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BIMSTEC at 20: Hopes and Apprehensions

Dr. Sampa Kundu is Research Assistant at IDSA Click here for detailed profile.
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  • June 20, 2017

    On June 06 this year, 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.1 The growth rate sustained by the BIMSTEC countries is around six per cent per annum.2 However, despite its huge potential in terms of enhancing regional cooperation between parts of South and Southeast Asia, BIMSTEC has long suffered from lack of resources and proper coordination among its member states.

    So far, BIMSTEC has held only three summit meetings. The first one was held in Thailand in 2004, seven years after the establishment of the grouping; the second one was held four years later in India in 2008, and the third one six years later in Myanmar in 2014. The fourth summit meeting is expected to take place later this year in Nepal, the current Chair of BIMSTEC. Again, it took 17 long years for BIMSTEC to finally establish its permanent secretariat in Dhaka in 2014.

    The Initiative

    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 Establishment of the Bangladesh-India-Sri Lanka-Thailand Economic Cooperation (BIST-EC)’, also known as the Bangkok Declaration, the founding 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.3

    So far, the seven-member grouping has identified 14 priority sectors and has signed a Free Trade Agreement (2004) and a Convention on Cooperation in Combating International Terrorism, Transnational Organised Crime and Illicit Drug Trafficking (2009). Few working groups too have been formed.

    For India, the establishment of BIMST-EC, later BIMSTEC, was yet another opportunity, besides the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (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 had evoked sufficient interest in New Delhi to join BIST-EC.

    Besides India, other members too considered it as an important mechanism to achieve their national goals and regional aspirations. Myanmar, for example, became a member at a time when the junta in the country was facing serious international criticism. Membership in regional and sub-regional groupings like ASEAN and BIMSTEC provided its military rulers an opportunity to gain some sort of recognition among the regional stakeholders. Today, Myanmar sees itself as a gateway for BIMSTEC to ASEAN, primarily due to its strategic location between South and Southeast Asia.

    Thailand, on the other hand, 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. 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.

    Countries like Sri Lanka considered BIMSTEC as an opportunity to engage with the economically booming Southeast Asian countries, especially after several failed attempts to join ASEAN in the decade prior to the establishment of BIMSTEC. With India and Thailand as its important economic partners, Sri Lanka is looking forward to the implementation of BIMSTEC Free Trade Agreement and BIMSTEC Motor Vehicles Agreement.4 For the land-blocked countries like Nepal and Bhutan, BIMSTEC holds the prospect of enhancing their connectivity with the rest of the region.

    Challenges

    In today’s context, the possibility of enhancing physical, digital and people-to-people connectivity in the sub-region is huge. Similarly, the potential to tap the vast energy resources and scope for intra-regional trade and investment too is enormous. 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. This despite the fact that BIMSTEC was formed at a time when the ASEAN countries were suffering from severe financial crisis in 1997-98 and also as both Thailand and Myanmar experienced political turmoil in the following decade.

    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’”.5 Earlier in October 2016, India had hosted the BIMSTEC members at Goa during the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Outreach Summit. It was viewed as a pragmatic step on India’s part, demonstrating its potential to play the role of a regional leader, an aspiration which was instrumental in transforming its ‘Look East’ into ‘Act East’ policy. 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 has been clearly signaling its renewed interest in BIMSTEC. India is already the lead country for four priority sectors, namely, transportation and communication, environment and disaster management, tourism, and 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. Though BIMSTEC leaders spoke about many issues at the Goa Summit, the highlight clearly was the open discussion on combating terrorism in the region.

    In an effort to strengthen sub-regional cooperation on combating terrorism and trans-national crime, the BIMSTEC member states are trying to implement a convention on anti-terrorism. Except for Nepal and Bhutan, all member states of BIMSTEC have ratified it.6 BIMSTEC is now trying to sign a Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters. In fact, the 17th BIMSTEC Senior Officials’ Meeting, conducted in Kathmandu in February 2017, referred to the progress made in other sectors too. To name a few, it pointed to India hosting a working group meeting to finalise the BIMSTEC Motor Vehicles Agreement, finalisation of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Grid Interconnection to facilitate electricity trade in the sub-region, and a meeting of BIMSTEC Trade Negotiating Committee to fast-track the process of trade facilitation in the region.7 In fact, the declaration issued at the end of the Goa Summit had also stated that BIMSTEC needs to have a Coastal Shipping Agreement to allow the member states to trade freely within the sub-region.8 It is noteworthy that between 2002 and 2014, the intra-BIMSTEC trade registered a very marginal growth, from 3.6 to 4.3 per cent only.9

    Apart from India, other member states too appear to be showing interest in strengthening BIMSTEC. Former Thai Ambassador Kobsak Chutkul, who was earlier involved in the establishment of BIMSTEC, recently observed that though BIMSTEC is neither ASEAN nor SAARC, yet it is on a ‘solid ground’. He described it as a ‘complimentary organisation’ which can support the people in the region.10

    Identifying lack of media coverage and public awareness about the grouping as one of the shortcomings, the BIMSTEC Secretary General Ambassador Sumith Nakandala too pointed to the importance of making BIMSTEC more effective in a recent conference held at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.11 On the 20th anniversary of BIMSTEC, the Bhutanese foreign minister was said to have observed that ‘the two decades of regional experience have taught that the path to achieving common goal and aspirations is not without challenges and setbacks’.12 These statements show that while BIMSTEC member states consider it as an important sub-regional grouping, bridging the South and Southeast Asia, they are equally aware of the impediments facing it.

    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. Also, the organisation needs to focus on fewer priority areas for purpose of better implementation. It needs to undertake projects that are economically feasible and result-driven. This would add to the credibility of BIMSTEC. Finally, 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.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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