking South and South East Asia and Dhaka’s traditional commitment to regionalism have now aligned the stars.

As the Subcontinent looks beyond the SAARC for a productive regional forum that is not constrained by Pakistan’s veto, the Bay of Bengal beckons. The moment for turning the Bay of Bengal into a zone of regional cooperation may finally be with us thanks to a number of recent developments. If the collapse of the SAARC summit in Islamabad has made the consideration of alternatives an immediate imperative, the extraordinary enthusiasm of Sri Lanka’s prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, for Bay of Bengal regionalism is showing us a way forward. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s special interest in linking South and South East Asia and Dhaka’s traditional commitment to regionalism have now aligned the stars.

In a series of recent speeches in Tokyo, Jakarta, Singapore and Delhi, Wickremesinghe has laid out an agenda for both sub-regional — between Sri Lanka and south Indian states — and trans-regional economic integration among the South and South East Asian nations bordering the Bay of Bengal littoral. He points to the fact that Sri Lanka and India’s five southern states together have a population of 272 million people and a combined GDP of over $500 billion. The Sri Lankan PM insists that if Delhi and Colombo work together this economic zone can emerge as one of the world’s most dynamic. Dhaka meanwhile has championed sub-regional integration in the eastern subcontinent.

Last week in Delhi, Wickremesinghe called for a tripartite trade liberalisation agreement between Lanka, India and Singapore. The Lankan PM wants India and Singapore to collaborate in the development of a port in Trincomalee on Sri Lanka’s eastern seaboard. Familiar with the Japanese role in the economic modernisation of South East Asia, Wickremesinghe is betting that Tokyo could contribute to the rapid economic transformation of the Bay of Bengal littoral.

The Lankan PM reminds the region of the rich history of maritime commerce across the Bay of Bengal between peninsular India, Sri Lanka and South East Asia. He believes the Bay of Bengal could rival the Caribbean as a high-end tourist destination. He imagines cruise liners sailing from Kochi to Singapore via Maldives, Sri Lanka, Andamans and Thailand. Wickremesinghe sees enormous possibilities for regional economic cooperation among the members of the BIMSTEC forum that brings five nations from South Asia — Bhutan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka — and two from South East Asia — Burma and Thailand — under one umbrella. He also suggested inviting Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore into the BIMSTEC forum. The BIMSTEC or the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation has been on top of Delhi’s mind for some time now. Well before the SAARC crisis, Modi had decided to invite the leaders of the BIMSTEC to the outreach segment of the BRICS summit in Goa this week. Modi is eager to breathe some new life into BIMSTEC that had remained moribund since its formation two decades ago. The prospect of the Bay of Bengal emerging as a vehicle for regional cooperation was also presaged by the formation of the BBIN grouping that brought four contiguous states — Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and India — in the eastern subcontinent together after Pakistan’s reluctance to sign on to the South Asian connectivity agreements at the SAARC summit in Kathmandu in November 2014.

The BIMSTEC or the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation has been on top of Delhi’s mind for some time now. Well before the SAARC crisis, Modi had decided to invite the leaders of the BIMSTEC to the outreach segment of the BRICS summit in Goa this week. Modi is eager to breathe some new life into BIMSTEC that had remained moribund since its formation two decades ago. The prospect of the Bay of Bengal emerging as a vehicle for regional cooperation was also presaged by the formation of the BBIN grouping that brought four contiguous states — Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and India — in the eastern subcontinent together after Pakistan’s reluctance to sign on to the South Asian connectivity agreements at the SAARC summit in Kathmandu in November 2014.The BBIN constitutes a natural sub-region of the Subcontinent. Besides shared land borders, they all have a big stake in the Bay of Bengal: For the two landlocked Himalayan states, Bhutan and Nepal, the shortest sea access is to the Bay of Bengal and it runs through the two littoral states — Bangladesh and India. For parts of southwestern China too, the Bay of Bengal is the nearest sea. And China — reaching there through Burma — has also promoted the idea of sub-regional collaboration among China, Burma, Bangladesh and India. A corridor through the four countries is now part of President Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. Although Delhi is wary of China’s OBOR, especially the western corridor through Pakistan and the central corridor through Nepal, it is a wee bit more open to engaging China on the eastern corridor.

The BBIN constitutes a natural sub-region of the Subcontinent. Besides shared land borders, they all have a big stake in the Bay of Bengal: For the two landlocked Himalayan states, Bhutan and Nepal, the shortest sea access is to the Bay of Bengal and it runs through the two littoral states — Bangladesh and India. For parts of southwestern China too, the Bay of Bengal is the nearest sea. And China — reaching there through Burma — has also promoted the idea of sub-regional collaboration among China, Burma, Bangladesh and India. A corridor through the four countries is now part of President Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. Although Delhi is wary of China’s OBOR, especially the western corridor through Pakistan and the central corridor through Nepal, it is a wee bit more open to engaging China on the eastern corridor.

The new hopes for Bay of Bengal ride on the fact that Lanka and Bangladesh have long been champions of regionalism. In the 1960s and early 1970s, when Delhi was smug about its self-imposed economic isolation, Lanka was eager to join the ASEAN institutions. In the 1980s, it was Bangladesh that took the lead in promoting the idea of SAARC. It also now hosts the secretariat for the BIMSTEC. Colombo and Dhaka are raring to go forward in uniting the Bay of Bengal.

Delhi, which chafed at Pakistan’s reluctance to allow progress under the SAARC framework, now has the opportunity to demonstrate that it can do a lot better in the Bay of Bengal. The PM’s meetings with the leaders of Bay of Bengal in Goa this week provides a big opportunity to set a new agenda for regional cooperation under the BIMSTEC forum. The initiatives could range from coastal shipping to counter-terrorism and from the development of underwater resources in the Bay to protecting the marine environment.

The writer is director, Carnegie India, Delhi and consulting editor on foreign affairs for the ‘Indian Express’

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