BIMSTEC: Focus on the regional

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BIMSTEC: Focus on the regional

Friday, 08 October 2021 | KUMARDEEP BANERJEE

BIMSTEC: Focus  on the regional

India needs to reach out to neighbours for multilateral ties and distance from China

India is believed to be in advance-level discussions with Taiwan for setting up a manufacturing facility of semiconductors. This is taking place in the backdrop of China flying nearly 100 military grade aircraft into the Taiwan air defense zone. The world too is looking at Taiwan, which is considered the largest hub for semiconductor manufacturing. Taiwan is officially partof China. However, it has been fierce in maintaining a separate identity for itself including having a democratic governance system in place. India, because of its “one China policy”, has so far maintained a studied distance with Taiwan despite knowing the potential benefits of alignment. However, given the changes in India’s immediate neighborhood, inAfghanistan, andconstant Chinese aggression along India’s northern borders, the measured silence needs to reviewed. That brings us to Afghanistan which seems justa couple of months away from succumbing to Chinese economic might.China is aggressively expanding its footprint in the region and that works for the new Taliban-led government in Afghanistan. Taliban, lured with easy cash and handicapped on diplomatic and strategic fronts on the global platform, is clinging to China’s now infamous Belt and Road initiative(BRI). The moment Chinese money starts pouringin for building critical roads and infrastructure in Afghanistan, India’s interests will be threatened. Also remember that Pakistan uses its erstwhile relationship with Western nations to push Afghanistan diplomatically and ensure some multilateralaid. It is of significant that India has not yet established any diplomatic presence with the new Taliban government even though it hasties with Afghanistan’s neighborsincluding Russia.

This has become significant since China with its neo-colonial aspirations has not justtried to claim maritime territories in the India Ocean Region but also has been reached out to SAARC members. India, one of its founding members, has not been following up on pushing this group as a strategic bulwark against aggressive regional partners. China, it is learnt, has already wooed a bunch of these countries to allow and be apart of the BRI. These nations except, for the usual suspect Pakistan, have had historical cultural and economic ties with India. Take for example Bangladesh which seems to close to allowing Chinese money into building their roads and ports. One often forgets that India is also a member of BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). It is an international grouping of seven nations from South and SoutheastAsia. They are all key economies having significant interest in the Indo-Pacific region. The combined GDP of the nations is nearly $4 trillion and there are significant fruits to be reaped from this regional garden. One of the first and priority agenda for BIMSTEC should be a free trade agreement between the nations which havebeen on the negotiating table since 2018. The BIMSTEC nations and India’s partnership with them assumes significance since China is also aggressively wooing this group at bilateral and multilateral levels. BIMSTEC has potential for cooperation in key priority areas. All of these are being actively negotiated by India in multilateral forums such as QUAD. It is time India starts punching harder for greater cooperation among regional partners. This group like SAARC doesnot have a China presence. The multilateral platform could be a significant tool to enhance and follow India’s economic and security interests. Take the example of Nepal and Sri Lanka, both of whom are part of BIMSTEC and have in some way pushed against the BRI initiative of China. If a unique BIMSTEC funds cushion is available for this kind of substitutefunding, it could be a clear win for India.

(The writer is a policy analyst. The views expressed are personal.)

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