The latest India-Japan 2+2 Foreign and Defence Ministerial Dialogue in September reiterated the two partners’ commitment to greater regional cooperation and integration in the Indo-Pacific. The 2+2 meetings are intended to provide “strategic guidance” to boost India-Japan ties, which were upgraded to Special Strategic and Global Partnership in 2014 by Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe. The change in Japan’s leadership to Fumio Kishida in 2021 only strengthened their common strategic vision, and they have pointedly worked to forge a deep, broad-based, action-oriented political, economic, and strategic partnership with long-term regional and global agendas despite occasional setbacks.
This reinvigorated partnership revolves especially around the Bay of Bengal, the north-eastern part of the Indian Ocean linking strategic choke points, particularly because China is making significant inroads in this “strategic hub” (both overland and maritime). At the same time, although China’s rising influence is a motivating factor, also as a systemic challenge, the two Indo-Pacific partners’ have bigger ambitions: despite the economic and political instability looming large in the post-pandemic era, both Japan and India strive to improve regional integration and establish mechanisms that not only bolster their respective global ambitions but also foster inclusive multipolarity.
Thus, the India-led Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC, established in 1997 and comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand), which has been given new vigour recently, is a unique opportunity for India and Japan to fulfil their universal values-based common goals. Notably, the forum recognizes the interlinking of diverse Asian identities in the region (South Asia and Southeast Asia including both mountainous and littoral states) – showcasing strategic convergence and immense potential for regional integration. Will Japan seize upon this opportunity and establish an institutional partnership with BIMSTEC? Will this alliance help reduce China’s growing maritime and multilateral linkages?
A strategic tool at a time of insecurity
At the latest BIMSTEC summit in March, Indian Prime Minister Modi expressed aversion towards the current “instability” in Europe ignited by the Russia-Ukraine war, which has weakened the international order and impacted the politics and economics of the Indo-Pacific. In his view, the region is in urgent need of more security cooperation. The political and economic crisis undergoing in Sri Lanka, the throes of violent military rule in Myanmar, and China’s renewed militarist assertiveness in the Taiwan Strait have in fact hampered the security of the regional sea lines of communication. In this new scenario, strengthening both cooperation as well as security in the Bay of Bengal region has never been so urgent. The revitalization of BIMSTEC in its 25th year is a proactive stepin this direction and the adoption of its Charter will help internationalize its goals.
In addition, the members have agreed to overhaul and expand the organization’s cooperation initiatives. The activities are divided into seven separate sectors (or pillars), including trade, investment & development; security; environment & climate change; agriculture & food security; people-to-people contact; science, technology & innovation; and connectivity, with each member state heading one pillar. As for now, New Delhi leads the security sector and contributes through USD1 million to the BIMSTEC Secretariat, setting the stage for a renewed leadership role in the coming years.
This will help India to consolidate its evolving security strategy within an increasingly competitive Indian Ocean, where the country is a key player alongside France and the US and against the backdrop of an expansionist China. As India’s strategic partners, such as Japan and the European Union (EU), are looking to enhance their presence and involvement in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), the time is ripe for BIMSTEC to make good on its expanded scope amid India’s keenness to bring together like-minded partnerships for developmental, trade, and security purposes.
Japan-BIMSTEC – Ideating a Strategic Partnership
The potential for deeper cross-sectoral engagement is particularly enticing to Japan because of its long-standing official development assistance as well as inclusive economic and strategic relations with BIMSTEC member countries. For years, Japan has been involved in infrastructure projects in India, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, while maritime cooperation has also recently evolved.
Cooperation with Japan can be most effective in the following (interconnected) areas: humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, technology, health security, climate action, economic & energy security (including supply chain resilience), maritime security, and digital & infrastructure connectivity. Naturally, economic engagement will allow Japan — which is looking for diversification opportunities — to reduce dependence on China, enhance market access, and foster economic growth in a financially weak and disintegrated region.
The fifth summit will likely give new momentum to the sluggish BIMSTEC free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations – the framework agreement was signed in 2004, especially after India decided to move forward with multiple FTAs with several partners, including the United Arab Emirates and the European Union, opting out of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework’s trade pillar. The finalization of the BIMSTEC FTA could renew the debate on the possibilities for a BIMSTEC-Japan FTA, a long-desired proposal.
As regards connectivity, Tokyo could participate through the working groups. As the BIMSTEC Master Plan for Transport Connectivity has been adopted this year, there is scope for cooperation via the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Japan could also enhance or interlink cooperation through its Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (BIG-B) initiative. Further, India and Japan, as dialogue partners of the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN), can build on the association’s growing centrality to all Indo-Pacific visions by incorporating the bloc into their regional integration goals through BIMSTEC. This would be possible also thanks to Japan’s efforts in north-eastern India, considered the “gateway” to East and Southeast Asia. Finally, the Japan-India Act East Forum can synergize developmental projects to accommodate the free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) and Act East Policy. For example, the Dhubri-Phulbari Bridge will create a corridor stretching all the way from Bhutan, through Assam and Meghalaya, to Bangladesh.
Thus, Japan’s new security aims, increasingly tense relations with China, growing bonhomie with India, and global power projection intent will only benefit by joining this forum. On the other hand, Japan’s current global profile as a credible partner is the perfect foil for BIMSTEC when it comes to regaining lost opportunities and creating new growth frontiers.
A response to Chinese ambition
Besides cooperation and integration, BIMSTEC’s strategic centrality as an Indian Ocean hub makes it a vital foreign policy tool to consolidate India’s inclusive vision of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) and Indo-Pacific Oceans’ Initiative (IPOI), which are aligned with Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy. Although, traditionally, BIMSTEC has focused on dealing with non-traditional security challenges like terrorism, piracy, illegal fishing, and environmental concerns, the growing push from China to fund infrastructure and connectivity projects has changed the rules of the game. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) covers all member states except for India and Bhutan, enabling China’s access to the Indian Ocean and compelling BIMSTEC to widen its security ambit.
Moreover, China has been exerting maritime influence over the Indo-Pacific Region in a bid to secure its interests in the crucial Malacca Straits – through which about 80 percent of Chinese crude imports pass, which could be blocked for geopolitical purposes by rival countries. Notably, the Bay of Bengal not only offers China energy resources, but is also central to avoiding the so-called “Malacca dilemma” (e.g., the China-Myanmar Kyaukpyu deep-sea port would provide an alternative route).
After the economic meltdown in Sri Lanka, critics also accused China of adopting a so-called “debt-trap diplomacy” in the region, affirming that debtors may be forced to hand over national territory or make steep concessions if they can’t repay their loans. China might have emerged as a stronger creditor of Sri Lanka, yet Beijing has so far showed a disinclination to provide debt-relief measures. A Chinese vessel’s recent stopover in Hambantota port, which is on a 99 year-long lease to China, exemplifies India’s persistent fears of Chinese infrastructure being used as military bases in the Indian Ocean.
Against this background, India and Japan’s common endeavour would be to capitalize on the gaps in Chinese rhetoric and manoeuvres by pushing forth their own sustainable developmental agenda (e.g. by supporting Sri Lanka’s debt restructuring). For this reason, India has upheld Myanmar’s BIMSTEC membership despite the US protests and China’s closeness to the military junta.
Finally, the growing stress on joint naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal and the latest 2+2 dialogue’s maritime security cooperation are aimed at emphasizing freedom of navigation in the maritime zone. Cooperation with ASEAN to boost the prospects of the South China Sea Code of Conduct negotiations would also further the BIMSTEC agenda.
Undoubtedly, a strategic collaboration with extra-sub-regional powers, such as Japan, will signal a step towards organizing the IOR under an Indian umbrella. China could interpret this as a threat to its mission to coalesce developing and emerging economies under its own banner through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, AIIB and BRICS. So far, China sees BIMSTEC as a fledgling attempt at bridging South Asian and Southeast Asian states, which are in varying degrees cooperating with China. Any concrete change in the dynamics will be met with Beijing’s opposition as well as, consequently, by smaller BIMSTEC states wary of geopolitical complications. The advantage with Japan as partner is that it not only recognizes such dilemmas but also endorses a regional model based on democratic and resilient partnerships.
Dr. Jagannath Panda is the Head of Stockholm Centre for South Asian and Indo-Pacific Affairs (SCSA-IPA) at the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Sweden. He is also a Senior Fellow at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies and Director for Europe-Asia Research Cooperation for the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies (YCAPS), Japan.