India to recalibrate South Asia ties, expand further afield

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Indian prime minister-designate Narendra Modi pays tribute at the Rajghat, the Mahatama Gandhi memorial, in New Delhi on Thursday. Modi was to later be sworn in as Indian prime minister for a second term. Money SHARMA/AFP

Acutely aware of the growing ties between South Asian nations and China, India has crafted the inauguration of Narendra Modi as prime minister for a second term to recalibrate its diplomatic offensive in its neighbourhood and on the “Look East” policy.

In inviting leaders of the BIM-STEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) grouping for the ceremony on Thursday, the Modi Administration is offering an alternative platform for regional integration in the absence of a stalled South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), say experts.

Anil Wadhwa, former Secretary of India’s Foreign Ministry, told the Financial Express: “BIMSTEC brings together some key countries for New Delhi in the region – Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Nepal are all nations with whom India has extensive economic linkages and programmes.”

Heads of state or government from all BIMSTEC countries will be attending the inauguration, with only Thailand, which itself is in the throes of government-formation, sending a special envoy instead.

The regional grouping together accounts for 22 per cent of the global population and a GDP of $2.8 trillion.

With five members from the Indian sub-continent and two Asean member states, BIMSTEC forms a natural land and sea link between South and Southeast Asia.

“It establishes SAARC countries’ network of cooperation excluding Pakistan and brings in the eastern neighbours of India, which include Myanmar and Thailand,” said Professor Ajay Dubey of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Regional vision

While the Modi government has underlined its desire to deepen its engagement with South/Southeast Asian nations, it is also de-hyphen-ating itself from Pakistan, as the crisis over Jammu and Kashmir terrorism continues.

In 2014, relations with Pakistan were relatively cordial.

At the inauguration of Modi’s first term as prime minister, invites were issued to heads of all SAARC member nations including Pakistan, all of whom attended.

The recent escalation in India-Pakistan tensions, however, has changed the scenario.

India wants to clearly signal that its neighbourhood-first policy is alive and well.

As it is, of the SAARC invitees from 2014, only Pakistan, Afghanistan and Maldives have been left out of the 2019 inauguration with the BIMSTEC invites.

And Indian diplomats have worked behind-the-scenes to ensure both these “close allies” are fully on board with New Delhi’s diplomatic strategy.

Additionally, to underline both the scale of India’s regional vision and its strategic interests, the president of the Central Asian Kyrgyz Republic, which currently holds the chair of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), and the prime minister of the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius have been invited and are attending Modi’s inauguration.

China in mind

But as veteran diplomat KC Singh said on an Indian television debate: “By using the BIMSTEC route, the Indians have ensured that the door has not been completely shut on Islamabad ,which it would have been if, say, India had structured the invite for all SAARC neighbours but left out Pakistan.”

Last but not least, India’s regional outreach has China very much in mind.

New Delhi has signalled to Beijing that it will pursue its strategic ambitions and deepen its economic-cum-civilisational links in the greater South Asia region, including Central Asia and the Indian Ocean, but China remains its priority for engagement among major powers.

To that end, work has already begun on an informal summit to be held between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Modi following up on the first such meeting at Wuhan, China, in April 2018.

Reports say India has proposed October 11 as the date for the summit which will likely be hosted in the ancient Indian city of Varanasi.

It is not incidental that the Hindu holy city of Varanasi is also the par-liamentary constituency represented by Modi.

Asia should be prepared for an increasingly active India, one out to reshape its relationships in the region.

Asia News Network’s Ishan Joshi was writing from New Delhi.