Regionalism has been an important strategic tool in the realm of international relations for uniform growth, across national boundaries and geographic barriers. We have seen the gradual rise of the European Union after the Second World War which had left a trail of devastation. Similarly, there have been efforts of regional institutionalisations in the form of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) in South Asia in the 1980s besides several others.
Many of these regional integration efforts have registered success but there have also been examples of underperformance and Saarc remains one of them. Formed in 1985, the eight-member body (Afghanistan joined it as the eighth member in April 2007) has seen less than 20 summits which speaks volume about its inability to take off despite its member countries pinning high hopes on it.
Saarc was crippled from its very birth
The prime reason behind the Saarc’s failure to deliver has been the India-Pakistan tension while one cannot also overlook the key fact that the feeling of camaraderie in South Asia has remained largely elusive because of historical reasons. The region, which was trifurcated by the colonial masters in the past, has not really succeeded in burying the scars and move on.
However, amid the inertia, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi showed a lot of intent to give his country’s neighbourhood policy a push soon after coming to power in May 2014. His very first international tour as the PM was to Bhutan while his third trip was to Nepal – both landlocked Himalayan neighbours to India’s north that hold much significance as far as India’s ‘neighbours first’ policy is concerned.
PM Modi also showed goodwill vis-à-vis Pakistan by including its former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in the list of high-profile invitees to his oath-taking ceremony. But the goodwill did not last long, thanks to the eternal bickering over Kashmir and within six months, the India-Pakistan stalemate came to haunt the Saarc once again.
At the 18th summit of the body held in Kathmandu, Nepal, the idea to integrate the region through road and rail networks could not be given a shape because Pakistan did not cooperate for it sought more time to arrive at a decision. The actual reason was of course the mutual suspicion which is embossed on the South Asian psyche and has held the regional grouping back for more than three decades.
BBIN MVA was mooted to prove Pakistan is dispensable
It was after the Saarc hit a wall and the motor vehicles agreement (MVA) proposed by India failed to reach its desired goal that the BBIN MVA (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal Motor Vehicles Agreement) received a push. India particularly had a special interest to make the BBIN MVA a reality for the Modi government wanted to show to the world that its ‘neighbourhood first’ policy is delivering as per expectations and also it wanted to cement its bond with the smaller neighbours to deter China’s quest to make inroads in its backyard. And over and above, New Delhi wanted to convey to Islamabad that if required, it could also go ahead with the regional integration plan without the latter.
So far, it was completely on track. The four countries signed the BBIN agreement in Bhutan’s capital Thimpu in June 2015 and it allowed plying of vehicles – passenger and cargo – among them. The proponents of the plan firmly believed that this new concept of sub-regional integration will lead to considerable economic growth and facilitate cultural exchanges between the BBIN countries, making up for the Saarc’s loss on many counts.
The Saarc countries, despite sharing several traits of history and culture, have done very poorly in matters of regional trade (as per the 2015 estimates, intra-Saarc trade was just worth 28-30 billion US dollars a year while the intra trade in Asean in 2014 was as high as over 600 billion US dollars in 2014). Against this backdrop, it was hoped that the BBIN would improve things, not just in matters of trade and business but also through facilitating people-to-people contacts and particularly help India’s northeast which is a landlocked region and has several hindrances on its way towards development. There have also been reports that the BBIN countries could also go for a railway agreement which would mean landlocked countries like Nepal and Bhutan will make tremendous gains through accessing ports in India and Bangladesh.
BBIN MVA faces practical challenges
But the BBIN MVA received a major setback in Bhutan where the Upper House in November last year refused to ratify the agreement. The Lower House had also ratified the agreement in its second sitting earlier in the year which suggests that the Bhutanese are not convinced about the MVA plan.According to them, the massive entry of vehicles from the other three countries would not take much time to ruin the atmosphere of Bhutan, the smallest of the BBIN countries that attaches a lot of values to the concept of national gross happiness which in turn is connected to its ideas of cleaner environment and less socio-economic instability.
Bhutan is also wary of the fact that free movement of vehicles and people could result in entry of disruptive elements that it had flushed out in 2003, back into its territory. For the rulers in Thimpu, this threat perception to its security is not unfounded. The Bhutanese perception about the BBIN project puts PM Modi’s strategic plans under test. New Delhi must ensure that its strategic initiative to corner Pakistan in South Asia and execute a counter plan of networking against China doesn’t eventually alienate traditional allies like Thimpu, especially in the wake of the recent Doklam standoff.
A democratic Bhutan can’t be expected to follow things blindly
With Bhutan’s transition to democracy, one would expect the Himalayan country to gain more voice in matters of public and foreign policy and not remain dependent on India on key decision-making. There are already enough issues (hydropower trade, for example) where the Bhutanese side is not very impressed with India’s actions and it is crucial for the Modi government to see that the BBIN doesn’t aggravate those feelings more.In spirit, the BBIN MVA is a noble idea for it would facilitate economic and cultural exchanges to a great extent. If Saarc has failed to achieve a regional community, schemes like the BBIN are an alternative to reach the goal, in bits and pieces.
Regional integration is key for South Asia
Given South Asia’s geographical set-up, the regional or sub-regional unity can help a lot of the region’s least developed countries overcome physical barriers and do their respective economies a great favour. Currently, India’s trade with its South Asian neighbours is in a very ordinary state (the best ranked neighbour in terms of trade is Sri Lanka and it is a far-from-impressive 30) and even the biggest member can gain if the BBIN project is executed flawlessly for it would reduce the distance to its north-east by a huge margin through Bangladesh, just as landlocked Nepal and Bhutan would find the ports very close. But the problem with South Asian affairs is that there are far too many obstacles for the region to truly achieve uniform standards.
India’s bilateral relations with smaller neighbours key
Apart from infrastructural problems, the suspicion towards India as a big brother seeking dominance has been a perennial impediment for the regional integrity. It is not without a reason that countries like Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives have seen China’s shadow growing longer despite claims made by successive Indian governments of getting closer to the neighbours first. Also, India’s bilateral relations with many of its smaller neighbours have seen episodes of tension from time to time.
Two years ago, Nepal was left fuming over an alleged trade blockade by India over its own constitutional experiments. It was also in that very year that India’s ‘excessive’ action while reaching aid to an earthquake-devastated Nepal did not go do well with the local people and the press. Bangladesh, too, has been a major security concern for India despite the friendly party of Sheikh Hasina in power. The terror connections between Bangladesh and the adjacent Indian state of West Bengal over the past few years, the general hostility towards India by the country’s other political forces and also the lack of solution to the Teesta water-sharing treaty between the two neighbours are serious challenges that New Delhi and Dhaka need to address. As long as Hasina is in power, one would feel things can always better between the two countries but we are not sure if she is not. Can a scheme of sub-regional unity deliver in these conditions?
India’s bilateral relations with its neighbours are more critical for the success of the BBIN MVA since India is the biggest and the only country to share borders with the three other members. It is very important for the Modi government thus to put in extra efforts to address the challenges to the bilateral relations parallelly if it wants the BBIN MVA to succeed.
BBIN has a bigger strategic significance
The BBIN’s significance is not just local. At a time when China has come up with a gigantic Belt and Road Initiative connecting several countries and billions of people, India’s responsibility to put in place a counter connectivity scheme to defend its backyard becomes all the more bigger. Instead of imitating China’s ploy to devise its own world network, New Delhi would do better by putting into place smaller sub-regional networks and connect them to achieve regional and continental networking goals.
Ideating the BBIN MVA deserves appreciation but the task doesn’t finish there. The four countries need to work on several other fronts jointly and if necessary, bring in important changes to the idea of road integration so that every side’s concerns are addressed and a true uniformity is achieved. Regional blocks at various parts of the world are facing challenges of late – be it the European Union, Southern African Development Community or the Mercosur in Latin America – and it’s an occasion for the BBIN to bring the faith back on the effectiveness of such blocks. Can it meet the challenge?