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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 46 New Delhi November 5, 2016

Wake up, India! BIMSTEC is a Reverie

Monday 7 November 2016, by M K Bhadrakumar

This piece was written some days ago. It is being belatedly published as its contents retain their validity.

Dhaka is throbbing with excitement as the day draws close for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Bangladesh on Friday (October 14). Not only because this is the first visit by a Chinese head of state in 30 years—Li Xiannian visited it in 1986—and Xi himself is making a second visit in the past six years, but legend says Xi unfailingly carries gifts—and big ones at that. The gift Xi brought to Pakistan last year was the mother of all gifts that modern history knows—worth $ 46 billion, almost four times the Marshall Plan—and Bangladesh hopes for a matching gift.

There is talk it could be a matching gift worth $ 40 billion. The gossip seems plausible, because China sees big potential in boosting trade and investments with Bangladesh. The political ties are excellent and Bangladesh has an open-door policy to welcome Chinese business. There is a consensus in Bangladesh amongst the country’s political elites cutting across parties regarding the strategic imperatives of keeping close ties with China—not only in intrinsic terms but also as a means to balance the ‘Big Brother’ that is India who could be overbearing at times.

Two special economic zones—Munshiganj and Chittagong—are being prepared exclusively for Chinese investments in the manufacturing sector. As production costs go up in China, it is profitable for Chinese companies to relocate business in Bangladesh, which has plentiful and cheap labour. Textile industry seems a lead sector that Bangladesh is promoting, even as China is vacating from the low-end apparel sector.

China holds close to 40 per cent of the $ 455 billion global market for apparel products. Last year Bangladesh earned $ 28 billion in apparel exports. It hopes to touch $ 50 billion in the next five years—but with Chinese investments it now aspires to be the top ready-made garment exporter in the world, overtaking even China! Chinese companies, of course, hope to exploit Bangladesh’s ‘quota’ for the EU and North America by exporting from Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is a fascinating country for its intellectual resources and it does think big. And the economy is growing at somewhere between six to seven per cent. Another potential area for Chinese investments is in the infrastructure sector. Again, Bangladesh aspires to be the leading sub-regional trading hub, and connectivity becomes top priority.

So, what is the big picture we are getting this weekend? For a start, by next week this time our pundits may look somewhat foolish in their assumption that Bangladesh is desperate for India’s leadership to scuttle the SAARC and lead a purposive sub-regional grouping with Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Get real, folks. The geopolitical reality is that in the field of economy and defence, China is firmly ensconced as Bangladesh’s irreplaceable partner. Again, with or without Indian participation, Bangladesh is bent on developing connectivity with Yunnan.

The ground reality is that Dhaka and Beijing are working on big ideas to build and improve regional connectivity. From the Chinese pers-pective, like Pakistan, Bangladesh is ideally placed in terms of its geographical location for the Silk Road projects. If the CPEC is a lifeline for Xinjiang’s development, a similar corridor through Bangla-desh is just what China’s relatively less-deve-loped southern regions need to reach the markets of Nepal and Bhutan—and beyond. (Bangladesh already has in place trade and transit agree-ments with Nepal, Bhutan and India.)

A good case can be made for India to jettison its allergy toward the One Belt One Road and instead seriously apply itself to developing the so-called K2K route (Kunming-Ruili-Bhamo-Lashio-Mandalay-Tamu-Imphal-Sylhet-Dhaka-Kolkata). In fact, the most appropriate ‘outreach’ at the forthcoming BRICS summit in Goa— aside SAARC, of course—would have been the BCIM (Bangla-desh-China-India-Myanmar) forum. But then, we probably settled for the pompous-sounding BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), which is an insipid forum, because that is the only conceivable way to keep out China and Pakistan.

Regional groupings built on such zero-sum mindset in the era of globalisation have limited future. Regional groupings thrive only if they are willing to be inclusive. The so-called ‘Bay of Bengal regionalism’ can never mean that Sri Lanka or Bangladesh or Myanmar or Thailand would be willing to forego their cooperation with China for the sake of bonhomie with India in a seaside resort facing the Indian Ocean. Simply put, China happens to be much more meaningful and tangible as a partner country from their point of view than what BIMSTEC can ever hope to offer them even with the best Indian ingenuity. That is the geopolitical reality. How long can India pretend to beat its ineffectual wings in the void in vain?

Sheikh Hasina will be coming to Goa for the BIMSTEC Outreach after launching her country’s “closer comprehensive cooperation” with China and putting it into a historic new trajectory. Aren’t we in India living in some reverie, fancying we’re hearing the Bay of Bengal’s ‘glad tidings’? There is actually no such thing. (The Indian Express)

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).