BIMSTEC at 20

  • by IAS Score

Context

  • On June 06, 2017 the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) completed 20 years of its establishment. Comprising of Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan, BIMSTEC is home to 1.5 billion people, accounting for approximately 21 per cent of the world population, and a combined GDP of US$ 2.5 trillion.

Brief background about BIMSTEC

  • Initially known as the Bangladesh-India-Sri Lanka-Thailand Economic Cooperation (BIST-EC), it was formed after representatives from the aforesaid four countries met at Bangkok in June 1997.
  • With Myanmar joining the grouping as a full member in December the same year, the ‘BIST-EC’ was renamed as ‘BIMST-EC’.
  • In February 2004, when Nepal and Bhutan too joined, the grouping was renamed as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation or BIMSTEC.
  • According to the June 1997 ‘Declaration on the BIST-EC’, also known as the Bangkok Declaration.
  • Objectives of the sub-regional initiative were:
  • Creating an enabling environment for 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.
  • It took 17 long years for BIMSTEC to finally establish its permanent secretariat in Dhaka in 2014
  • BIMSTEC has signed a Free Trade Agreement (2004) and a Convention on Cooperation in Combating International Terrorism, Transnational Organised Crime and Illicit Drug Trafficking (2009).
  • BIMSTEC summits:
  1. First in Thailand in 2004.
  2. Second in India in 2008.
  3. Third in Myanmar in 2014.
  4. The fourth summit meeting is expected to take place later this year (2017) in Nepal, the current Chair of BIMSTEC.

Significance

  • For India, BIMSTEC act as another opportunity, besides the ASEAN, to engage with Southeast Asia, at least partially. The scope for direct connectivity with Southeast Asia via Northeast India and Myanmar, counter-terrorism and anti-insurgency cooperation with Myanmar and other members, potential access to alternative energy resources in Myanmar as well as economic opportunities available in the ASEAN region.
  • Besides India, other members too considered it as an important mechanism to achieve their national goals and regional aspirations.
  • Myanmar became a member at a time when the junta in the country was facing serious international criticism.
  • Thailand was looking for an opportunity to enhance its trade and connectivity with the South Asian countries under the ambit of its ‘Look West’ policy. So, in a way, India’s ‘Look East’ and Thailand’s ‘Look West’ policy complemented each other within the ambit of BIMSTEC.
  • Sri Lanka considered BIMSTEC as an opportunity to engage with the economically booming Southeast Asian countries.
  • For the land-blocked countries like Nepal and Bhutan, BIMSTEC holds the prospect of enhancing their connectivity with the rest of the region.
  • The ongoing India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and the India-Myanmar Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project are expected to further augment connectivity and economic cooperation in the sub-region and beyond.

Challenges

Though largely devoid of bilateral tensions, as is the case in SAARC, BIMSTEC does not seem to have made much progress. The so-called sluggishness in BIMSTEC last two decades is attributed to many factors:

  • India, the largest member of the grouping, has often been criticised for not providing a strong leadership to BIMSTEC.
  • Both Thailand and Myanmar are criticised for having ignored BIMSTEC in favour of ASEAN.
  • Absence of a permanent secretariat for a long time and lack of commitment to invest in several priority areas identified by the member states were seen as some of the key institutional factors holding the BIMSTEC back.
  • The ‘noodle bowl effect’ of regionalism too was at work as formation of another sub-regional initiative, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Forum, with the proactive membership of China, created more doubts about the exclusive potential of BIMSTEC.

Renewed Interest

  • Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his message on the 20th anniversary of the establishment of BIMSTEC, described the sub-regional grouping as “a natural platform” to fulfill India’s “key foreign policy priorities of ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act East’”.
  • Earlier in October 2016, India had hosted the BIMSTEC members at Goa during the BRICS Outreach Summit.
  • The BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach Summit is believed to have given BIMSTEC its due importance by inviting its members to participate in a larger platform comprising five major emerging economies of the world.
  • India is already the lead country for four priority sectors, namely:
  1. Transportation and communication.
  2. Environment and disaster management.
  • Tourism and
  1. Counter-terrorism and trans-national crime.
  • Within few months of the Goa Summit, India hosted the first meeting of the BIMSTEC National Security Chiefs in New Delhi in March 2017.

For BIMSTEC to become an enabler of regional cooperation, it will have to evolve as an organisation that works through a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach. The people-centric approach seems to be the best as BIMSTEC seriously lags behind ASEAN and other regional organisations in terms of people-to-people contacts. Since the BIMSTEC region is notable for its diversity, the member states need to build on the regional synergies and work towards utilising the available resources in the most optimal manner. This would help build a stronger and a more dynamic BIMSTEC.