Last week’s signing of a motor vehicle agreement by the transport ministers of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal marks a big breakthrough in the evolution of South Asian regionalism. Once the necessary steps are taken to implement the agreement over the next six months, cross-border movement of goods and people will get a lot easier in the eastern subcontinent. The agreement marks the birth of a new framework, “Beebin” if you like, among the four South Asian countries. It should also help at least a big part of the subcontinent to challenge the widespread perception that South Asia is the “least integrated region” in the world.
Some have labelled the BBIN as a “Saarc minus one” mechanism aimed at “isolating” Pakistan. The Saarc charter, of course, does not prohibit sub-regional cooperation among three or more members of the organisation. But what is driving the BBIN process is quite clearly Pakistan’s foot-dragging in the Saarc. This was quite evident at the last Saarc summit in Kathmandu in November 2014.
After prolonged negotiations among all parties, including Pakistan, the Saarc summit was presented with three agreements on cross-border energy cooperation, motor-vehicle movement and railway cooperation. But Pakistan was not ready to sign them, and it was only after great persuasion that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif initialled the agreement on energy cooperation.
It is beyond doubt that the pace of the Saarc caravan has been set by the slowest camel, Pakistan. Islamabad prefers a more sequential approach, under which
economic integration with India follows rather than precedes the resolution of bilateral political issues with New Delhi. Until now, India was not willing to find a way out of this blind alley and was content to let the Saarc drift.
No wonder everyone blamed India and Pakistan for the failure of the Saarc. But over the last couple of years, something has changed. India’s eastern neighbours are no longer willing to let South Asian regionalism remain hostage to Indo-Pak ties. They are ready to negotiate practical sub-regional cooperation with India. And Delhi has been willing to respond positively.
It is no surprise that the initiative for sub-regional cooperation has come from Bangladesh. Surrounded on all sides by India, separated from Nepal and Bhutan by a sliver of Indian territory called the “chicken’s neck” and connected to Southeast Asia through Myanmar, Bangladesh sees the need for trans-frontier connectivity more clearly than most. The idea has also found considerable appeal in Nepal and Bhutan, two landlocked countries that need regional integration to improve their access to the open seas and global markets. The two countries also need credible arrangements for energy trade across borders that will boost their economies. Two well-known public intellectuals in Kathmandu, Kanak Mani Dixit and Sujeev Shakya, have articulated the idea of “East South Asia”, which can pioneer effective sub-regionalism in the subcontinent.
When Bangladesh took the initiative for sub-regional engagement over the last two years, the UPA government responded positively. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been more vigorous in backing sub-regional cooperation through the BBIN. While laying out a positive agenda for the Saarc as a whole in Kathmandu, Modi saw the virtues of marching ahead with whoever is ready for regional integration within the Saarc.
If the BBIN programme succeeds, it could spur similar integration in other sub-regions, like the one formed by peninsular India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Some day, even Pakistan might be ready to restore the historic economic connectivity in the region stretching from the west of the Jumna to the Indus and beyond.
Instead of agonising over the failures of the Saarc, Delhi has recognised that two-speed regionalism is quite common around the world. For example, Britain, Denmark and Sweden are among the members of the European Union that have not adopted the euro as their currency. Many in Britain, of course, want London to exit from the European Union.
In any case, no one can compel Pakistan to love the Saarc and its agenda for economic integration. It is not that Pakistan is against regional cooperation. It has its own preferences in regional partnerships. Islamabad has, in recent years, taken big steps towards economic integration with China. Pakistan has also been an active member of regional institutions like the Economic Cooperation Organisation, whose members include Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan and other Central Asian states. It is, indeed, Pakistan’s sovereign prerogative to choose the pace and direction of its regionalism.
India, too, has often looked beyond the Saarc to benefit from trans-regional cooperation. Along with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, India has been promoting a trans-regional forum, called BIMSTEC, with Myanmar and Thailand. BIMSTEC stands for “Bay of Bengal Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation”. Centred on what we might for a moment call “Greater Bengal”, the BBIN region has always been geographically coherent. There is now political support in all four capitals to reconnect the region and build on its natural synergies.
If the four countries are ready to think big about East South Asia, the rest of the world is more than eager to support them. The World Bank has long backed South Asian sub-regionalism. Japan and the Asian Development Bank are ready to invest big time in the sub-region’s energy and transport corridors. China has been pressing for more than a decade to develop trans-border connectivity between eastern India and southwestern China through Bangladesh and Myanmar.
East South Asia’s moment is now upon us. Delhi, for its part, must lend full support to Dhaka’s leadership of the BBIN forum. After all, it was Dhaka that took the political initiative in the late 1970s to found the Saarc. Bangladesh is well placed to get the BBIN framework to advance the regional agenda that the Saarc could not over the last three decades.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’