The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is a sector-driven cooperative sub-regional organization of seven countries i.e. Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand that lie in the littoral and adjacent regions of the Bay of Bengal. It came into existence on June 6, 1997, through the Bangkok Declaration.
What this grouping means in numbers?
The BIMSTEC region is home to around 1.5 billion people which make up for around 22% of the world’s population. The region has a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of $2.8 trillion
BIMSTEC= SAARC- (Pakistan, Maldives and Afghanistan) + (Thailand and Myanmar)
Founding principles of the BIMSTEC
The cooperation within BIMSTEC will be based on respect for the principle of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, political independence, non-interference in internal affairs, peaceful co-existence and mutual benefit. This cooperation within BIMSTEC will constitute an addition to, and not be a substitute for, bilateral, regional or multilateral cooperation involving the member states.
Priority sectors of the BIMSTEC grouping
Seven members of BIMSTEC have so far identified 14 priority sectors. Each country leads one or more areas in a voluntary manner. India leads two — counter-terrorism and transnational crime, telecommunication and transport. But there has been a view that the proliferation of commitments didn’t yield tangible results over the past two decades and the regional grouping should trim its list of priorities.
India’s interest in the grouping
The BIMSTEC is a bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia. The two Southeast Asian countries in the grouping, Myanmar and Thailand, have a crucial place for India’s ambitious connectivity plans for northeastern region. Myanmar is only Southeast Asian country India has a land boundary with. An India-Myanmar-Thailand highway is one of the key projects that figures in a big way in the government’s Act East (earlier Look East) policy. With the India-Pakistan bickering coming in way of a smooth functioning of the Saarc, groupings such as BIMSTEC can take forward the concept of regional cooperation in a different manner.
- A key factor is the stagnation of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.
- At the SAARC Summit in Kathmandu, in 2014, India proposed the SAARC Motor Vehicles Agreement.
- This could not progress due to resistance from Pakistan.
- This compelled Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal (BBIN) to sign the BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement in 2015.
- Pakistan also opted out of the ambitious SAARC Satellite project proposed by India.
- This led to a change in its name to the South Asia Satellite.
- SAARC’s stagnation has limited the scope of India’s growing economic aspirations.
- It has also restricted the role it could play in improving regional governance.
- These have driven India to reach out to its BIMSTEC neighbours as a viable alternative.
- But India has not stopped from revitalising the SAARC grouping when opportunities emerged.
- India’s interest in BIMSTEC is also seen as part of its strategy to isolate Pakistan.
- BIMSTEC has emerged as a key vehicle to take forward India’s regional, strategic and economic interests.
- It is in India’s interests to ensure that the region does not lag behind.
- BIMSTEC would be instrumental in ensuring that an unstable neighbourhood (Pakistan) does not impede growth.
- India’s desire to link South Asia to the economically dynamic Southeast Asia is also part of this strategy.
- It reassures South Asia that the region can work together, with India playing its due role.
Issues with BIMSTEC
- Lack of human and financial resources: BIMSTEC suffers from a lack of human and financial resources.
- India needs to allocate more resources to its BIMSTEC budget and should take an informal leadership role to provide BIMSTEC with momentum.
- India is currently the largest contributor to the BIMSTEC secretariat budget.
- Supremacy: India would have to counter the impression that BIMSTEC is an India dominated bloc, in that context India can follow the Gujral doctrine that intends to chalk out the effect transactionary motive in bilateral relations.
- Connectivity is a major issue among BIMSTEC nations. ○ North Eastern states are of utmost importance in deepening connectivity among BIMSTEC nations, but Siliguri corridor that (chicken neck) provides a very narrow passage for movement, obstructs the connectivity.
- Underdevelopment of North Eastern states in terms of infrastructure and connectivity will also be a major hurdle.
- Underlying aspirations of China to 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.
- Regional Instability in the form of Rohingya crisis and other intra and interstate issues can hamper the efficient and effective functioning of the grouping.
- 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 has been the principal constraint in BIMSTEC.
- BCIM: The formation of another sub-regional initiative, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Forum, with the proactive membership of China, has created more doubts about the exclusive potential of BIMSTEC.
- Policy Initiatives: BIMSTEC needs lots of policy initiatives from its members both at national and international level, especially from its leading partners India and Thailand for the cooperation to make tangible benefits.
- Political commitments: India cannot blame Pakistan alone for SAARC’s underperformance, hence strong political commitments from its informal leader are desirable. ○ India’s own intransigence on issues, deep suspicion that its neighbors were “ganging up” against it, and its tendency to be a bit of a bullying brother to them eroded South Asian countries’ confidence in India. ○ India should not repeat these mistakes in engaging BIMSTEC.
- Economic Interdependence: In order to harness the potential of BIMSTEC steps like ○ Signing Free Trade Agreements in goods and services.
- Improving physical and digital connectivity by building ports, economic corridors etc need to be taken.
- Innovative solutions: Like construction of Buddhist circuit by connecting the buddhist nations especially Myanmar, Thailand, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka will contribute in deepening the cultural ties among the BIMSTEC nations.
- Institutional Mechanism: Like BIMSTEC Summit, Ministerial Meeting, Senior Officials Meeting, BIMSTEC Working Group, Business Forum & Economic Forum within BIMSTEC must be utilised as an active forum for bringing more cooperation and coordination among the BIMSTEC members.
- BIMSTEC Principles: Like Sovereignty, Equality, Territorial Integrity,Political Independence, No-interference in Internal Affairs, Peaceful Coexistence, Mutual Benefit must not be violated at any cost in order to avoid SAARC like situation.
- The future of BIMSTEC stands in strong technical and economic cooperation. The focus and synergies in one direction will allow the group objectives to be fulfilled. If all countries work to focus, it will be at an advantage to all countries and that should be the way forward.