BIMSTEC as counter to SAARC

Introduction

  1. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was established with the signing of the SAARC Charter in Dhaka on 8 December 1985.
  2. The Secretariat of the Association was set up in Kathmandu on 17 January 1987.
  3. The objectives of the Association as outlined in the SAARC Charter are: to promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and to improve their quality of life; to accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural d
  4. evelopment in the region and to provide all individuals the opportunity to live in dignity and to realize their full potentials; to promote and strengthen collective self-reliance among the countries of south Asia.

BIMSTEC

  1. The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is a regional organization comprising seven Member States lying in the littoral and adjacent areas of the Bay of Bengal constituting a contiguous regional unity. This sub-regional organization came into being on 6 June 1997 through the Bangkok Declaration.
  2. The regional group constitutes a bridge between South and South East Asia and represents a reinforcement of relations among these countries.
  3. BIMSTEC has also established a platform for intra-regional cooperation between SAARC and ASEAN members. The BIMSTEC region is home to around 1.5 billion people which constitute around 22% of the global population with a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of 2.7 trillion economy. In the last five years, BIMSTEC Member States have been able to sustain an average 6.5% economic growth trajectory despite global financial meltdown.

Analysis

Recent developments

  1. Indian protest: India expressed inability to participate in the Islamabad SAARC summit due to “prevailing circumstances” and stepped up diplomatic pressure on Pakistan after the September 18 attack on the military base in Uri.
  2. Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan followed India’s decision to stay away from the November summit to be held in Islamabad.
  3. India and other countries cited “cross-border terrorist attacks in the region” as a reason for boycotting the summit.
  4. Outreach to BIMSTECH During the 8th BRICS summit, One of the biggest highlights among them was the BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach Summit, where the BRICS leaders met the heads of government of the BIMSTEC countries.
  5. India chose BIMSTEC over any other regional grouping is indicative of the importance New Delhi attaches to the Bay of Bengal region.
  6. The recent move to club BIMSTEC Division with SAARC in the external affairs ministry indicates the focus on strengthening BIMSTEC amid Pakistan’s continued intransigence in blocking key anti-terror and connectivity initiatives under  the SAARC.

Achievements of SAARC

  1. Over the last 25 years, despite extremely difficult political circumstances, SAARC has managed to create situations, institutions and forums where Heads of State have had to shake each other’s’ hands and go into talks together.
  2. SAARC has tackled important topics for the region such as a social charter, development agreements and even the sensitive subject of fighting terrorism.
  3. The food and development banks, Agreement on Transportation, Energy are important steps in the right direction.
  4. Exchanges in the areas of civil society and science have become one of the pillars of South Asian integration efforts.

SAARC Failures

  1. The intra-regional trade of SAARC amounted to $40.5 billion in 2011, which constitutes just 5% of member countries’ trade. The number pales into insignificance when compared with the volume of trilateral trade between member-countries of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, (the US, Canada and Mexico) which hit $1 trillion in 2011.
  2. No economic integration: while different regions of the world have progressed even to monetary union, SAARC has failed to even come up with a free trade agreement.
  3. Attitude of Pakistan has been blocking connectivity initiatives such as SAARC Motor Vehicles Agreement and SAARC Railways Agreement, and refusing to cooperate on combating cross-border terrorism

Reasons for failure

  1. Conflict between India and Pakistan: Rivalry between India and Pakistan, the two largest members of SAARC, has hovered hugely on SAARC. The rivalry continues to restrain SAARC from functioning as a sub-regional organization.
  2. Indian Foreign Policy actions – 1971 war, Indo-Sri Lanka Accord continue to haunt the neighbouring countries. India has not forcefully articulated South Asian Vision; even the progressive ideas like the Gujral Doctrine have not been implemented on ground.
  3. Unresolved Border and Maritime Issues The region is still beset with many unresolved border and maritime issues. These unresolved borders have led to problems of Terrorism, Refugee Crisis, Smuggling, Narco-Trade. The unresolved issues continue to mar cooperative relations.
  4. Failure in resolving bilateral issues:SAARC Charter Article X(2) of the SAARC Charter mandates that decisions, at all levels in SAARC, are only of multilateral issues, and only those issues are for inclusion in the agenda in a SAARC summit meeting on the basis of unanimity. The SAARC platform thus cannot be used to resolve bilateral issues; this has undermined the scope and potential of SAARC

Why BIMSTEC is Important

  1. Core policy goal – Delhi needs to get Islamabad-Rawalpindi to drop its support for terror groups who conduct strikes and attacks on Indian installations as well as civilian lives
  2. For India, making BIMSTEC work is important as for years; it has blamed Pakistan for holding back SAARC. As the biggest member of BIMSTEC, it’s up to India to take all members with it and show tangible results.
  3. BIMSTEC more naturally lends itself to regional integration—physical connectivity as well as economic cooperation—than SAARC which is dominated by India and Pakistan and hamstrung by tensions between the two. Therefore, BIMSTEC seems an attractive alternative to SAARC.
  4. Economic stability: In the last five years, BIMSTEC member states have been able to sustain an average 6.5 percent economic growth rate despite the global financial slowdown.
  5. Natural resources: The BIMSTEC region has a huge amount of untapped natural, water, and human resources, from hydropower potential in the Himalayan basin to hydrocarbons in the Bay of Bengal.
  6. Connectivity: BIMSTEC has at last three major projects that, when finished, could transform the movement of goods and vehicles through the countries in the grouping.
  7. One is the Kaladan Multimodal project that seeks to link India and Myanmar. Another is the Asian Trilateral Highway connecting India and Thailand through Myanmar. The highway will run from Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar and represents a significant step in establishing connectivity between India and Southeast Asian countries.
  8. Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) have signed a pact for the movement of goods and vehicles among them.
  9. With five countries that also belong to SAARC and two that belong to ASEAN, BIMSTEC can serve as the bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia. With the lifting of sanctions on Myanmar and a democratic government at its helm, the country can particularly play this bridging role.
  10. BIMSTEC also lends itself to sub-regional economic cooperation—something proposed by India and other member countries of SAARC.

Conclusion

  1. BIMSTEC indeed has huge potential to emerge as a grouping that can accelerate the process of regional integration, security cooperation, and inclusive growth in this region.
  2. For India in particular, BIMSTEC can be a pivot to the Act East Policy. Through enhanced cross-border connectivity and interlinkages, India’s northeast region can take centre stage as the gateway to South East Asia.
  3. India as the biggest country in the BIMSTEC is giving special attention to the grouping in the 20th year of its creation. The grouping, which does not include Pakistan, could serve as an alternative to the SAARC to give countries in South Asia a new direction