BIMSTEC needs to reinvent itself

  • Category
    International Relations
  • Published
    19th Apr, 2021

In a recent development, the foreign ministers of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) met virtually.

Context

In a recent development, the foreign ministers of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) met virtually.

This virtual meeting led to the finalization of ‘Connectivity Master Plan’ for Bay of Bengal Region.

Background

  • While most multilateral groupings from G20 to SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) held their deliberations at the highest political level amid COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, BIMSTEC leaders failed to do so.
  • BIMSTEC could not even arrange its ministerial meeting until April 2021 whereas meeting of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) leaders held at India’s initiative a year ago.

Analysis

About BIMSTEC

  • The BIMSTEC region is home to around 1.5 billion people which constitute around 22% of the global population with a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of $3.5 trillion.
  • In the last five years, the BIMSTEC Member States have been able to sustain an average 6.5% economic growth trajectory despite global financial meltdown.
  • Initially, it was an economic bloc of four Member States with the acronym 'BIST-EC' (Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation).
  • It was renamed as BIMSTEC following the inclusion of Myanmar on 22 December 1997.
  • In 2004, after Nepal and Bhutan joined the organization the full name of the grouping was changed to 'Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation'.

What is the aim of BIMSTEC?

  • BIMSTEC aims to strengthen ties between and among member states in various areas of cooperation. According to the Bangkok Declaration of 1997, the aims and purposes of BIMSTEC are to:
    • create an environment to enable rapid economic development,
    • accelerate social progress in the sub-region,
    • promote mutual assistance and active collaboration on matters of common interest,
    • provide assistance to each other in the form of training and research facilities,
    • cooperate more effectively in joint efforts that are supportive of, and complementary to, national development plans of member states,
    • maintain close and beneficial cooperation with existing international and regional organizations, and
    • cooperate in projects that can be dealt with most productively on a sub-regional basis and which make best use of available synergies

What are the areas of cooperation?

There are fourteen priority sectors identified by member states. Each sector is led by a member state voluntarily

S. No.

Areas of Cooperation

Lead Country

1

Trade and Investment

Bangladesh

2

Technology

Sri Lanka

3

Energy

Myanmar

4

Transport and Communications

India

5

Tourism

India 

6

Fisheries

Thailand 

7

Agriculture

Myanmar

8

Cultural Cooperation

Bhutan

9

Environment and Disaster Management

India

10

Public Health

Thailand

11

People-to-People Contact

Thailand

12

Poverty Alleviation

Nepal

13

Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime

India

14

Climate Change

Bangladesh

Progress made by BIMSTEC

  • The draft for the BIMSTEC charter has been cleared by Foreign Ministers recommending its earlier adoption
  • They also endorsed the rationalisation of sectors and sub-sectors of activity, with each member-state serving as a lead for the assigned areas of special interest.
  • The foreign ministers also conveyed their support for the Master Plan for Transport Connectivity, which will be adopted at the next summit.
  • The recent ministerial meeting also endorsed 3 MoUs/agreements relating to cooperation between diplomatic and training academies, convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal matters and establishment of BIMSTEC Technology Transfer Facility in Colombo.
  • Much has been achieved in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) and security, including counterterrorism, cyber security, and coastal security cooperation

Pending BIMSTEC FTA

  • A 2018 study by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) had suggested that BIMSTEC urgently need a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement.
  • It should cover trade in goods, services and investment; adopt policies that develop regional value chains; promote regulatory harmonisation; and eliminate non-tariff barriers. Also lacking was an effort to engage and enthuse the vibrant business communities of these seven countries, and expand their dialogue, transactions and interactions.
  • Over 20 rounds of negotiations to operationalise the BIMSTEC Free Trade Area Framework Agreement, signed in 2004, are yet to bear fruit, due to disagreement between India and Thailand over market access for professionals, duty cuts on traded goods and policy relaxation.

What are the obstacles for BIMSTEC success?

  • A strong BIMSTEC presupposes cordial and tension-free bilateral relations among all its member-states. This has not been the case, given the course of India-Nepal, India-Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh-Myanmar ties in recent years.
  • The uncertainties hang around SAARC, complicating the matter. Both Nepal and Sri Lanka want the SAARC summit revived, even as they cooperate within BIMSTEC, with attenuated zeal.
  • The China’s decisive intrusion in the South and South- East Asian space has cast dark shadows. A renowned Bangladeshi scholar argued at a recent conference that BIMSTEC would make headway if China is accepted as its principal partner and interlocutor.
  • This perspective has hardly any takers in India and its friendly partners in the grouping. Finally, the military coup in Myanmar, brutal crackdown of protesters and continuation of popular resistance resulting in a extended 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 from Myanmar at Colombo?

Conclusion

As BIMSTEC embraces to celebrate its silver jubilee next year, it faces a serious challenge: “a paradigm-shift in raising the level of our cooperation and regional integration”.

BIMSTEC needs to reinvent itself, possibly even rename itself as ‘The Bay of Bengal Community’. It should consider holding regular annual summits at top political levels. Only then its leaders can convince the region about their strong commitment to the new vision they have for this distinct platform linking South Asia and Southeast Asia.

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