BIMSTEC, even after capacity development, should not be a substitute for SAARC, Mekong-Ganga Co-operation or other existing bilateral, regional or multilateral co-operation arrangements, but rather be complementary, writes Binoj Basnyat for South Asia Monitor
The BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Co-operation) Summit was held in Kathmandu on August 30-31 amid contentions that India is losing its influence and goodwill within the immediate neighbourhood, while Chinese political influence is on the rise, through economic assistance.
When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the BIMSTEC military exercises, political, diplomatic and civil society in Nepal received the message with suspicion. Nepal sent only military observers even if troops were committed during the preparation for the military exercise.
The nature of threats is altering with the shift in balance of power, so the world is witnessing a crisis of trust, problems in multilateralism, cyber criminals, corruption, poverty, gender violence and trafficking and environmental degradation leading to disasters.
Modi, in his address at the summit, announced a BIMSTEC Combined Military Exercise to be held in Pune, India, from September 10 to16, with affirmation of participation from member countries. Preparations for the exercise had progressed with a communiqué at the end of May, preliminary planning on June 19-20 and final arrangements on August 2 - 3.
The BIMSTEC military exercise is aimed at common efforts to counter international terrorism, illicit drug trafficking, cross border organized crime, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations and mutual legal assistance in criminal matters, but was consumed in Nepal with uncertainty, where three arguments surfaced. One, that BIMSTEC was still working for a strong institutional mechanism, vision and charter for capacity development; secondly, whether it meant a change in Nepal’s diplomatic principles of opting for military participation for peace efforts or countering common threats through regional alliances; and third, the fear that the strong, growing relationship with China would be imperiled.
The Foreign Minister was prompt to clarify that Nepal would not join any military alliances or be used against friendly nations. This expressed its sensitivities and policy constrictions. The Ministry of Defence stated it was unaware of the military exercise, raising the question of civil control and supremacy over the military.
Asia has four alliance military exercises. The most recent was the eight nation SCO (Shanghai Co-Operation Organization) exercise, including China, India, Pakistan and Russia with four other Central Asian Nations, which culminated in Russia on August 29.
The Nepal government at the last minute decided that the Nepali Army would not participate in the BIMSTEC joint military exercise but would send observers. Four issues can be inferred from the decision: Lack of strategic leadership co-ordination within the government machinery; shortfall in inter-departmental/ministerial and executive co-operation and co-ordination; deficiency in utilization of strategic structures like the National Security Council mechanism and, finally, the question of civil control over the military.
BIMSTEC started in 1997 as a loose group, driven by economic cooperation in six sectors, including trade, technology, energy, transport, tourism and fisheries. It expanded in 2008 to embrace nine more sectors - agriculture, public health, poverty alleviation, counter-terrorism, environment, culture, people-to-people contact and climate change, to take the entire range of cooperation from economy to political, security, socio-cultural, technology and agriculture.
BIMSTEC encompasses five nations from SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Co-Operation) and two nations, Myanmar and Thailand, from the 10-member ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). Nepal and Bhutan formally joined the BIMSTEC in 2004, making it a seven state inter-governmental organization. The organization can be viewed as a gateway or an economic corridor to East Asia through South East Asia via both land and sea.
The fourth BIMSTEC Summit concluded with an 18-point declaration focusing on strengthening capacity; preparing the preliminary draft of the Charter, long term vision, priorities for co-operation, establishing a BIMSTEC permanent working committee (BPWC) and a Secretariat equipped with finances and human resources. A memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed on grid interconnection for optimizing use of energy resources in the region and promoting efficient and secure operation of power systems to supplement energy security.
BIMSTEC is an opportunity for Nepal and other nations to get better co-ordination, more and efficient access and appropriate delivery mechanisms from and to the intergovernmental organisation. Being a part of the “Act East” and “Act West” policies for utilizing resources and trading energy is beneficial. It is equally an opportunity for India to strengthen links to southern ports and new land corridors with Thailand and Myanmar and with ASEAN nations.
Nepal, which aims to produce 15000 MW of power in the next 10 years, would be equipped to sell surplus power abroad through Bangladesh (vide the MOU signed in August to export electricity) to Myanmar and Thailand. If agreed, the MOU with India on cross-border energy trade policy would facilitate export of electricity.
However, BIMSTEC, even after capacity development, should not be a substitute for SAARC, Mekong-Ganga Co-operation or other existing bilateral, regional or multilateral co-operation arrangements, but rather be complementary.
Implementing policies and priorities of the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal Motor Vehicle Agreement (BBIN MVA), and South Asia Sub-Regional Economic (SASEC) and cross-border energy trade agreement would alleviate export/import of natural gas, hydro electricity to achieve regional stability and strengthen BIMSTEC. If BIMSTEC agrees to a protocol for coastal shipping and a dedicated supply line, it would provide sea access to two landlocked countries, Nepal and Bhutan, for supply chain security.
To address common challenges, SAARC and BIMSTEC should hold defence and internal security (home) ministers’ conferences, paving the way for meetings of chiefs of defence, civil police, paramilitary forces and intelligence units. Holding annual meetings of the association is essential for substantive results. The fundamentals of Central, South West, South, and South East Asia connectivity are vital and imperative for the “New Asian Order”.
(The author is a retired Nepali Army Major General and a political and security analyst. He can be contacted at email@example.com)