India calls for more cooperation in grouping of South and South-east Asian states

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (centre) with his counterparts at the 5th Bimstec Summit in New Delhi on March 30, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW DELHI - India on Wednesday (March 30) pushed for greater regional cooperation and agreed to take the lead on security matters at a summit of South and South-east Asian leaders where an invitation to the Myanmar junta's top diplomat had stoked some controversy.

"The recent developments in Europe have raised questions about the stability of the international order," said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the leaders' summit of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec).

"In this context, it has become a greater priority to have regional cooperation."

The grouping consists of littoral states dependent on the Bay of Bengal, comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

Officials said India would take charge of matters related to the "security pillar", which includes maritime security.

The summit was chaired by Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, with Myanmar represented by Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin.

The inclusion of the foreign minister at the meeting had raised eyebrows, particularly against the backdrop of Asean deciding to invite only non-political representatives from Myanmar following the coup last year.

Ties between Asean and Myanmar remain strained as the junta has been slow in implementing Asean's Five-Point Consensus peace plan aimed at an immediate cessation of violence.

Indian online news portal The Wire even reported that the United States protested the summit invitation to Myanmar, and urged New Delhi to follow the Asean model of permitting only "non-political" involvement.

New Delhi, which has been keen to push Bimstec as the core regional grouping in an effort to fortify its presence in the region, defended the invitation.

Mr Rudrendra Tandon, a senior diplomat in the Ministry of External Affairs, said: "Bimstec is a multilateral... regional cooperation platform and the aim is to focus on economic and development cooperation to do activities that genuinely deliver value to people.

"We require all countries to be present and participate... Myanmar is an important constituent member of Bimstec and it has a very important geography."

Mr Modi has focused on Bimstec instead of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), which had once aspired to reach Asean's status but remains a non-starter due to the rivalry between India and Pakistan, which is not part of Bimstec.

New Delhi has been seeking to put momentum in the grouping, with Mr Modi yesterday pledging US$1 million (S$1.35 million) to the grouping's budget and highlighting the need for a coastal shipping ecosystem among the members.

He also pitched the idea of a free trade agreement for the grouping.

The main development at the summit, New Delhi said, was the adoption of a charter for Bimstec, formed in 1997.

The summit also saw the announcement of a Master Plan for Transport Connectivity among the countries.

Analysts said it remained to be seen how the grouping would evolve, but noted that it would remain a challenge to bring together all the countries with varied interests, including in their approach to China.

For India, the grouping also assumes importance particularly in maritime security amid the growing presence of China in the region.

South Asia expert S.D. Muni said: "If Bimstec had to become a strong regional organisation by now, it would have done so.

"It can't be an alternative regional organisation in our immediate neighbourhood and replace Saarc."

He noted that the countries, particularly Thailand and Myanmar, would remain extremely cautious on any issue related to China.

On Myanmar's participation, Dr Muni said it had become an issue due to the West.

"It is a factor in the sense that the West has made it (to be one). There is Western pressure not to do anything and send the message that the Myanmar regime is being legitimised.

"Myanmar is an issue in the Indo-Pacific because it is linked to global fault lines."

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