SOUTHERN EYE: If SAARC has not, will BBIN and BIMSTEC work !

The boycott of the SAARC Summit at Islamabad last year and hosting of the BRICS-BIMSTEC summit in Goa drove home the failure of regional cooperation in South Asia. India orchestrated the boycott after repeated terror attacks in Kashmir , Bangladesh and Afghanistan joined in because they were also wary of Pakistan’s intentions. Bhutan joined the boycott to keep India happy. The Goa summit was India’s attempt to show Pakistan how important it was – and how isolated Pakistan had become.

That did not necessarily work . China and Russia, two of BRICS bigger partners, have upset India considerably by developing close links to Pakistan. Both are upset with India’s ever-growing closeness to the USA. Of the BIMSTEC countries, India has problems with immediate neighbors. Aung Sang Suu Kyi, when she met Indian leaders after the Goa Summit, insisted on a guarantee that Indian troops will not cross the border to strike at northeastern rebels based in Myanmar’s Sagaing region. So if Pakistan has denied the ‘surgical strikes’ India claims to have done in ‘Azad Kashmir’, Myanmar was trying to insist India will never repeat the 2015 strikes on Myanmar territory. Suu Kyi’s logic was clear – the military government may look the other way if India attacks rebels on Myanmar territory, but an elected government could not accept the transgressions of national sovereignity implicit in such raids.

India also has to sort out the river water sharing treaty on Teesta with Bangladesh and cooperate on the proposed Ganges Barrage . Delhi is keen to sign the Teesta treaty but is held back by the fierce opposition from West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. She feels the Teesta agreement will deprive her state of its fair share of the river water and the proposed Barrage will exacerbate river erosion and lead to sharp fluctuations in hydrological flows in the Ganges. Prime Minister Hasina has lived in India after the assassination of her late father and does understand the compulsions of India’s federal politics. But Bangladesh is a country of peasants, for whom water is a huge issue.

With the next parliament polls due in Jan 2019, she can ignore the waters issue at her own peril. Her proposed visit to India has been postponed twice now – once in December and now in February again. India is rushing its foreign secretary S Jaishankar to Dhaka this week to finalise Hasina’s visit to Delhi in April . But the Bangladesh Prime Minister appear less than keen to make the visit unless she is assured of ‘some positive developments’ on the waters issue. India may offer much else to her including power from Teesta hydel projects but Delhi will have to understand the water issue is now the core problem and must be sorted out.

The key question now is if India-Pakistan bilateral problems have left South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in shambles, will similar bilateral problems with Bangladesh, China or Myanmar not impact on regional forums like the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar) and BBIN (Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal).

Experts at a recent BBIN conference, organized by the CUTS International in Calcutta, reflected on the need to develop a regional approach to issues rather than get bogged down in bilateral or national issues. A very interesting presentation at this conference reflected on how the East African nations have evolved into a community and successfully developed and operated two transport corridors that could now become growth and development zones. The key lesson from this experience was how a bloc of nations should start to think like a region to leverage their mutual strengths rather than be left stranded in their bilateral or national problems. The economy of the East African Community has also grown round two major ports – Mombasa and Dar-e-Salam. If BBIN were to work, it would also grow round Calcutta and Chittagong. Like Kenya is now developing a deep sea port at Lamu to ease the pressures on Mombassa, a deep sea port at Sagar is considered by India and one at Matarbarhi to ease the pressure on Chittagong by Bangladesh.

But while Lamu has taken off, Sagar is still in works because the West Bengal government feels Tajpur will be a better option with a deeper draft than Sagar. Matarbarhi is likely to take off though Sonadia was considered before it as the site for the deep sea port. China had agreed to fund Sonadia but presumably Bangladesh had to drop it because India was not comfortable. Japan is funding Matarbarhi.

If SAARC did not work because India and Pakistan failed to see eye to eye, will BBIN or BIMSTEC work, let alone BCIM which India is apparently not comfortable with because of China in it. Bangladesh, for instance, is quite keen on BCIM because it sees Chinese investments as key to its economic growth. It is interesting that Chinese president Xi Jinping flew into Dhaka on way to Goa and Hasina followed him to the Indian coastal state for the BRICS-BIMSTEC summit. But before that, China had signed agreements to fund Bangladesh more than $25 billion for key infrastructure project. In fact, Bangladesh strongly supports China’s One Belt One Road policy because it believes that will help bring much needed funds to its infrastructure projects.

Countries like Nepal and Bangladesh are always having to balance India and China. Even Bhutan, bound by treaties to depend on India for defence and foreign relations, is keen to resolve its border dispute with China and develop a working relations. So would it be an exaggeration to say that the long shadow of China will impact on BBIN ! The four nation bloc is now trying to operationalise a Motor Vehicles Agreement they signed in 2015. Much should not be read into why Bhutan’s Upper House has not yet ratified the agreement – there are some local concerns involved. But this agreement should, without much delay, graduate into a multi-modal transport agreement, bringing in railways, coastal and inland shipping. If speed of action holds the key, BBIN needs to get its act together. Two years to operationalise an agreement is not what we need to make a success of BBIN. And if BBIN is South Asia’s stepping stone to BIMSTEC, we need to act faster.

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