May 2, 2022

Integrating BIMSTEC with ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific Region

Written By: Ankit Shah

Introduction

What makes a country worth living is not just economic hegemony and achievements of the state, it is the wealth of the culture of the people, accumulated over centuries of wisdom about how to conduct life. The ancient Indian civilisation is the source of all the extensions of what we call as the Indian subcontinent. The geographic spread covered under this banner stretches far towards the Gulf on one side and towards the expanse of Indo-Pacific on the other.

In the chapters of human history, the only ocean named after a country is the Indian Ocean. The subcontinent holds one of the biggest consumer markets of this planet since ages. When Europeans set out in search of India, the sailor Vasco da Gama was the one who was escorted by a Gujarati sailor, the latter having ships several times larger in size than the ship being used by Vasco da Gama. The subcontinent contributed an average of about 27% of the World GDP for 17 centuries. So, it is not a surprise that Europeans devised a strategy through which they conquered the important islands and ports and the waters of this ocean and slowly subdued India. They got the raw materials from here, produced finished goods in Europe and sold them across the world. After centuries, the chess board is still the Indian Ocean, whereby countries like India and China are jostling for influence over the very same ports and island nations. China manages the Hambantota port of economically-marred Sri Lanka, Gwadar port of debt-laden Pakistan, while India holds Chabahar port project in Iran and is eyeing several ports and island projects in the Indian Ocean. The pivot of a major chunk of economics in the extended neighbourhood is the Indian Ocean because many resources like oil, gas, raw materials and goods pass through it.

ASEAN and BIMSTEC

Over a period of time, for political, economic and security reasons, various blocks and groupings were formed for cooperation on several fronts. The two main groupings we have in the Indo-Pacific region are ASEAN and BIMSTEC.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)currently has Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam as full members. The grouping is keen on working to build an ASEAN led political, security, economic, social and cultural community.

The success of this intergovernmental organisation recently is mainly on the grounds of economic integration and the free trade agreements with several countries of the region. The RCEP which is touted as one of the largest free trade agreements in the world is a very recent achievement. One of the common security interests which binds ASEAN is the influence of the Chinese military might in the South China Sea region. From food, defence to fuel and water security, the challenges faced by the ASEAN are very similar to what the entire region commonly faces.

The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), comprises Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. These countries, grouped around the Bay of Bengal, have identified a total of 16 sectors for cooperation among the members.

The connect between the ASEAN, BIMSTEC and the Indo-Pacific is not just imminent but extremely important, especially as we see observe the changing landscapes of geo politics in the Indian sub-continent region. It is a natural connect from several standpoints besides the cultural and trade ties since ancient times. Let us examine the issues pertaining to water and economic security,

Water Security

Water is not just a primary source for sustenance of life, it is much more than that. The entire chunk of economic engine arrives in any particular region upon the premise of water supply security. Industries across the business sectors need a promising and consistent water supply to thrive. They also need skilled and valued human resources, which would arrive to work with water supply as a basic ingredient of life. The control of water sources gives an invisible power to the wielder of such power over the lower riparian states. The dams on these rivers help controls water flows in these nations. It can also cause artificial famines or floods if put to an offensive use. The electricity generation and supply with hydro power projects on rivers also need consistent water-flow security.

China and the Indian subcontinent together produced more than 50% of the world GDP on an average for about 17 centuries out of the last 20 centuries of recorded history. What human beings were doing on this planet for a big chunk of these centuries as economic activity was agriculture, which in turn is dependent on water. The Tibetan plateau, also called the roof-top of the world, is one of the largest sources of fresh water anywhere on this planet, from which emerge some of the major rivers of this region. These rivers deposit a lot of silt on both the sides of its banks and with that, massive amount of agriculture output as GDP was possible for all these centuries. In the modern age, the industries and economy need consistent water flow and supply in the similar way.

 

Several nations like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos depend on the water flows from China and the disputed Tibet region. China has entered into contracts of management or operating the electricity grids or supplies. Some of these countries also protest the dam construction by China over rivers flowing into their countries. Experts predict water wars in the future and certainly these small nations are not equipped to represent themselves effectively as lower riparian states in front of the belligerent Chinese CommunistParty (CCP) led China.

A joint alliance with representation from ASEAN & BIMSTEC nations are correctly placed for this century to work out a dependable water-sharing agreement negotiations with China.

Economic Security

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is the latest addition connecting countries in the Indo-Pacific with a trade pact. A lot of assembly, component, labelling and raw material processing value addition happen among the ASEAN countries. Some of the nations of BIMSTEC face challenges of heavy debts and depleting foreign reserves in the recent times. Countries like Pakistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Nepal are facing difficulties repaying foreign debts. Thailand and Myanmar are two nations common to both the groupings ASEAN and BIMSTEC. In a way it is these two nations which geographically as well as in many other ways connect India with the entire region.

Connectivity is a major part of ensuring economic wellbeing. The land, rail, air, water, and road routes are the infrastructure factors nations need to work upon to integrate the entire region with one another. There are also recent movements in acceptance of each other’s’ currencies for trade and digital interfaces for honouring transactions and cross-border trade. The potential for bilateral and multilateral economic exchange in the region is immense in terms of free flow of all the factors of production like men, machine, market, money and material. The trade routes through the Indo-Pacific, the South China Sea and the Pacific need to be integrated for better exchanges. This will need a comprehensive arrangement among the two groupings on maritime security and commitment towards rules-based order and for securing the international law regime.

The free movements and joint war exercises programmes between the two groupings is also doable.The National Security Advisors (NSA) of all the nations of ASEAN & BIMSTEC can annually meet over a joint plan of action. India, as a lead in the region, must take the training and equipping partnership extending up to joint production of arms. Some of these nations need to be equipped with access-denial, no-access techniques of physical security from encroachment at the borders as well. The landlocked member countries are heavily dependent on their neighbours to conduct trade and commerce with the rest of the world. For the BIMSTEC, the Bay of Bengal is at the mouth of the strategic Malacca Strait which is very important for countries of the region.

Integration steps for BIMSTEC-ASEAN-Indo Pacific

Through the Seas:

The Sagarmala project needs to be expanded throughout the Indian Ocean and beyond till the Indo-Pacific region. While we cannot afford a blue water navy to act as the net security provider, stretching from the Gulf to the Pacific, we can certainly have a green paper control all over the region. The economic and security apparatus would need to work hand in hand. The role of India in the region is destined to substantially rise in the coming decades. The naval powers of the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean need to work in tandem, be it joint exercises, maintenance of freedom of navigation or ensuring seamless transit routes for trade through ports and the seas. There is also a strategic importance where the member countries operating in the ocean can have observatories to exploration cooperation possibilities within ASEAN & BIMSTEC.

There should be Annual Summits of the chiefs of forces of ASEAN & BIMSTEC nations and that of the NSA. These summits can be hosted in India. Srinagar in Jammu & Kashmir perfectly suits as the new summit capital where leaders of ASEAN & BIMSTEC can work out cooperation mechanisms. The armed forces of member nations can be trained and also maintain a strategic force group against maritime and to tackle other allied terrorism incidents for swift joint action with minimal approval ladders, wherever needed. The port projects of all the ASEAN-BIMSTEC nations can be explored for development under a structured common benefits program, for security as well as trade purposes. The inland water routes of the member nations can be connected to their own as well as to other countries’ ports via easy transit mechanisms. The need for a committed water-sharing agreement with China will be a common minimum need as an area of interest among many members of the two groupings. The fresh water river flows are a consistent necessity for this century in the region. The imminent threats on Taiwan and Hong Kong from the Chinese CommunistParty is a cause of serious concern for South-east Asia. This is where there can be a lot of synergy in defence cooperation.

Through the Roads:

India’s north-east can become a common gateway for the entire ASEAN & BIMSTEC community for trade and people to people exchange as well. The region can take the shape of a model evolved better than the European Union grouping. There is a good chance of US dollar losing prominence as a reserved currency in the world by the end of this decade. A seamless transactional connectivity of some kind of a common currency or reference index for exchange rate for cross border trade and beyond the region is a future possibility to effectively work on. The construction of strategic roadways connecting the entire South-east Asia with India is beneficial. The progress and development opportunities like tourism, manufacturing, handicrafts, food and lifestyle exchanges is immense. The connectivity mechanisms would also need to cover the security considerations in and around the borders of ASEAN & BIMSTEC nations to make the potential of benefits consistent and wholesome for the entire region. The road connectivity is the easiest method of allowing people to people exchanges, be it social, cultural, economic or religious. The potential border issues of all countries neighbouring China should be a big part of joint mechanism agenda as well. The borders with China cannot be finalised until the water flows are agreed and settled with China[i]. Hence, this connect of ASEAN+BIMSTEC with the Indo-Pacific is going to be the most consequential alliance of this century.

Annual festivals like food festivals, trans-national touring, film carnivals and sports events and cultural extravaganzas can be planned throughout the region. The long-pending security sensitivities can be accommodated like for example the chicken neck problem of India can be solved with Bangladesh by free-entry and exit corridor in its northern zone. The rebel and Maoist or insurgency troubles can be jointly handled through a joint security mechanism. Similarly, there can be Indo-Pacific joint action group which can initiate use of force for actions immediately against agreed upon challenges of anti-national and anti-social groups.

Through Dharma:

The ancient geographical expanse of knowledge influence is re-emerging for the Indian subcontinent which is destined to sit back on the economic throne again by 2047. With one of the youngest population sizes in the world, it is obvious that the ageing nations will pour their money in our economy. India has arrived on the global stage and will fill in not just the economic leadership but as a leader in guiding the world in living a life based on values. The values which the world is yearning for after facing profits and consumption-oriented format on one side to freebies, exploitation and control-oriented format on the other. It is time India works in its neighbourhood first policy on putting up the option of Dharma in the world full of religions and groupism cults. The bottom-up control of Dharma based life can solve the sustainability to climate change issues, social, and family structure issues to global terrorism as well.

The extended neighbourhood of ASEAN, BIMSTEC and the Indo-Pacific is the first area of influence that India needs to explore. The four native Dharmas of India – Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism needs to be explained to the countries of the World, especially in terms of how they are in complete contrast with the other religions. It is the knowledge of ancient wisdom which makes a country a global leader and a regional mentor to smaller countries and the extended neighbourhood.

The Jammu belt of India in the Indus and Ganga basins gave two Dharmas each, whereas the Jerusalem belt of Israel gave two religions to the world. The Gulf will be the melting pot where the four Indian dharmas will meet the two Abrahamic religions in the future. On this side where ASEAN – BIMSTEC meets the Indo-Pacific, the cultural roots already have the basic connect with the Indian subcontinent. What needs to be explored further here is an acknowledgement about how Dharmas differ from religions and the sharing of the wisdom of yoga, ayurveda and mandirs concept. The awakening in the region back to its primary source of knowledge is important to the revival and bouncing back from the colonial effects faced by this region.

The option of Dharmas to connect the entire region to its source[ii]

The Indian Dharmas are all about individual seeking of liberation. The seeking is for the individual to decide based on his own interpretations, exploration and spiritual capacities. On the contrary, religion is a set of organised system based on beliefs in a God or Gods which clearly rejects existence of any other Gods or Dharmas and aims at conversion of people and takeover of geographies, often with a blanket separation of treatment between believers and non-believers. It comes from the “Aadesh” philosophy of strict commandments to define whether someone is a believer or not.

The Dharmas come from the “Updesh” philosophy of recommendations. The four Indian Dharmas are all encompassing, living, non-living and the entire universe. You can tell the Dharma of water and that of fire. You can’t spell out their religions. Temple is a place of worship. There is no concept of God-follower worship in the Indian Dharmas. We do not have the concept of God-fearing life. The Dharmas talk about karma-fearing life. Mandir is different from temples. Man+dir is a place where you elevate your inner-self. Mandirs have been university campuses, centres for feeding prasad-food to the people, centres of art, research, medicine and so on. The viharas between ancient mandirs were student-faculty exchange and research programs. Each mandir has several different kinds of objectives based on the supreme values represented by which Bhagwaan’s pran-pratishtha is done.

Prayer and worship are not pooja, anushthaan, yagya or aarti. The word prayer has its root origin from asking material things and asking forgiveness of the sins and in many cases, crimes. Prayer can be done anywhere in a temple, in front of a teacher or in a court of law and so on. Pooja, Anushthaan, Yagya and Aarti are completely different from prayer or worship. The Indian Dharmas are about seeking spirituality and individual liberation. One cannot ask for material things or waiving off of criminal acts as an allowable behaviour directly from the religion. There cannot be another parallel governance format led by religions along with the modern nation-state elected polity.

 

Indian Dharmas point out that the element of supreme is within each of us and everywhere. Indian Dharmas do not come from the “God-follower” concept of worship. Idol is not Murti. What we Indians do in the Mandirs is not idol worship. Murti is completely different. Murti is an embodied physical representation of the Bhagwaans for seeking and invoking the divine principle they represent.

Hence, the connect between ASEAN, BIMSTEC and the Indo-Pacific has several avenues of opportunities as all of these are closely connected with the Indian civilisation for centuries. And the river which forgets its source, disappears.

Author Brief Bio: Ankit Shah is aConsultant and Indian Subcontinent foreign policy & security analyst.

References:

  1. Shah Ankit, India-China border settlement is a 10 nations project, https://www.pgurus.com/india-china-border-settlement-is-a-10-nations-project/ (2020)
  2. Shah Ankit, Is Constitution for religion and not for dharma? https://www.sundayguardianlive.com/opinion/constitution-religion-not-dharma (2022)
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