NEW DELHI -- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi heads to Nepal on Thursday to meet leaders of a bloc that straddles southern Asia for a summit that's being held in the shadow of China's rapidly expanding regional influence.
The seven-nation grouping, known as BIMSTEC, comprises Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Myanmar, Thailand, and Sri Lanka.
Improved trade and connectivity in the bloc -- home to 1.6 billion people and with a combined gross domestic product of $2.8 trillion -- have the potential to help India counter Beijing's massive Belt and Road initiative of infrastructure investments that stretches across Asia through to Europe.
Preeti Saran, a secretary of India's Ministry of External Affairs, said last week that the bloc has made progress since its last meeting in Goa in 2016 in areas from security to transport, tourism, environment and energy. She said that member states are discussing a free trade area and a deal on customs cooperation.
Some connectivity projects are already underway. A highway linking India, Myanmar and Thailand is expected to be completed next year. Complementing this is the Kaladan multimodal transport project that will connect the eastern Indian seaport of Kolkata with Sittwe in Myanmar.
Pankaj Jha, a professor of defense and strategic studies at O.P. Jindal Global University, said that BIMSTEC, when combined with the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor -- an economic cooperation agreement between India, Japan and a group of African nations -- forms an ocean arch around China.
"If integrated, it creates a unique low-cost production hub which would be very good countervailing to any Chinese initiative with regard to BRI, particularly in trade and manufacturing," Jha said.
Jha added that the so-called Quad countries -- Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. -- would engage with both BIMSTEC and the 10-nation Association of South East Asian Nations to enhance their profile in the resource-rich Indo-Pacific region.
The two-day summit will be the fourth BIMSTEC meeting since its inception in Bangkok in 1997.
On the 20th anniversary of the bloc's establishment, Modi said last year that it not only connects South and Southeast Asia, "but also the ecologies of the Great Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal."