Is BIMSTEC heading anywhere?
- The creation of BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) came into being through the Bangkok Declaration of 1997
- Initially, it had 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, and in 2004, with the admission of Nepal and Bhutan, the name was changed to (BIMSTEC)
In 1999, Thomas Friedman, the renowned columnist and author wrote that the world had gone from a system built around walls to a system increasingly built around networks. This has been the rationale behind the emergence of numerous regional groupings such as the European Economic Community, ASEAN, the African Union, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Union of South American Nations, Mercosur and a host of other regional organisations.
The need for regional cooperation was felt in South Asia too, and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation or SAARC was established in December 1985 with the objective of working together to promote the welfare of the people of South Asia. However, SAARC failed to promote regional cooperation; there were many factors for this, but foremost among them was Pakistan's unending hostility toward India.
In this background, India looked for another regional organisation to act as the vehicle for regional cooperation. The creation of BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) offered a way out. This sub-regional organisation came into being through the Bangkok Declaration of 1997. Initially, it had four Member States with the acronym ‘BIST-EC’ (Bangladesh, India, Sri-Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation) which became renamed ‘BIMST-EC’ in 1997, following the inclusion of Myanmar. In 2004, With the admission of Nepal and Bhutan, the name was changed to ‘Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation’ (BIMSTEC).
However, a moot point is whether BIMSTEC is heading anywhere, or is it belying the hopes and expectations from it?
There are several factors which impart BIMSTEC a great deal of significance for India. Firstly, it is a forum for India to meaningfully engage with its South Asian neighbors, especially as SAARC has become practically non-functional. Secondly, it facilitates two important objectives of our foreign policy: Neighborhood First (according to primacy to the country’s immediate neighbourhood) and Act East (connecting India with Southeast Asia). Thirdly, BIMSTEC can help in the economic development of India’s North Eastern states by linking them to the Bay of Bengal region via Bangladesh and Myanmar. Fourthly, India hopes that it could help in countering China’s increasing influence through its Belt and Road Initiative in countries around the Bay of Bengal.
The importance which India attaches to BIMSTEC was recently emphasised by the External Affairs Minister. Speaking at the 17th BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting on Thursday 1st April, he said that India remains committed to further building the momentum of regional cooperation under the framework of BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) and making it a stronger, vibrant and result-oriented grouping.
He also said that BIMSTEC enjoys the unique strength of connecting South and South-East Asia.
Robust connectivity is an essential prerequisite for economic integration of the region with smooth cross-border movement of people and goods, and the Member States have finalized the BIMSTEC Master Plan for Transport Connectivity which is expected to be adopted at the fifth BIMSTEC Summit to be held in Colombo. BIMSTEC also needs to finalise the BIMSTEC Coastal Shipping Agreement and the Motor Vehicles Agreement at an early date.
Another priority area is and will continue to be Counter terrorism and trans-national crimes. Cooperation in the security sector has a special significance. As Jaishankar said "Our NSAs have met thrice since 2017. They have been working closely and have moved forward in several aspects of security cooperation including counter-terrorism, intelligence sharing, coastal security, cybersecurity, etc in a tangible manner."
However, one should not overlook the shortcomings of this regional organisation. Although more than 23 years have elapsed since BIMSTEC was set up, its member countries have not been able to set up a Free Trade Area. Moreover, BIMSTEC as an organisation has not picked up the desired momentum. Its Summits are supposed to be held every two years and ministerial meetings every year, but only four summits have taken place in 23 years until now. These were the Summits on 31 July 2004 in Bangkok, Thailand; 13 November 2008 in New Delhi, India; 4 March 2014 at Naypyidaw, Myanmar; and 30–31 August 2018 at Kathmandu, Nepal. The 5th Summit is scheduled to be held in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The low frequency of the summits is itself a pointer to the inadequate attention being given to this organisation by the member states.
There are also bilateral political problems between the member countries which impact BIMSTEC. The issue of over a million Muslim Rohingya refugees from Myanmar living in camps in Bangladesh is a constant irritant in the relations between these two countries. The military coup on February1 this year also adversely impacted Myanmar's relations with other countries. As Myanmar’s military continued its crackdown on civilians protesting against the coup, India condemned any use of violence and said that it stood for the restoration of democracy in the country. Although Thailand has close military ties with Myanmar, it has also slightly hardened its language on its western neighbour by saying that it is “gravely concerned” about escalating bloodshed since the coup.
The highly proactive role being played by China in most BIMSTEC countries is also impeding the growth of this regional organisation. China wants that connectivity should be based on its Belt and Road Initiative(BRI) and has been constantly trying to wean away the countries which draw closer to India, which is not a part of BRI. Franky, one should not expect any change in China's attitude towards BIMSTEC.
Another factor is that the range of issues taken up by BIMSTEC is perhaps too wide. It covers 14 areas of cooperation: Trade and Investment, Technology, Energy, Transportation and Communication, Tourism, Fisheries, Agriculture, Cultural Cooperation, Environment and Disaster Management, Public Health, People-to-People Contacts, Poverty Alleviation, Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crimes, and Climate Change. It is felt by some analysts that at this stage, BIMSTEC should focus on only some areas; it should develop regional cooperation in those select areas before embarking on others.
As the rampant spread of Covid-19 has shown, Public Health needs to be a priority area of cooperation in BIMSTEC. India can play a leadership role in this area. It has gifted COVID vaccines to five of the member countries--Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar,Nepal and Sri Lanka. Thailand took the Sinovac vaccines from China but found them to be not as effective as had been thought. It is using AstraZeneca vaccines made in Europe, but since the Serum Institute of India has been contracted by this company to produce a billion doses, it should not come as a surprise if Indian-made vaccines might soon be used in Thailand also. As the old saying goes, health is wealth, and the BIMSTEC region must stay healthy if it wants to grow more wealthy!