BIMSTEC or the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sector Technical and Economic Cooperation came in the mainstream mainly after Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to invite its leaders for his swearing in ceremony after the 2019 Lok Sabha Victory instead of the SAARC leaders.
Not only did it indicate an exclusion of Pakistan, but it also made strong hints towards India’s Act East policy. The 2020 BIMSTEC Summit is fast approaching and with its growing importance for southeast cooperation in general and India in particular, here is an overview of all that BIMSTEC has done and what more is expected of it:
What is BIMSTEC?
The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sector Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is a South and Southeast Asian regional cooperation grouping consisting of 7 developing countries – Bhutan currently headed by PM Lotay Tshering, Bangladesh headed by PM Sheikh Hasina, Myanmar headed by President Win Myint, Thailand headed by PM Prayut Chan-o-cha, India headed by PM Narendra Modi, Sri Lanka headed by President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Nepal headed by PM Kaghda Prasad Sharma Oli. They are together a house to more than 1.5 billion of the world’s population and have 3.5 trillion dollar Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Its headquarters in Dhaka.
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Origin of BIMSTEC
The origin of BIMSTEC begins with a need for a regional organisation for South and southeast countries looking for cooperation in various sectors, including the environment. Economics and accelerate social progress and development.
The drawbacks of SAARC had become evident to most countries after they realised that taking any major step is difficult due to the lack of political cooperation between all members. Hence, a grouping with a focus on development was on the cards.
This led to the formation of BIST-EC (Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand Economic Cooperation), a new sub regional group consisting of Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand on 6th June 1997. In December of 1997, Myanmar was included and the name changed to BIMST-EC in a special Ministerial meeting in Bangkok.
Nepal became an observer in 1998 before becoming a full-time member along with Bhutan in 2004. The grouping was then renamed BIMSTEC (The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sector Technical and Economic Cooperation).
Principles of BIMSTEC and Areas of Cooperation
BIMSTEC works on the basis of its founding principles are defined during its creation in 1997. They are as follows:
“Cooperation within BIMSTEC will be based on respect for the principle of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, political independence, no-interference in internal affairs, peaceful co-existence, and mutual benefit.
Cooperation within BIMSTEC will constitute an addition to and not be a substitute for bilateral, regional or multilateral cooperation involving the Member States.”
It outlines the basic ideas of international relations such as non-interference, territorial integrity, peaceful co-existence, etc., along with making it clear that the BIMSTEC is an additional effort o improve South Asian cooperation rather than a substitute for other bilateral relations between these states.
The primary areas of cooperation are:
- Trade and Investment
- Transport and communication
After the meeting in Dhaka in 2005, 7 new sectors were added :
- Public Health
- Poverty Alleviation
- Counter terrorism
- Environment and Disaster Management
- People to People Contact
- Cultural cooperation
In the 11th BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting, the 14th area of Climate change was added.
BIMSTEC today is a bridge between South and South-East Asia along with connecting the ecologies of the Bay of Bengal and the Himalayas. The Bay of Bengal is an important outlet for trade, commerce, and exchange of culture for these South East Asian countries with the rest of the world, thus representing the cooperation for development as the basis of this grouping.
The primary and most important objective is to promote multi-sector cooperation for social advancement and economic development of the region.
It acts as a link between the ASEAN and the SAARC to bring a trading volume of total 59 Billion Dollars in the Bay of Bengal region under the free trade area scheme to promote international trade and FDI and FII in the region
The grouping aims to create a setting where rapid economic progress of the sub region is attainable, and the countries can collectively work towards it.
It encourages the democratic principles of equality, partnership and cooperation among members for issues ranging from trade accommodation to people-to-people connections
It promotes collective action and mutual assistance in areas of common interests like peace, trade, and technology and supports each other in endeavors related to the same.
It allows inter-cooperation between SAARC and ASEAN members, thus creating a platform to discuss mutually beneficial issues and come up with solutions and agreements to benefit the Bay of Bengal region in particular.
The countries together constitute 22% of the global population and have been able to maintain an average growth rate of 6.5%, with a fourth of the world’s traded goods crossing the bay every year. Hence such a platform is required to ensure that these potentials are effectively utilised for mutual benefit.
The various inter-country connectivity projects like the Kaladan Multimodal Project and the Asian Trilateral Highway have been possible only because of BIMSTEC. The proposed Free Trade Agreement in the region is expected to materialise by 2020 making it easier for economic integration and promoting foreign investment in the member countries. BIMSTEC has proven itself to be a major player in the upcoming years.
Why is BIMSTEC Important for India?
Since PM Modi’s 2014 victory, focus on South Asia has been an important part of his foreign policy. His invitation to members of SAARC for his swearing in and subsequent bilateral and multilateral efforts show the same. But, over the past two years, India’s relationship with Pakistan has deteriorated Pakistan, not making efforts towards counterterrorism measures and being accused of shielding non-state actors who have carried out acts of terrorism against SAARC member states has not helped. Further, its move to block connectivity projects, which all other SAARC members were willing to sign, was the last straw.
India now realises that it should focus on BIMSTEC to achieve mutual benefit and cooperation in the region if it wants to avoid Pakistan’s interferences. Further, the members of BIMSTEC have already been supportive of India’s causes in the UN and can hence be potential partners for peace, development, and growth in the region and the world at large.
BIMSTEC further allows India to abide by its policies of “Neighbours First” and “Act East” . But more importantly, development of the Bay of Bengal region will increase the speed of progress in the north-eastern states leading towards their economic growth and success of commercial tourism. It also allows India to counter China’s influence across the region and particularly around the Bay of Bengal, due to its Belt Road initiative. Hence BIMSTEC is playing a pivotal role in India’s interests.
Criticisms and Challenges
SAARC has always been seen as a representative grouping of South Asian countries and rightly so. Not only it has many more members than BIMSTEC, but it has also taken various concrete steps which have led to the development of the region. But its progress is often interrupted due to bilateral tensions between India and Pakistan.
The BIMSTEC, though, does not have this issue but faces bilateral tensions between Bangladesh and Myanmar. It was still a long way to go to be able to unleash its potential. For starters, it has not made much progress in achieving its objectives and must start taking major steps towards the same to be taken seriously.
BIMSTEC, during its inception, decided to meet every two years. The ministerial meeting was supposed to happen every year. Consistency in meetings is necessary to regulate the progress of current measures, analyze the impact of previous measures, make any necessary changes in approach, and formulate future measures.
It provides continuity and helps in taking forward any negotiations. But BIMSTEC has held only four summits in 20 years. It has improved in the recent times with the recent meeting in 2018 and an upcoming summit in 2020.
BIMSTEC has been a platform for India when SAARC has failed. This is a phenomenon seen in other countries as well; they approach BIMSTEC in a few and far cases while focusing on either ASEAN or SAARC. Further, the formation of BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India, and Myanmar) has put forward the question of the exclusive potential of BIMSTEC. It must reinforce its place among members to be given importance.
BIMSTEC has a wide range of areas of cooperation, making it difficult to focus on any particular aspect. It would rather benefit from dealing with small, specific areas and taking steps to handle these areas effectively. The broad focus has led to delays and neglect. For example, the negotiations for FTA began in 2004 but still have to be materialized.
The Way Ahead
The next BIMSTEC summit is being held in Sri Lanka in 2020, and preparations have begun in full flow. The FTA is expected to be discussed and materialized if not completely concluded through a treaty. President Srisena’s speech after taking up chairmanship shows promise, and the members have also reflected confidence in him.
But to attain the goals of the grouping and make the summit a success, a number of steps must be taken. India will play an important role in its political standing and diplomatic tactics. Only time will tell whether this new beginning for BIMSTEC after PM Modi’s swearing in ceremony will have an impact on the region socio economic and political developments.