- Recently, the foreign ministers of BIMSTEC (the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) met virtually.
- Also, the External Affairs Minister of India participated in the 17th Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) Ministerial Meeting.
- They advanced the agenda, which had been arrested by the pandemic, since the last ministerial meeting held in August 2018.
- Their major task was to pave the way for the next summit, the grouping’s fifth, due to be held in Sri Lanka in the “next few months”.
- This virtual meeting led to the finalization of ‘Connectivity Master Plan’ for Bay of Bengal Region.
- They endorsed the rationalization of sectors and sub-sectors of activity, with each member-state serving as a lead for the assigned areas of special interest.
- The ministers also conveyed their support for the Master Plan for Transport Connectivity, which will be adopted at the next summit in Sri Lanka.
- Preparations have been completed for the signing of three agreements relating to mutual legal assistance in criminal matters, cooperation between diplomatic academies, and the establishment of a technology transfer facility.
- While most multilateral groupings from G20 to SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) held their deliberations at the highest political level amid COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, BIMSTEC leaders failed to do so.
- BIMSTEC could not even arrange its ministerial meeting until April 2021 whereas meeting of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) leaders held at India’s initiative a year ago.
Missing from recent deliberations
- Recent deliberations lack a reference to the progress on the trade and economic dossier.
- A study by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry had suggested that BIMSTEC urgently needed a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement to be a real game changer. It should:
- cover trade in goods,
- services and investment;
- promote regulatory harmonisation;
- adopt policies that develop regional value chains;
- eliminate non-tariff barriers.
- Also, it lacked an effort to enthuse and engage the vibrant business communities of the seven countries, and expand their dialogue, interactions and transactions.
- Thus, BIMSTEC still remains a work in progress.
- Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief and security, including counter terrorism, cyber security, and coastal security cooperation.
- India has led through constant focus and follow-up — to the extent that some member-states have complained about the ‘over-securitisation’ of BIMSTEC.
- While national business chambers are yet to be optimally engaged with the BIMSTEC project, the academic and strategic community has shown ample enthusiasm through the BIMSTEC Network of Policy Think Tanks and other fora.
Obstacles leading to BIMSTEC’s success
- A strong BIMSTEC presupposes cordial and tension-free bilateral relations among all its member-states. This has not been the case, given the course of India-Nepal, India-Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh-Myanmar ties in recent years.
- Uncertainties over SAARC hovers, complicating matters. Both Kathmandu and Colombo want the SAARC summit revived, even as they cooperate within BIMSTEC, with diluted zeal.
- China’s decisive intrusion in the South-Southeast Asian space has cast dark shadows.
- The military coup in Myanmar, brutal crackdown of protesters and continuation of popular resistance resulting in a protracted impasse have produced a new set of challenges.
- Established as a grouping of four nations — India, Thailand, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka — through the Bangkok Declaration of 1997 to promote rapid economic development, BIMSTEC was expanded later to include three more countries — Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan.
- It moved at a leisurely pace during its first 20 years with only three summits held and a record of modest achievements.
- But it suddenly received special attention as New Delhi chose to treat it as a more practical instrument for regional cooperation over a faltering SAARC.
- The BIMSTEC Leaders’ Retreat, followed by their Outreach Summit with the BRICS leaders in Goa in October 2016, drew considerable international limelight to the low-profile regional grouping. This also opened up the path for its rejuvenation.
- The fourth leaders’ summit, held in Kathmandu in August 2018, devised an ambitious plan for institutional reform and renewal that would encompass economic and security cooperation.
- It took the important decision to craft a charter to provide BIMSTEC with a more formal and stronger foundation. The shared goal now is to head towards “a Peaceful, Prosperous and Sustainable Bay of Bengal Region”.
- At the second swearing-in of the Prime Minister of India, in May 2019, the leaders of BIMSTEC, not SAARC, were invited as honoured guests. Soon thereafter, External Affairs Minister observed that India saw a mix of “energy, mindset and possibility” in BIMSTEC.
- As BIMSTEC readies itself to celebrate the silver jubilee of its formation next year, it faces a serious challenge: to effect “a paradigm-shift in raising the level of our cooperation and regional integration”
- The grouping needs to reinvent itself, possibly even rename itself as ‘The Bay of Bengal Community’. It should consider holding regular annual summits. Only then will its leaders convince the region about their strong commitment to the new vision they have for this unique platform linking South Asia and Southeast Asia.
Back to Basics
- The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation(BIMSTEC) is an international organisation of seven nations of South Asia and Southeast Asia.
- On 1997, a new sub-regional grouping was formed in Bangkok under the name BIST-EC (Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand Economic Cooperation).
- Its members lie in the littoral and adjacent areas of the Bay of Bengal constituting a contiguous regional unity.
- BIMSTEC not only connects South and Southeast Asia, but also the ecologies of the Great Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal.
- It mainly aims to create an enabling environment for rapid economic development; accelerate social progress; and promote collaboration on matters of common interest in the region.
- This sub-regional organization came into being in 1997 through the Bangkok Declaration.
- Initially, it was formed with four Member States with the acronym ‘BIST-EC’(Bangladesh, India, Sri-Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation).
- It became renamed ‘BIMST-EC’in 1997, following the inclusion of Myanmar.
- With the admission of Nepal and Bhutan in 2004, the name of the grouping was changed to ‘Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation’ (BIMSTEC).
Member Nations (MBBS NIT)
- Though BIMSTEC is a Bay of Bengal camp, two land-locked states — Nepal and Bhutan — are also part of the seven member-group. Five of them are from South Asia — India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka — and two from South East Asia — Myanmar and Thailand.
- Leadership is rotated in alphabetical order of country names.
- The permanent secretariat is in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
- The BIMSTEC Permanent Secretariatat Dhaka was opened in 2014 and India contributes 33% of its expenditure.
- Creating an enabling environment for the rapid economic development of the sub-region.
- Encouraging the spirit of equality and partnership.
- Promoting active collaboration and mutual assistance in the areas of common interests of the member countries
- Accelerating support for each other in the fields of education, science, and technology, etc.
- Sovereign Equality
- Territorial Integrity
- Political Independence
- No-interference in Internal Affairs
- Peaceful Co- existence
- Mutual Benefit
- Constitute an addition to and not be a substitute for bilateral, regional or multilateral cooperation involving the Member States.
- Bridge between South and South East Asiaand represents a reinforcement of relations among these countries.
- Platform for intra-regional cooperation between SAARC and ASEAN
- Home to around 5 billion people that constitute around 22% of the global population.
- With a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of 2.7 trillion economy, BIMSTEC Member States have been able to sustain an average 5% economic growth trajectory in the last five years.
- The Bay of Bengal is the route for about 25% of global trade.
Important Connectivity Projects:
- Kaladan Multimodal Project – links India and Myanmar.
- Asian Trilateral Highway – connecting India and Thailand through Myanmar.
- Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicles Agreement – for seamless flow of passenger and cargo traffic.
- BIMSTEC Summit –highest policymaking body in BIMSTEC process and is comprised of heads of state/government of member states.
- Ministerial Meeting –second apex policy-making forum of BIMSTEC attended by the External/Foreign Ministers of Member States.
- Senior Officials’ Meeting –represented by Senior Officials of Foreign Ministries of the Member States.
- BIMSTEC Working Group –attended by Ambassadors of BIMSTEC Member Countries to Bangladesh or their representatives on a monthly basis at the BIMSTEC Secretariat in Dhaka.
- Business Forum & Economic Forum –the two important forums to ensure active participation of private sector.
India and BIMSTEC
Allows India to pursue three core policies:
- Neighborhood First – primacy to the country’s immediate periphery;
- Act East – connect India with Southeast Asia; and
- Economic development of India’s northeastern states – by linking them to the Bay of Bengal region via Bangladesh and Myanmar.
- Allows India to counter China’s creeping influence in countries around the Bay of Bengal due to the spread of its Belt and Road Initiative.
- A new platform for India to engage with its neighbors with South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) becoming dysfunctional because of differences between India and Pakistan.
- PM of India has referred BIMSTEC as a natural platformfor fulfilling our key foreign policy priorities of ‘Neighborhood First’ and ‘Act East, as it connects not only South and Southeast Asia, but also the ecologies of the Great Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal.
- BIMSTEC engagement is completely in consonance with the SAGAR Initiativesobjective of increasing connectivity and development in North eastern states of India.
- Lack of human and financial resource.
- The focus of BIMSTEC is very wide, including 14 areas of cooperation like connectivity, public health, agriculture etc.
- BIMSTEC planned to hold summits every two years, ministerial meetings every year, but only four summits have taken place in 20 years.
- Lack of good infrastructurehas acted as barrier to trade by raising cost and time.
- Underlying aspirations of Chinato be part of BIMSTEC, on the same lines as it harnesses a desire to be a permanent part of SAARC groupings, further aggravates the problem.
- Bilateral Issues between Member Nations
- The lack of critical support strong and clear political commitment, adequate financial resources, full engagement of business and industry, and optimal involvement of civil society.
- BIMSTEC Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was negotiated in 2004, talks on it are yet to be concluded.
- Should hold meetings more frequently. Concentrate on advancing a constructive approach to connectivity.
- Strive to help keep the waters of the Bay of Bengal open, free, and peaceful, by seeking to show how to manage them as a regional common.
- Encourage its member states to embrace maritime multilateralism. Promote the region as an integrated tourism area.
- Contribute to regional mechanisms for the peaceful settlement of disputes, for example on borders and fisheries, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS)
- Must be prepared to help address bilateral tensions
- Develop an internal dialogue on the role of democracy in promoting economic development, security, and stability among its member states.
- Needs a leader-India (as the region’s most powerful country) will have to step up, invest resources, and sustain interest in the Bay of Bengal’s leading institution.
- Should consider declaring the bay a blue economic zone. Help its members coordinate their national efforts to monitor the environment.
- Recently, a piece of news came out that the Charter of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical & Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) has been finalized for 23 years of its inception. This is major developing news of international relations and geopolitics, especially for the South Asia & South East Asia regions.
What the Charter Says
There are 14 priority areas for cooperation and each country takes the lead in specific areas:
- Bangladesh will be the lead country for trade and investment, under the rationalization of the sectors,
- Bhutan for environment and climate change,
- India on security including counter-terrorism, transnational crime and energy,
- Myanmar on agriculture and food security,
- Nepal for people-to-people contact including culture, tourism,
- Sri Lanka for science, technology, and innovation, and
- Thailand on connectivity.
- The Charter is due to be signed in the fifth Summit of heads of states and governments of the seven-member states, scheduled for January next year
Back to Basics
BIMSTEC And India
BIMSTEC is also an important regional organization as we look forward to India’s foreign policy’s perspective. The significance of this organization is essential.
- Experts put that it will provide momentum to India’s attempts at achieving its Act East policy goals. Therefore, it’s important to fulfil India’s key foreign policy priorities of ‘Neighborhood First’ and ‘Act East.’
- It is also said that economic engagement with BIMSTEC states will restrict Chinese influence in these countries.
- BIMSTEC connects South and Southeast Asia and the ecologies of the Great Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal.
- It also creates connectivity and easy access to the people, who live in landlocked North-Eastern states, will have the opportunity to connect via the Bay of Bengal to Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand, opening up possibilities’ development.
- A new platform for India to engage with its neighbours and connect to Southeast Asia.
- The organization is a bridge between SAARC and ASEAN nations, where India has played a key role in accessing both the region.
What Is BIMSTEC?
- The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is an effort to integrate the region set up in June 1997 through the Bangkok declaration.
- It was originally with India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Thailand, and later included Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan.
- BIMSTEC now consists of five countries from South Asia and two from ASEAN, which becomes a bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia.
- The organization consists of seven members lying in the littoral & adjacent areas of the Bay of Bengal, constituting a contagious regional unity.