by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.
In September 2018, joint military exercises were held near Pune, India under the auspices of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). These exercises were unusual in that defence cooperation is not one of the fourteen priority areas for cooperation identified by the seven member states (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand). Although counter-terrorism and transnational crime are included as one of the organization’s less-developed priorities, successive meetings of BIMSTEC National Security Chiefs have focused almost exclusively on “soft” approaches to counter-terrorism, including intelligence sharing, de-radicalization programs, and joint investigations into money laundering schemes that could be used to finance terror.
The push to hold these exercises and add a more explicit defence component to BIMSTEC’s work reportedly came from India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But why? With India marking 10 years since the Mumbai terrorist attacks, which led to the deaths of at least 174 people, and general elections expected in April or May of 2019, Modi is eager to remind the Indian public of the improvements to the security situation since he came to power in 2014. Adding BIMSTEC to India’s security toolbox plays somewhat to this domestic political considerations. Another explanation lies in the growing narrative around the idea of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” advanced by the United States under President Donald Trump. By spearheading defence cooperation in BIMSTEC, India may be trying to reassert its own geopolitical agency, as some Indian government officials and strategic thinkers have increasingly expressed concern that the US sees India only as a proxy in its rivalry with China.No matter India’s motivation to push for these exercises, the effort seems to have back-fired. Just a week after hosting BIMSTEC’s annual summit in Kathmandu, the Nepalese government announced that it was withdrawing its participation from the exercises and would only send three military personnel as observers. Then, on September 17th, Nepal initiated a 10-day joint exercise with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) near Chengdu, China – just one day after BIMSTEC concluded its own exercises near Pune. Nepal has long been the subject of a geopolitical tug-of-war between China and India, even escalating to the point that, in 2015, a fuel blockade was instituted by India to protest what seen as growing Nepalese alignment with China. That Nepal, presented with a clear choice between participating in Indian or Chinese-led war games, chose China over India is indicative of the level of influence India is now able to exert over its northeastern neighbour.
Thailand also abstained, though this decision was conveyed to the other BIMSTEC member states well in advance and it was attributed to budgetary considerations. Had the Indian side planned the exercises prior to the start of the 2018-2019 fiscal year, it might well have been possible for the Thai Ministry of Defence to budget accordingly. As such, while it may have been politically embarrassing for Prime Minister Modi that both Nepal and Thailand opted not to join the exercise, few conclusions can be derived from this as to where Thailand stands in the rivalry between China and India.
The small-scale of the Pune exercise also undermines the credibility of BIMSTEC as a tool for regional defence cooperation. Each of the five participating countries sent only an infantry platoon, comprised of 30-40 soldiers. The most advanced equipment in the exercise consisted of a few Indian Army Mi-17 helicopters, used to practice helicopter insertions as part of hostage rescue operations. By way of comparison, joint counter-terrorism exercises organized by the PLA and Tajikistan in October 2016 simulated combined arms operations and involved more than 10,000 soldiers. Substantially greater outreach and military resources will be necessary if Indian policymakers are serious about taking BIMSTEC in this direction.
As a confidence- and security-building mechanism (CSBM) among the participating countries, however, the exercise delivered some value. After all, armed conflicts have emerged in recent years between some BIMSTEC members. For example, in 2001, a clash between Bangladeshi and Indian border guards led to the deaths of 19 people and the displacement of thousands of others. In 2006, heavy gunfire was again exchanged across sections of the India-Bangladesh border but no casualties were reported (Supriya Singh, “Bangladesh in 2006: Teetering Political Edifice and Democracy“, IPCS Special Report, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, March 2007, p. 7f). Tensions have persisted on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border since 2000, exacerbated by the activities of militant groups based in Myanmar, such as the Arakan Army. Troops from Thailand and Myanmar would also benefit from the opportunity to train alongside one another, given the history of tensions on their shared border as well.
As the leading military power in the Bay of Bengal region, the future of this initiative will depend on the degree to which India is committed to its success. For the peace and stability of India’s neighbourhood, it would be worth a more deliberate effort.