Originally Published 2014-02-28 09:42:05 Published on Feb 28, 2014
As Manmohan Singh meets Myanmar's President in the sidelines of the Bimstec summit, this will give an opportunity for the two leaders to further deepen bilateral ties. As part of the two neighbours growing relations, a border security pact is expected to be signed during Dr Singh's visit.
PM's  Myanmar visit to strengthen Look East policy
" As India takes its regional diplomacy a step further, the significance of Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) cannot be overlooked. The Bimstec region forms India's immediate strategic environment and its doorstep to the East.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's leadership in sheering India's Look East policy since its inception as finance minister in the P.V. Narashima Rao government in the early 1990s to his coming visit to Myanmar, seen as possibly his last visit overseas as Prime Minister, has laid down a clear path for the next government to take his initiatives to the next level.

Dr Singh's visit to Myanmar on March 3-4 to attend the third Bimstec summit signals New Delhi's continued commitment to its eastward orientation. The visit is significant from both bilateral and regional perspectives. At the bilateral level, the visit will give Dr Singh a chance to review the bilateral relationship between the two countries since his first visit to the country in May 2012. The high-profile visit will ensure continued focus on a country that has been witnessing major changes in the recent years.

From the regional perspective, the Bimstec summit will be the first multilateral head of governments meeting to be hosted by Myanmar this year. Dr Singh's presence at the summit will send a strong message of New Delhi's support to Nay Pyi Taw's regional leadership role. Myanmar is chair of Asean for 2014 and the visit will provide India an opportunity to coordinate with the Burmese on various regional issues at the highest level.

Since its formation in 1997, Bimstec has been unable to get its acts together to demonstrate that it can contribute to the process of regional integration, despite enormous potential for cooperation among the seven member-states. The current summit being hosted by Myanmar offers an opportune moment for the member-states to leverage the country's re-engagement with the international community in revitalising the grouping.

Essentially a grouping formed with the aim to tap the huge potential for mutually beneficial economic cooperation and integration, but in more than one decade on its formation Bimstec could hold only two summits. The mechanisms set up for cooperation including in the areas of agriculture, energy, tourism, trade, connectivity, climate change, transnational illegal maritime activities, etc are yet to see substantial forward movement. To give a renewed push, injecting a couple of ideas as key thrust of the grouping may unleash its potential in achieving the vision it has set for itself.

Bringing the focus of Bimstec even more sharply on the Bay of Bengal is not only desirable for the advantage it holds for the region but also perhaps has become a necessity. Bimstec is the only regional grouping with membership of all the key Bay of Bengal littorals. As the Bay's geopolitical importance rapidly changes in the context of Myanmar's opening up, there are several opportunities emerging for the grouping to take advantage. Building on existing ideas and adding new ones for cooperation in the Bay of Bengal needs to be given a renewed drive.

The second Bimstec summit declared that with the growing complexity of social, economic, environment, and security challenges, there was a "need for concerted regional efforts to respond." The Bay of Bengal region presents itself as an area most urgently requiring such cooperation. As the largest and the most powerful regional player, New Delhi can take the lead in proposing mechanisms in promoting environment conservation, preventing and mitigating natural disasters as well as protecting the sea lines of communication. In this context, the likely agreement to set up a weather and climate centre in New Delhi during the upcoming summit could be the first step.

A potential area is also maritime cooperation. This can be conceptualised along the lines of the trilateral maritime cooperation between India, Sri Lanka and Maldives. The idea behind the cooperation has been to pool resources and share data with the aim to enhance control and surveillance against piracy and other illegal activities including maritime pollution and overfishing.

While it is beyond doubt that the present members need to first strengthen the regional grouping before thinking of expansion, the question will surely emerge in the coming years and it may be useful for the grouping to lay down some parameters for expansion. To make the grouping more effective in the maritime domain, it may be helping to think of expanding the grouping by adding Indonesia and Maldives. Both countries not only are close to the Bay of Bengal but also share common maritime challenges. This will also enrich the idea that BIMSTEC as the link between South Asia and Southeast Asia. Adding one country from each of these regions may instil new dynamism in the grouping. In this context, how to accommodate the interests of extra-regional powers may also be a point for deliberation.

Apart from the lack of political will to push the grouping forward, the limited connectivity among the member-states has been a major factor for the grouping's sluggish pace towards integration. There are already blueprints on key sectors that can be implemented without wasting any more time. One such sector is in the regional connectivity. The focus for the next few years of the grouping needs to be on creating strategic infrastructure and transport facilities to link the member-states. The expected announcement to implement some of the key sectors of the ADB report on connectivity in the Bimstec region needs to remain the grouping's priority.

Second, Bimstec also needs to tap the ongoing connectivity projects such as the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway project. This project could be extended to link it with Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. Linking the coastal cities of the member-nations through the maritime route can also be explored with a strategy that synergises the continental and maritime regional connectivity networks.

There are other important measures that are likely to be announced at the summit, including setting up of a permanent secretariat in Dhaka and an agreement on cultural industries commission to be set up in Thimphu. While to expect major breakthroughs in every summit may also be counter-productive, what is perhaps more important is to ensure that summit-level meetings are held more regularly.

As Manmohan Singh meets Myanmar's President Thein Sein in the sidelines of the Bimstec summit, this will give an opportunity for the two leaders to further deepen bilateral ties. As part of the two neighbours growing relations, a border security pact is expected to be signed during Dr Singh's visit. This will give deeper meaning to strategic partnership between the two countries.

(K. Yhome is a Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi

Courtesy: The Asian Age, February 28, 2014

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K. Yhome

K. Yhome

K. Yhome was Senior Fellow with ORFs Neighbourhood Regional Studies Initiative. His research interests include Indias regional diplomacy regional and sub-regionalism in South and Southeast ...

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