Context:

  • The foreign ministers of BIMSTEC (the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) held their 17th meeting on April 1.
  • While most multilateral groupings from G20 to ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) held their deliberations at the highest political level in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, BIMSTEC leaders failed to do so.

Relevance:

GS-II: International Relations (Important International Groupings, Foreign Policies and conferences affecting India’s Interests)

Mains Questions:

In the context of BIMSTEC, how significant is the grouping and what are the several obstacles it has to overcome? (10 Marks)

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. About BIMSTEC
  2. Significance of BIMSTEC
  3. Challenges faced by BIMSTEC
  4. Conclusion

About BIMSTEC

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:

  1. Bangladesh
  2. Bhutan
  3. India
  4. Nepal
  5. Sri Lanka
  6. Myanmar (South-east Asia)
  7. Thailand (South-east Asia)
  • Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand are the member states dependent on the Bay of Bengal.
  • 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.
  • Fourteen priority sectors of cooperation have been identified and several BIMSTEC centres have been established to focus on those sectors.
  • The permanent secretariat of the BIMSTEC is in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

History of Formation

  • In 1997, a new sub-regional grouping was formed in Bangkok under the name BIST-EC (Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand Economic Cooperation).
  • Following the inclusion of Myanmar on 22 December 1997 during a special Ministerial Meeting in Bangkok, the Group was renamed ‘BIMST-EC’ (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation).
  • In 2004, at the first Summit the grouping was renamed as BIMSTEC or the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation.

There are 14 main sectors of BIMSTEC along technological and economic cooperation among south Asian and southeast Asian countries along the coast of the Bay of Bengal.

  1. Trade & Investment
  2. Transport & Communication
  3. Energy
  4. Tourism
  5. Technology
  6. Fisheries
  7. Agriculture
  8. Public Health
  9. Poverty Alleviation
  10. Counter-Terrorism & Transnational Crime
  11. Environment & Disaster Management
  12. People-to-People Contact
  13. Cultural Cooperation
  14. Climate Change

The BIMSTEC uses the alphabetical order for the Chairmanship which has been taken in rotation commencing with Bangladesh (1997–1999).

Significance of BIMSTEC

  • BIMSTEC acts as a platform for intra-regional cooperation between SAARC and ASEAN members.
  • Around one-fourth of the world’s traded goods cross the Bay of Bengal every year.

Important Connectivity Projects related to BIMSTEC

  1. Kaladan Multimodal Project – links India and Myanmar.
  2. Asian Trilateral Highway – connecting India and Thailand through Myanmar.
  3. Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicles Agreement – for seamless flow of passenger and cargo traffic.

Strategic Significance for India

Enables India to pursue three core policies:

  1. Neighbourhood First- primacy to the country’s immediate periphery;
  2. Act East- connect India with Southeast Asia; and
  3. Economic development of India’s North Eastern states- by linking them to the Bay of Bengal region via Bangladesh and Myanmar.
  • India has moved from Look East Policy to Act East Policy and Indo Pacific cooperation through its diaspora, culture and connectivity. This has led to India’s goodwill in the region.
  • 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.
  • Physical connectivity with BIMSTEC would also help India integrate itself with ASEAN’s Master Plan of Connectivity 2025.
  • A new platform for India to engage with its neighbours with South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) becoming dysfunctional because of differences between India and Pakistan.
  • BIMSTEC suddenly received special attention as New Delhi chose to treat it as a more practical instrument for regional cooperation over a faltering SAARC.

Challenges faced by BIMSTEC

  • The goal now should be to overcome the 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 trajectory of India-Nepal, India-Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh-Myanmar ties in recent years. Bangladesh is facing one of the worst refugee crises of Rohingyas from Myanmar who are fleeing prosecution in the state of Rakhine in Myanmar. There is also a border conflict between Myanmar and Thailand.
  • 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. A renowned Bangladeshi scholar argued at a recent conference that BIMSTEC would make progress if China is accepted as its principal interlocutor and partner. This perspective has hardly any takers in India and its friendly partners in the grouping.
  • 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. Despite them, the BIMSTEC foreign ministers could meet virtually — but will it be as easy for the summit to be held, with the much-maligned Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing in attendance at Colombo?
  • BIMSTEC planned to hold summits every two years, ministerial meetings every year, but only four summits have taken place in 20 years up to 2018.
    • In fact, BIMSTEC received special attention as New Delhi chose to treat it as a more practical instrument for regional cooperation over a faltering SAARC.
    • Most multilateral groupings from G20 to ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) held their deliberations at the highest political level even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, BIMSTEC leaders failed to do so.
  • BIMSTEC FTA was negotiated in 2004, talks on it are yet to be concluded.
    • The BIMSTEC Free Trade Area Framework Agreement (BFTAFA) has been signed by all member nations to stimulate trade and investment in the parties, and attract outsiders to trade with and invest in the BIMSTEC countries at a higher level.
    • A January 2018 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.
    • Ideally it should cover trade in goods, services and investment; promote regulatory harmonisation; adopt policies that develop regional value chains; and eliminate non-tariff barriers.
  • 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.

Conclusion

As BIMSTEC readies itself to celebrate the silver jubilee of its formation in 2022, the grouping needs to reinvent itself and 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.

-Source: The Hindu

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