BY DR RAJENDRA B. SHRESTHA
The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is a regional organization comprising seven Member States lying in the littoral and adjacent areas of the Bay of Bengal constituting a contiguous regional unity. This regional organization came into being on June 6, 1997 through the Bangkok Declaration. It constitutes seven Member States: five from South Asia, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and two from Southeast Asia, including Myanmar and Thailand.
The regional group constitutes a bridge between South and South East Asia and represents a reinforcement of relations among these countries. BIMSTEC has also established a platform for intra-regional cooperation between SAARC and ASEAN members. 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 2.7 trillion. In the last five years, BIMSTEC Member States have sustained an average 6.5% economic growth despite global financial meltdown.
The objective of building such an alliance was to harness shared and accelerated growth through mutual cooperation in different areas of common interests by mitigating the onslaught of globalization and by utilizing regional resources and geographical advantages. Unlike many other regional groupings, BIMSTEC is a sector-driven cooperative organization.
BIMSTEC has gained more favor as the preferred platform for regional cooperation in South Asia. After India hosted a mini-summit during the BRICS meeting in Goa in 2016, support for BIMSTEC gained further momentum.
In recent years, BIMSTEC has gained popularity among South Asian countries as a platform for regional cooperation. One of the reasons for BIMSTEC’s popularity is that the member countries have generally cordial relationships, something missing among the SAARC countries.
BIMSTEC’s major strength comes from the fact that it includes two influential regional powers: Thailand and India. This adds to the comfort of smaller neighbors by reducing the fear of dominance by one big power.
India was motivated to join BIMSTEC as it wanted to enhance its connectivity with ASEAN countries: a major component of its ‘Act East’ policy. For Thailand, it helps achieve the country’s Look West Policy. BIMSTEC also helps smaller countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan to develop connectivity with ASEAN countries, the hub of major economic activities globally.
As a trade bloc, BIMSTEC provides many opportunities. The region has countries with the fastest-growing economies in the world. The combined GDP in the region is around US$2 trillion and will likely grow further.
Despite the many successes of BIMSTEC, however, some concerns remain. One is the infrequency of the BIMSTEC summits, the highest decision-making body of the organization. In its 20 years of existence, the BIMSTEC summit has taken place only three times. Moreover, the delay in the adoption of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA), a framework that was agreed upon in 2004, fuels doubts about BIMSTEC’s efficacy.
A landmark achievement for BIMSTEC was the establishment of a permanent secretariat in Dhaka. However, the secretariat faces severe resource crunch, both in terms of money and manpower, which has adversely affected its performance.
Observers of BIMSTEC consider the lack of leadership as the major drawback. In recent years, India has shown increased interest for leadership. India’s initiatives have resulted in some important developments, including the setting up of the BIMSTEC Energy Centre in Bengaluru and the BIMSTEC Business Council, a forum for business organizations to promote regional trade. Various committees have been formed to oversee developments in various sectors
The developments so far under BIMSTEC have been encouraging. To maintain the momentum and to strengthen BIMSTEC as a sustainable platform for regional cooperation, the following initiatives must be undertaken:
1. Consistency in the frequency of the summits to ensure regular decision-making;
2. Enhancing the capacity of the secretariat, both in terms of manpower and funding;
3. Ensuring tangible results/benefits, that will motivate the member countries to focus on BIMSTEC priority projects in the areas of tourism, digital connectivity, energy connectivity, poverty alleviation, and humanitarian assistance in disaster relief etc.; and
4. Empowering BIMSTEC as an effective platform for dispute resolution among member countries through debates and discussions among member countries to reach consensus.
BIMSTEC offers many opportunities to its members. For India, it aids in its Act East Policy and South¬–South cooperation efforts. The development of the Northeastern region, by opening up to Bangladesh and Myanmar, is another incentive. For Thailand, it helps in its Look West policy. Under the BIMSTEC framework, smaller nations, can benefit from the markets in India and Thailand.
As BIMSTEC celebrates its twentieth anniversary, its member states must reflect on how the institution can become a more effective platform to further regional cooperation around the Bay of Bengal.
Strengthening BIMSTEC to Advance Regional Integration
India and other BIMSTEC members should:
• Instill in the organization a normative vision for a cooperative, multilateral regional order that is based on existing rules and principles of liberalism, not unilateralism.
• Empower the secretariat with adequate human and financial resources to undertake its agenda with more autonomy and responsibilities.
• Continue to prioritize sustained physical connectivity and high-quality infrastructure to facilitate greater regional flows of goods, services, and people. Particular attention must be paid to multi-modal projects that link coastal ports to the hinterland, including landlocked Bhutan, northeastern India, and Nepal.
• Expand India’s role as an informal leader. New Delhi must back up its words by bolstering its investment in the organization without affecting the interests of other members.
• Open BIMSTEC for cooperation with other regional bodies committed to inclusive regionalism, including Australia, the European Union, Japan, and the United States, as well as multilateral institutions like the Asian Development Bank.
As BIMSTEC celebrates its twentieth anniversary, its member states must reflect on how the institution can become a more effective platform to further regional cooperation. It is, therefore, imperative for governments of BIMSTEC’s seven member states, and India in particular, to commit more financial and political resources beyond mere expressions of intention and support.
BIMSTEC provides the Bay of Bengal nations an opportunity to work together to create a common space for peace and development. Given the fairly amicable relationship among member states, implementing the suggestions above to enhance BIMSTEC’s performance is an achievable goal as long as the countries exhibit enough political will and mutual respect.
Fulfilling the Bay of Bengal’s tremendous economic potential requires a cooperative approach. BIMSTEC is well equipped to play a major role in facilitating this new regionalism.
(The author is specialist in Economic Development and International Cooperation and president of ICSDD and IPP, NCWA)
How can BIMSTEC be made more effective and sustainable
BY DR RAJENDRA B. SHRESTHA