Invitation extended to Central Asia
By inviting leaders from the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) countries, Kyrgyz Republic and Mauritius at his swearing-in ceremony on May 30, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made a carefully calibrated diplomatic move that signals a major outreach to India’s neighbourhood from the Bay of Bengal to Central Asia, as well as the Indian diaspora across the world.

Pakistan left out
Last time, Modi had invited the SAARC leaders, and then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s attendance had raised hopes of a new beginning in the bilateral ties. This time, SAARC’s exclusion is clearly aimed at keeping Pakistan out of New Delhi’s engagement with its neighbours.

Who are invited for PM Modi swearing-in, and why
By inviting the leader from Kyrgyz Republic, India is displaying an outreach to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which is headed by the Kyrgyz leader, and which has China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Pakistan as members. India, which became a member along with Pakistan in 2017, wants to leverage its membership to advance its strategic objectives — counter-terrorism and connectivity.

And Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, who was also the chief guest at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in January this year, is one of the most well-placed People of Indian Origin in the world. Since Modi has invested diplomatic capital in outreach to the Indian diaspora since 2014, this invite is seen as a natural choice.

The key message, however, is the outreach to BIMSTEC, which includes Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan, besides India.

While PM’s SAARC effort last time failed to take off owing to strained ties with Pakistan, much will depend on the progress Delhi makes with these groupings.

New Delhi’s engagement with BIMSTEC rose from the ashes of SAARC. In October 2016, following the Uri attack, India gave a renewed push for the grouping that had existed for almost two decades but been largely ignored. Alongside the BRICS summit in Goa, Modi hosted an outreach summit with BIMSTEC leaders.

That September, some of these BIMSTEC countries had supported New Delhi’s call for a boycott of the SAARC summit scheduled in Islamabad in November 2016. As the summit was postponed, India had claimed victory in isolating Pakistan, having accused that country of carrying out the Uri attack.

Two years after the BRICS-BIMSTEC outreach summit and the BIMSTEC leaders’ retreat, the fourth BIMSTEC summit was held in Kathmandu in September 2018. The outcome was considered quite comprehensive, spanning from blue economy to counter-terrorism, although it was only the fourth summit in 21 years.

Why the region matters
The Bay of Bengal is the largest bay in the world. Over one-fifth (22%) of the world’s population live in the seven countries around it, and they have a combined GDP close to $2.7 trillion.

The Bay also has vast untapped natural resources. One-fourth of the world’s traded goods cross the Bay every year.

In an effort to integrate the region, the grouping was formed in 1997, originally with Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand, and later included Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan. BIMSTEC, which now includes five countries from South Asia and two from ASEAN, is a bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia. It includes all the major countries of South Asia, except Maldives, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Phuket in Thailand is only 273 nautical miles from Indira Point, which is less than the distance between Chennai and Madurai.

India’s stake
1. Association with BIMSTEC can give sea and land connectivity to landlocked North East of India.

2. From the strategic perspective, the Bay of Bengal, a funnel to the Malacca straits, has emerged a key theatre for an increasingly assertive China in maintaining its access route to the Indian Ocean. Beijing has undertaken massive drive to finance and develop infrastructure in South and Southeast Asia through the Belt and Road Initiative in almost all BIMSTEC countries, except Bhutan and India.