What stagnates regionalism in the Bay of Bengal region?

Apr 26, 2022 08:25 PM IST

The asymmetry in the region, the divergance in national security and regional security, along with extra-regional actors complicate the making of a political and security community

The recently-concluded Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) summit generated some fresh enthusiasm for regionalism in South Asia. Alongside the charter, several key agreements, ranging from technology transfer to connectivity, were signed. These are notable advancements for the 25-year-old initiative which has managed to achieve very little despite a lot of promise and potential. Mostly seen as a rebound of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), BIMSTEC’s record stands at an unimpressive total of five summits in 25 years, an insignificant operational budget and an understaffed secretariat built 8 years ago. What stagnates regionalism around the Bay of Bengal?

BIMSTEC’s record stands at an unimpressive total of five summits in 25 years, an insignificant operational budget and an understaffed secretariat built 8 years ago. (ANI/PIB) PREMIUM
BIMSTEC’s record stands at an unimpressive total of five summits in 25 years, an insignificant operational budget and an understaffed secretariat built 8 years ago. (ANI/PIB)

Regions do not naturally occur, and neither does regionalism. Politically, regions are created by states that can develop mental maps to forge communities around them. The making of such a community is either on political, financial, or social factors where states can structure orders beyond the level of the nation-State. States might come together when they have a common security threat or a risk. They may either converge based on shared financial gains of a market. Regionalism may also evolve due to shared markers of social and cultural links. In this case, even though the Bay of Bengal region has become significant due to the rise of the littoral States and the Chinese headway, regionalism is stagnated because of several fault-lines within these three possible shared markers.

Take the case of a security or a political community. While glaring security issues such as India-Pakistan in the SAARC are absent, the BIMSTEC States do not mutually share security concerns. There are broadly three aspects: 

First, the nature of asymmetry in the region makes security elusive as a shared concept. In such security asymmetries, the bigger power, in this case, India, remains apprehensive of the smaller states ganging up. The smaller States are dependent on the bigger power, but they are also insecure enough to avail opportunities from extra-regional powers when needed. 

For instance, smaller States in South Asia balance India’s position by bringing in China. On the flip side, bigger States tend to use bilateralism over multilateralism to gain an upper hand rather than getting entangled in norms of equity. 

Second, national security and regional security do not necessarily converge. Despite the lack of major wars, the region has been plagued by insurgent activities and low-intensity conflict which has only tightened the borders. The insurgency issues across India’s Northeast overlapping with Myanmar and Bangladesh, Sri Lanka’s civil war, and the case of the Rohingya refugees stretching Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Thailand are recurring security issues. 

Finally, extra-regional actors further complicate the making of a security community. For instance, China is perceived as a competitor by India, but a partner by several States within the region.

Despite the promise of economic development, the region remains one of the least economically integrated regions in the world. Ruptured connectivity and broken linkages do not serve the pre-requisites of a good market. The Cold War history is replete with the inward-looking economic policies like import substitution that made the countries apprehensive about intra-regional trade.

Despite the post-globalisation optimism about trade, two reasons explain why the Bay of Bengal community does not share a market bond. Similar to political asymmetry, the first concern is economic asymmetry. Smaller States are apprehensive about their markets being flooded by the bigger State. Ambitious Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) remain on paper. Relatively weaker economies look for a level-playing field, while the stronger economies go by the logic of profit. India’s approach during the RCEP negotiations is indicative of the problems of a regional market consensus in the postcolonial world. 

Second, the economic logic has remained subservient to the political diktats in the region. Unlike the impression of liberalisation undoing the state borders and reducing its autonomy, the state structures economic behaviour. Excessive formalisation, bureaucratic hurdles and red-tapism have only multiplied with bad connectivity.

The community in the region is stuck in the crossfire of hard borders, nationalism, and citizenship. The most prominently told story of the Bay of Bengal region is its history of migration that completely changed post-decolonisation. The region had a wide-ranging circular migration network between the subcontinent and Southeast Asia during the colonial period.

Communities carried cultural imprints through religion, language, and kinship ties that went beyond the present constitution of state borders. Partition and decolonisation changed the composition of this region along with the principle of territorial citizenship. The project of otherisation broke the back of the community. Cross-border movements became securitised and continuing insurgencies made the gaze of the State even tougher. What was previously a region of mobile communities became a space of hard-bordered States for whom breach of borders was threatening.

These constraints do not necessarily mean that all elements and ingredients of regionalism are missing. If one may look beyond the borders, the elements are either latent or have been regulated and illegalised by the States. Consider the case of a fourth variable that can tie the region apart from politics, the market. and society — the environment. The climate crisis can be a shared security risk for the States, but is not treated as an issue of “high” politics. Throughout the region, informal trade and migration are regular realities but they are often within the fold of illegality. These elements remind us that the region has its connections despite the states and not because of them. 

So far, the States have spoken about the region, but acted only as States. It is unlikely that states would cease to be the central actors. However, unless they accommodate some shared markers beyond the elements that separate them and meet the community halfway, regionalism would only have promise and no impact.

Udayan Das is an assistant professor, department of political science, St Xavier’s College, Kolkata

The views expressed are personal

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