Neighbourhood first: India's big diplomatic outreach at PM Modi's swearing-in ceremony
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will take office on May 30 with foreign dignitaries of a major regional bloc, the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) and heads of governments of Mauritius and Kyrgyzstan, attending the swearing-in ceremony on Thursday evening.
In a carefully calibrated diplomatic move by inviting a host of foreign dignitaries, India has managed highlight India's "neighbourhood first" policy and also emphasise India's outreach towards Central Asian nations.
By inviting Mauritius and choosing Maldives as his first destination for a foreign tour, Prime Minister Modi has sent a strong message to Pakistan that India's neighbourhood policy for now does not include Islamabad.
Maldives, Afghanistan and Pakistan are the only SAARC nations that are not part of BIMSTEC. Maldives has been covered and Afghanistan, a traditional partner of India, knows that the historic relations between the two nations would continue, leaving out Pakistan to introspect on the cost of inaction against terrorism.
Ever since the terror attacks of 2015, India has been signalling towards strengthening other regional blocs such as BIMSTEC instead of working within SAARC (South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation) that has not seen any momentum with Pakistan refusing to act against terror networks operating from its soil.
India's focus has shifted from SAARC to BIMSTEC in a major way in the Modi administration. Prime Minister Modi had hosted an outreach summit with BIMSTEC leaders on the sidelines the BRICS summit in Goa in 2016.
However, BIMSTEC cannot and should not be treated as a rebound regional bloc only focussed upon when SAARC seems to be failing. It is an important regional bloc that should grow irrespective of the existence and growth of SAARC.
Importance of the BIMSTEC
BIMSTEC is an important group of seven countries - Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan - in the South Asia and Southeast Asia region.
With one-fifth (around 1.5 billion people) of the world's population living here, the Bay of Bengal region has a combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of over $2.5 trillion. With one-fourth of the world's traded goods crossing the Bay of Bengal every year and with massive untapped resources, the region has the potential of becoming a force to reckon with.
BIMSTEC is also working as a bridge between South and Southeast Asia with countries from SAARC and ASEAN being part of the grouping.
Neighbourhood First Policy
The fact that India has invited Mauritius along with BIMSTEC points towards India's emphasis on the importance of its neighbourhood first policy. Even as invitations were sent out, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said, "Government of India has invited the leaders of the BIMSTEC member states for the swearing-in ceremony. This is in line with Government's focus on its 'Neighbourhood First' policy."
The addition of Mauritius was crucial to further Modi administration's plans for the region to create a secure maritime front. The statement also read, "The President of the Kyrgyz Republic, who is the current Chair of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the Prime Minister of Mauritius, who was the Chief Guest at this year's Pravasi Bhartiya Divas, have also been invited".
India's Central Asia Outreach
India is planning to hold an India-Central Asia summit-level meeting on the sidelines of the SCO summit to be held in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan around mid-June. To make India's Central Asia outreach a success, invitation has been extended to President of the Kyrgyz Republic, who is currently the chair of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
Originally a Eurasian grouping, which had China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan as its members, later included India and Pakistan in the Astana summit of 2017.
India intends to tap into an entire region that is very critically placed in its geo-strategic position and is a wealth of natural resources. The forum also has an important body to fight terrorism, Regional Anti-terrorism Structure (RATS), which is where India would want the region to focus its energies on to combat terrorism in the region.
India will hold no bilateral meetings after the swearing-in ceremony with Myanmar and Thailand since the President of Myanmar is flying back the same night and the special envoy of Thailand will also be leaving in the wee hours of May 31.
May 31 will see some hectic diplomacy where PM Modi will engage the leaders of BIMSTEC, Mauritius and Kyrgyzstan.
Bilateral with Bangladesh
Bangladesh is being represented by President Abdul Hamid since Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is on a four-nation tour. She was unable to attend PM Modi's swearing-in even in 2014 when SAARC leaders were attending PM Modi's oath-taking.
India and Bangladesh share a very strong relationship which did see some strains because of the Rohingya issue. India has assisted Bangladesh in providing aid to the refugees who are in Bangladesh.
When the two leaders meet, there would be discussion on security cooperation, connectivity, how to enhance cooperation in all aspects and also how to tackle the issue of Rohingya crisis.
Bilateral with Sri Lanka
President Maithripala Sirisena is visiting New Delhi after the dastardly terror attack that the country witnessed on Easter Sunday. India has been sharing intelligence and cooperation in investigations with Sri Lankan authorities. An NIA team is in Colombo to help with the investigations.
In the meeting between the two leaders, while all aspects of ties will be discussed, the issue of security cooperation and threat of rising Islamic terrorism would hold key importance during the talks.
Bilateral with Nepal
There are many aspects of economic cooperation and infrastructure projects that would be covered during the talks between the two Prime Ministers. There could be a visit to Kathmandu by Prime Minister Modi in the coming months.
Bilateral with Bhutan
With a new government in place in Thimphu, Prime Minister Modi and Bhutan PM Lotay Tshering will discuss ways to enhance cooperation. Invitation would be extended to PM Modi to visit Bhutan. Prime Minister Modi is expected to visit Bhutan soon. He was supposed to go there in 2018 to celebrate 50 years of establishment of diplomatic ties between the two nations, which did not materialise. Bhutan would be top on the list of Modi's travels plans.
During the tough standoff at the military tri-junction of Doklam between India, Bhutan and China, Thimphu stood by New Delhi.