Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

India's neighbourhood challenges and BIMSTEC.

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Amb (Retd) Skand Ranjan Tayal
    Venue: Sikkim University.
    Date: May 11, 2018

I am very pleased to be in the Sikkim Central University today and thank both the Ministry of External Affairs and the Sikkim University for giving me an opportunity to share my thoughts on important aspects of India’s Foreign Policy.

Let us first look at our foreign policy objectives. The primary foreign policy objective of any country is to preserve the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. Then comes promotion of the national interest in its broadest terms. This would include commerce and investments, welfare of people of Indian origin abroad, global issues like climate change and projection of India’s soft power. It is said that in practicing foreign policy the diplomats should attempt to maximize the countries options. To deal with any situation or any issue the leadership must have various policy options to choose from.

A very important objective of India’s foreign policy from the time of our independence has been to achieve strategic autonomy. This means that on any domestic or international issue the government of the day should be able to take a decision on its own merits and in India’s national interest without any external pressure.

Former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh used to say that our foreign policy must ensure a peaceful and stable external environment for development and growth. The present government is vigorously working to promote India’s national interest and Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi has given emphasis to achieve a friendly neighbourhood from the very beginning of his term.

For India, the neighbourring countries form the first circle of security. In British India, India’s security circle extended to Afghanistan in the West and Nepal, Tibet and Burma in the East. Now the times are different and all our neighbouring countries are sovereign with independent foreign policies. India therefore, follows a policy of shared prosperity and security with our neighbouring countries. It is important that India’s economy grows our neighbouring countries also benefit from it. We are ready to go more than half way in forging economic partnership with our neighbours.

Looking at our West we find a very challenging neighbourhood both in Pakistan and in Afghanistan. For India’s economic integration we need to look at our East and that is the logic for India’s Look East Policy initiated in 1992 which was given greater dynamism by the present government by renaming it the ‘Act East Policy’. This policy encompasses our enhanced relations with the East starting from Myanmar and ending in Japan. This policy is also critical for economic development of the North Eastern Region.

Let us now look at some of our Eastern neighbours one by one.

Bhutan, near Sikkim, became a protectorate of British India in 1910. Since independence India has had the closest relations with Bhutan and signed an Indo-Bhutan Treaty in 1949 which was renegotiated and updated in 2007. India has a permanent military training team in Bhutan and provides $1 billion budgetary support each year to Bhutan’s economy. India is a core partner for developing Bhutan’s hydro electric potential and there is a target of production of 10000 MW of power by 2021. Bhutan has been conscious of India’s security interests and the insurgents of Ulfa hiding in Bhutan were expelled in the military action by Bhutani army in 2003-04. In last year’s events in Doklam, India and Bhutan worked closely to counter the aggression of China on Bhutanese territory.

Nepal was at the outer periphery of the security of British India and continues to be a important factor in India’s security after independence. An Indo-Nepal treaty of peace and friendship was signed in 1950 and later revised in 2014. Nepal is a land locked country and it has a Trade and Transit Treaty with us signed in 1960 which was revised in 2009. Transit of goods to Nepal has often been a controversial issue. Often we have found that goods imported by Nepal from other countries find their way into Indian markets and hence there is need for proper checks at our customs.

Unfortunately, India has unwittingly become factor in Nepal’s internal power struggles. There are four major factions in Nepal’s polity. India has a natural affinity towards Nepalese democratic political parties as their political ideology is close to India’s political thinking. The Maoists which are ruling in Nepal, have a different political thinking and have ideological affinity with our Maoists and Naxalites. The third faction is of royalists and the army which is gradually losing ground. The fourth faction is of the ‘Madhesis’ who resides in the terai region and have close family ties with the people of Bihar and eastern U.P. As their political rights were being ignored, it led to the 2015 constitutional crisis.

For India, Nepal is very important as it is a buffer between India and China. India has open borders with Nepal and rise of violent Maoism is of concern to us. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had visited Nepal in August, 2014 and is in Nepal today as I speak here. This shows the importance India assigns to our relations with Nepal.

India, as you know, was heavily involved in liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. However, the politics in Bangladesh changed with the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in 1975. In Bangladesh the ideological divide is between their ethno – Bengali roots and their Islamic identity. India has very cooperative and friendly relations with Awami League government. India has settled the Maritime boundary as well as the enclave issue with Bangladesh. India is already supplying 500MW power everyday to Bangladesh. However, the presence of 1.5 crore Bangladeshi illegal immigrants in India is a complex issue. This is changing the demography of our states in the east and it is estimated that 3 lakh illegal immigrants still come to India every year.

For India’s Act East Policy and opening towards ASEAN, Myanmar is the gateway. In the 1980s, India had a difficult relationship with the Army rule in Myanmar and openly supported Aung San Suu–Kyi and her democratic movement. This gave an opportunity for China to make deep inroads in Myanmar economy. India has excellent relations with the elected National League for Democracy government since 2015. However, insurgents from our North east continue to find sanctuaries in Myanmar which is a problem for ensuring peace in some of our North eastern states. India is working on a trilateral highway linking Manipur with Thailand through Myanmar with a total length of 1980 kms. There is another important connectivity project called Kaladaan multi-modal transport project. However, progress is slow in the completion of both these connectivity corridors.

In India’s east, and next to Sikkim, rise of China is of great importance. India is very keen to have friendly relations with China. This feeling is reciprocated by China as evident by the 27-28 April informal summit in Wuhan between Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi and President Xi Jin-Ping. There is an important Agreement for Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh signed in 1993 and a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement signed in 2013. In 2005, India and China forged a ‘Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity’. However, there are numerous instances of border transgression by Chinese army and also their illegal claim on Arunachal Pradesh has become more vocal. China Pakistan Economic Corridor which passes through Pakistan occupied Kashmir questions our sovereignty over the territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Last year’s illegal construction of road on Bhutanese territory in Doklam near the Indian border created a tense situation. Managing relations with China would continue to pose a challenge for India’s Foreign Policy.

In this background let us have a look on Bay of Bengal coastal region. This region is one of the least integrated regions in Asia. This happened because till 1970’s Thailand was a member of the US regional defence alliance South East Asia Treaty Organization. Bangladesh emerged as in independent country in 1971 only and before that East Pakistan was inimical to India’s interest. Myanmar was isolationist and insular and joined ASEAN only in 1990s.

In June, 1997 Thailand took the initiative and together with Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka formed BIST-EC. Myanmar joined in 1997 and Bhutan and Nepal joined in 2004. And the group was named ‘Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation’ (BIMSTEC). Its objectives are technical and economic cooperation among South Asian and South East Asian countries along the coast of Bay of Bengal. The seven member countries of BIMSTEC have a combined population of 1.7 billion with a GDP of approx $3 trillion. India’s exports to the other six countries are $22 billion constituting 7% of our total exports. India’s imports from these countries are $9 billion constituting 2% of our imports.

The first BIMSTEC Summit was held in Bangkok in 2004, second in New Delhi in 2008 and third in Myanmar in 2014. Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited the leaders of other six countries for a BRICS – BIMSTEC Summit in Goa in 2016. BIMSTEC headquarters has been established in Dhaka. The member countries are working on a Coastal Shipping Agreement, FTA Framework Agreement and for greater rail and road connectivity.

The 14 priority areas for collaboration in BIMSTEC are the following:

-Commerce, Investments, Technology
-Climate Change, Tourism
-Human Resource Development
-Agriculture, Fisheries
-Poverty Alleviation
-Transport, communication
-Culture and people to people contacts.

BIMSTEC is a new regional grouping and faces many challenges. The first challenge is of the inadequacy of the resources. All countries are members of other regional organization like SAARC, ASEAN etc. and sometimes give them priority. There is a lot of work to be done for harmonization of trade, transit and customs rules among the member countries. Sometimes there is dark shadow of bilateral issues between countries e.g. Rohingyas between Bangladesh and Myanmar. BIMSTEC needs a driving force and India is ready to play a prominent role in it. For instance India is meeting 33% of the budget of the Dacca secretariat of BIMSTEC.

Going forward, BIMSTEC member countries need to give priority to projects which bring the member countries together. This will includes connectivity projects, development of integrated tourism areas and facilitation of intra-regional trade.

BIMSTEC has very high potential for regional cooperation but much work remains to be done.