June 6, 2021 marked 24 years of the ‘Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation’ (BIMSTEC), a regional organization comprising seven Member States around the Bay of Bengal region. On the occasion the leaders of the member states — Nepal, India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand — issued statements expressing commitment to using BIMSTEC as a platform to combat multiple challenges facing the region, pledging to work together to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. PM Modi extended warm greetings, expressing his appreciation for enhanced regional cooperation under the BIMSTEC framework which has intensified substantially in recent years. With five Members from South Asia (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka) and two from South-East Asia (Myanmar and Thailand), BIMSTEC constitutes a unique link between South and South-East Asia.
BIMSTEC was founded with an ambition to pursue mutual trade, connectivity, cultural, technical and economic development within South East Asia and South Asia region, in 1997. With a view to harnessing the supremacy of emerging markets across the region, the BIMSTEC countries initiated strategies and policies on several issues such as economic cooperation, social development and cultural exchange. Yet these aspirations of the regional grouping remain unrealized, and despite the members’ collective commitment, BIMSTEC has achieved only limited success in over two decades of its existence.
Decades Without a Charter:
Viewed as a contender to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) grouping, the BIMSTEC has not made the kind of headway in terms of regional cooperation that has been hailed and avowed by its leaders. It took twenty-three years, till September 2020 for the member nations to finalize the BIMSTEC Charter, and remains yet to be adopted. Member States are still to complete their internal procedures for the adoption of the BIMSTEC Charter.
South and South East Asia, is a region fraught with security threats such as terrorism, trafficking of drugs and weapons, illegal, unreported, and irregular fishing, and armed robberies at sea. The region is beset with transnational organized criminal networks who have proven nexus with insurgent and terrorist groups that function transnationally. Yet the BIMSTEC forum deters member states from discussing bilateral or contentious issues, just like the SAARC. Bilateral tensions for instance those between India-Nepal, India-Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh-Myanmar have the capacity to complicate the regional cooperation. This begs the question – is there consensus among the member states on minimum political values and common security threats? In September 2018, the year of the fourth summit in Kathmandu, Nepal and Thailand refrained from participating in the first BIMSTEC anti-terror military exercise conducted at Pune, India. The widely perceived to be pro-China, the Oli government in Nepal cited prior commitments. At the recent BIMSTEC ministerial meet, the situation in Myanmar found no mention. There are other asymmetries in the outlook of the member states. For instance, Bhutan which is yet to complete its internal procedures for ratification of the Bangladesh–Bhutan–India–Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA), may have similar environmental concerns over the BIMSTEC MVA. Bilateral tensions or ideological differences must be addressed at the forum or else BIMSTEC is destined have an uncertain future like SAARC.
In the last 24 years, BIMSTEC has held just four summit meetings. Sri Lanka as the current chair of BIMSTEC is slated to host the fifth BIMSTEC Summit. But under the current circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, this remains uncertain. Nepal had hosted the fourth BIMSTEC summit in August 2018. At that summit PM Sheikh Hasina rightly pointed out that, “We need to consolidate fundamental legal frameworks to carry forward the substantive engagements in our cooperation to produce visible results.” At the Kathmandu Summit, the member countries devised an ambitious plan for institutional reform and decided to draft a charter which would give BIMSTEC a firm foundation.
The 17th BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting was held in a virtual mode on April 1 this year with the participation of all Member States, at which the foreign ministers cleared the draft for the charter, recommending its early adoption. The meeting endorsed the BIMSTEC Master Plan for Transport Connectivity and the Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters for adoption at the next Summit in a few months. If successfully adopted the Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance will provide a robust legal basis to further strengthen cooperation in combating international terrorism, transnational organised crime and illicit drug trafficking. The BIMSTEC Master Plan for Transport Connectivity has prioritised 66 connectivity projects multi-mode transport links and smooth and simplified transit facilities.
Can the BIMSTEC be Revitalized?
Although the BIMSTEC covers 14 areas of cooperation from trade, science and technology, energy, poverty alleviation, agriculture, security, antiterrorism, climate change, cultural affairs and public health, the agenda is scattered, lacking synergy for focused implementation. The necessity of categorizing the various sectors into brackets of ‘sustainable development’, ‘security and stability’ and ‘people to people’ contact has been expressed by various representatives and the recent 17th ministerial meeting tried to address this.
BIMSTEC encompasses a dynamic region in the world, with 1.5 billion people accounting for almost 22 percent of the global population, and the combined GDP in the region is $2.8 trillion. Its scope can be enormously expanded through the creation of a free trade area, investment and energy cooperation, enhancing people-to-people contact and funding mechanism. The BIMSTEC Free Trade Area (FTA) Framework Agreement was signed in 2004 but remains mired in negotiations. Without a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, BIMSTEC cannot make real progress.
For India especially BIMSTEC should be a real focal point for regional collaboration. The India-Pakistan rivalry rendered the SAARC unserviceable. Given the Chinese involvement, India is also not keen on the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor. As a result, the BCIM has been consistently challenged and repeatedly delayed. The sub-regional organization BCIM Forum for Regional Cooperation, aimed at greater integration of trade and investment between the four countries, and which emerged out of the economic corridor project, has resultantly also stagnated. Meanwhile, after the inclusion of Bangladesh and Myanmar, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has resulted in several projects, albeit controversial. After PM Modi’s second swearing-in in 2019, India declared that it saw a mix of “energy, mindset and possibility” in BIMSTEC. With its rejection of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the complementarities in trade offered by a future BIMSTEC Free Trade Agreement are a beneficial and preferred option for India. Further, the forum can provide connectivity to India’s landlocked Northeast with the Himalayan states of Bhutan and Nepal and countries in the Bay of Bengal rim. To align meaningfully with the nations of South Asia and gainfully realize its ‘Act East Policy BIMSTEC is the only possible alternation from an Indian perspective.
The enthusiasm with which the organization was founded through the Bangkok Declaration of 1997 became in fact a series of unrealized aspirations. While there is no dearth of potential areas of cooperation for the nations of the BIMSTEC, the grouping is mired by a certain hesitancy and lack of political will which prevents it from transforming into a tangible force for regional transformation. However, with the current momentum of consequential decisions over Charter, ministerial meeting and summit close at heels, it is hoped that BIMSTEC is poised to deliver.