As relations sour with Pakistan, India is looking to integrate more with its eastern neighbours. The potential for a win-win trilateral partnership looks promising for the region, write Manish Vaid and Tridivesh Singh Maini.
Last month’s Building Responsive, Inclusive and Collective Solutions (BRICS) Summit in Goa came at an important time. The event also saw meaningful interaction on the side lines among leaders from the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).
Tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad have risen in the aftermath of the Uri terror attack in which 19 Indian soldiers were killed. India retaliated on 29 September with surgical strikes for which it received good support from across the region and from major powers including the US and Russia. In a show of solidarity in the wake of these events, India and five out of the eight other member countries pulled out of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit, scheduled for October, and forced its postponement until November 2016. As the current chair of SAARC, Nepal also urged members not to aid cross-border terror.
There is a belief in India that New Delhi should seek to change its approach towards regional integration. Firstly, New Delhi should rethink the SAARC-Pakistan arrangement and secondly, it should look towards the East with a more clearly articulated approach.
The Prime Ministers of Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar (represented by the state counsellor) attended the BRICS-BIMSTEC Summit for the BIMSTEC leader’s meeting. Having invited these additional heads of state, and as Chair of the meeting, India pushed for an anti- terror resolution and signalled its intent to take the lead in regional cooperation, excluding Pakistan.
While BRICS countries failed to reach a consensus on Pakistan-sponsored terrorism at Goa, BIMSTEC members were quick to condemn states “support and finance terrorism, provide sanctuary to terrorists and terror groups” – endorsing India’s stance but without naming Pakistan.
Importantly, Myanmar State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi, and Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina have shown a desire to strengthen economic and strategic ties with New Delhi; both countries are central to India’s goals in these areas. While Bangladesh has backed India’s stand on terrorism, it has also sought to enhance connectivity with India by being part of the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal Corridor as well as pushing through rail, land and maritime connectivity.
During the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Bangladesh in June 2015 bus services were inaugurated. Additionally, a maritime agreement was signed to give India access to the Bangladeshi ports of Chittagong and Mongla. In July 2016, a second integrated check post in Petrapole, West Bengal, which would give a fillip to bilateral trade, was inaugurated by video conference. Bangladesh has been successful in attracting foreign investment from a number of countries, including Japan. A deep sea port and power projects at Matarbari are also being funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency. Only recently has the Asian Development Bank raised its lending to Bangladesh.
Crucial to the success of India’s ‘Act East’ policy is Myanmar, which provides a land bridge connecting India with Southeast Asia. Realising this, India has sought to expedite projects such as the India-Myanmar-Thailand highway, an issue that was high on the agenda during the Myanmar President’s visit to New Delhi in August 2016. Once this highway is complete it can be extended to Laos and Cambodia.
The three countries work jointly in BIMSTEC, and are also part of the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, which has been proposed by the US to connect South Asia with Southeast Asia through Myanmar. On top of the connectivity projects, there are a number of other factors that bind these three nations. While both Bangladesh and Myanmar have strong ties with China, they do not want to rely solely on China as a source of funds and are looking for other investors. This gives India the opportunity to slowly but surely increase its presence in both countries.
In this regard, India’s northeast plays a significant role not only in strengthening this trilateral relationship’s connectivity, but also in deepening energy cooperation with both Bangladesh and Myanmar, as canvassed in India’s new Hydrocarbon Vision 2030.
India’s excess refinery capacity should accrue the potential benefit of making the country a net exporter of petroleum products and enhancing its regional supplies to countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh. The creation of an energy corridor in the northeast would go a long way towards effectively utilising petroleum, oil and lubricants, by producing and exporting them to Myanmar and Bangladesh, as well as Nepal and Bhutan. These endeavours will create an additional layer of economic value, with the added benefit of helping these countries to not only meet their petroleum product needs but also transition to cleaner fuels such as LPG.
Close cooperation between these countries in the fight against terrorism should also be a priority. New Delhi, Dhaka and Napyitaw have had to contend with a number of security threats and one of the crucial components of the trilateral agreement could be a security arrangement between all three states.
Further, despite contention over the Rohingya issue between Myanmar and Bangladesh, solving this problem would go a long way towards strengthening the relationship and give 36,000 Rohingya Muslims a more secure presence across seven Indian states (only 9,000 of these refugees are currently registered in India).
All three countries would do well to seek assistance from willing countries like Japan and Thailand and form a meaningful partnership with them that goes beyond symbolism and delivers something concrete on the ground.
A strong trilateral agreement between India, Myanmar and Bangladesh is a win-win proposition for them all and, most importantly, would send a clear message of solidarity on democracy, pluralism and economic growth.
Manish Vaid is a junior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi, and Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based policy analyst associated with the Jindal School of International Affairs. Views are personal.
This article is publish in collaboration with Policy Forum — Asia and the Pacific’s leading platform for policy analysis and debate.