BIMSTEC - Towards a Security Architecture
Dr Sreeradha Datta, Centre Head & Senior Fellow, Neighbourhood Studies, VIF

The renewed mandate for PM Modi holds several implications for India’s domestic and foreign policy both. The presence of Bay of Bengal initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) leaders in Delhi for the Prime Ministerial swearing-in ceremony was both a reflection of India’s commitments in the region as well as its underutilised potential. In 2014 the presence of ASEAN leaders for PM Modi’s first ushering in, lent credibility to the unfolding of the Act East and India’s engagement with the Southeast Asian economies that has substantially increased in the past decade.

Bilateral ties including, India’s growing interest and deepening focus on regional and sub-regional organisations in the extended neighbourhood has been apparent in the past five years. Undoubtedly, India’s engagement with the South and Southeast Asian region can be nurtured best through the BIMSTEC that straddles both the regions. As data suggests, trade between BIMSTEC countries is rising, India’s exports to BIMSTEC countries increased by 29.5%, trade with BIMSTEC grew by 26%.1 It also supports the infrastructure development that India is developing with many of these neighbours. Thus many of the cross border connectivity trade corridors, in various stages of completion will become economic corridors linking the regions with scope to changing the socio-economic scope of the interconnected neighbourhood.

Beginning with the BIMSTEC retreat on the side lines of the BRICS Summit in 2016 in Goa, Modi’s push to infuse energy to the sleepy then 20 year old organisation, was reciprocated by all the member states. Given the domestic developments in this geography and the interplay of regional and extra-regional actors, BIMSTEC organisation has increasingly assumed greater relevance and holds out the promise to contribute substantively to the common needs of the people of the regions.

Common traditional and non-traditional security issues bind the members and with Sri Lanka the next host for the Summit security strategic component will invariably find greater resonance in Colombo amongst all the others gathered there. Governments, think tanks and all stakeholders all across, have been engaged with this particular aspect in the BIMSTEC. Thus, the institutionalisation of the annual meeting of the National Security chiefs 2017 onwards, lends credibility to this urgent issue. There already exists cooperation over common, cross border security issues such as smuggling, human trafficking, fake currencies, drugs and piracy.

Indeed in the recent think tanks dialogue on ‘Regional Security’ initiated by Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), Delhi, all the members acquiesced on the need towards formalising security cooperation in the BIMSTEC region. The first National Security Advisors’ meeting has resulted in a document that identified the Bay of Bengal as a common security space. Although BIMSTEC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance stands unsigned, the idea of military exercise has been mooted by the Indian side to take this process forward. The need for the cooperation of the security agencies of all members is a necessary corollary towards establishing a common security framework in the regional organisation.

The VIF dialogue also made few recommendations to take the common concerns forward. This included, firstly, security cooperation should be premised on evidence-based data and research, secondly, the strengthening of the BIMSTEC Secretariat capacity also to facilitate research on security issues. Thirdly, the think tanks need to take the process forward by threadbare examinations of the complex issues for the governments to consider thereon. Not only is the role of the various stakeholders and actors essential to build greater awareness about regional security issues but these consultation and discussions should be held regularly for formulating a plan of action. It was strongly recommended that terrorism should not be used as a tool of state policy for furthering their foreign policy goals while at the same time, states that provide help and safe haven to terrorists are held accountable for their deeds.

The extra regional nature of terrorists and terror groups have complicated the cooperative efforts in developing a security framework in this region and within BIMSTEC. Given the geo-strategic space and common environment including Indonesia into this groups stands to reason. Indonesia a maritime neighbour of India, with its west coast of northern Sumatera lying adjacent to Bay of Bengal, is located ideally to be included in the BIMSTEC region. As per latest business reports, Indonesia is poised to break into the top five economies in the next decade, its inclusion will make the BIMSTEC regional organisation not only a potential economic powerhouse given that India and Bangladesh the two neighbours, are racing ahead of Indonesia for the top slots, but also cover the BIMSTEC geo-strategic location more comprehensively.

While India and Indonesia share strong historical relationship, Indonesia also shares common issues of trade, economic, environment and traditional security issues with the other member states. As the largest economy in South East Asia with also the largest population covering the largest geographic area, its role in Indo-pacific in the region is assuming greater salience with each passing day and it would be worthwhile for the BIMSTEC member countries to consider bringing in Indonesia within its fold. Cooperation and convergence in the Bay of Bengal and BIMSTEC will be essential towards building a stable Indo-Pacific and peaceful international system. A common security architecture in this region can provide the framework for upholding order and amity.

Reference
  1. Report-‘BIMSTEC-A Vibrant Economy’, p.16 at http://www.wtcmumbai.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/BIMSTEC-for-web.pdf

Image Source: https://images.indianexpress.com/2018/08/bimstec.jpg

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