During the 5th BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) Summit that Sri Lanka hosted in a hybrid mode on March 28-30, member-states adopted a long-overdue charter that formalizes its structure and functioning.
BIMSTEC is now an “organization of member states” that are littorals of the Bay of Bengal or adjacent to it.
The summit also saw the signing of a number of agreements, including a Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters; a Memorandum of Understanding on Mutual Cooperation in the field of Diplomatic Training; and a Memorandum of Association on Establishment of BIMSTEC Technology Transfer Facility. BIMSTEC members also adopted a Masterplan for Transportation Connectivity.
In addition, the seven member states also decided to reorganize their activities in a way that puts each of them in charge of one pillar of activity. India has been entrusted with the security pillar.
BIMSTEC came into being on June 6, 1997. In the years since it has evolved in several ways. Its name has changed, reflecting its changing membership.
Originally the grouping envisaged economic cooperation among four countries: Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand and therefore went by the acronym BIST-EC. When Myanmar joined the grouping in December that year, the grouping was called BIMST-EC (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand Economic Cooperation). With Nepal and Bhutan joining in it underwent another name change and has been known since as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).
As its name indicates, BIMSTEC envisages multi-sectoral technical and economic cooperation. Its main purpose is to enhance economic sustainability, and cooperation and collaboration in the region through joint initiatives. To this end BIMSTEC has come up with 15 priority areas for collaboration and cooperation, including trade and investment, energy, tourism, transport and communication, public health, counter-terrorism and transnational crime, environment and disaster management, technology, fisheries, agriculture, poverty alleviation, cultural cooperation, people-to-people contacts, and climate change.
Describing the adoption of the charter as a significant step towards a formal institutional architecture for BIMSTEC, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi called on other members to make its “architecture stronger.”
Modi also announced a contribution of $1 million towards BIMSTEC’s operational costs and another $3 million to revive the organization’s center for weather and climate at Noida, India. He stressed the need to give priority to regional security.
In the 25 years of its existence BIMSTEC hasn’t achieved much. That could be changing now with India’s heightened interest in the grouping, as a vehicle for the achievement of its strategic interests.
Among the reasons for India’s increased interest in BIMSTEC is the failure of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). SAARC was set up in 1980 to boost regional economic and other co-operation. However, its functioning was stymied by the India-Pakistan rivalry. Given the centrality of India and Pakistan to the region, their rivalry cast a long shadow over the region and little cooperation has taken place.
As the World Bank observed in a report published in 2016, South Asia is the least integrated region in the world in terms of business relations.
With India and Pakistan not addressing their bilateral issues, SAARC suffered. Its functioning ground to a halt in 2016 when India boycotted the 19th SAARC summit that Pakistan was hosting at Islamabad in November 15-19.
In September that year, militants had carried out an attack on an Indian army camp in Jammu and Kashmir. Accusing Pakistan of masterminding that attack, India called for a boycott of the SAARC summit. Other member states including Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan also boycotted the meeting.
Since then, SAARC has been in a state of “coma,” according to some analysts, while others have declared it “dead.” With SAARC not delivering, India seems to be ready to move on. BIMSTEC has become the vehicle of its strategic ambitions.
“India has realized it is in its interest to do greater engagement with countries on its eastern flank rather than the west. This is a belief reinforced by the plateauing of its relations with Pakistan and the declining security situation in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover,” said Sameer Patil, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.
India’s turn to the east is also a consequence of its Act East Policy.
Moreover, the Bay of Bengal has emerged an important focus of regional and global geopolitics. As C. Raja Mohan, an expert on Asian geopolitics, points out, “the Bay of Bengal is now very much part of the increased geopolitical contestation between India and China in their shared neighborhood.” This makes the Bay of Bengal an important area of concern for India. India’s long Bay of Bengal coast makes it an important stakeholder in this massive waterway.
BIMSTEC is important for other member-states as well. It provides a ray of hope for Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Myanmar’s junta faces of crisis of legitimacy and is under tremendous pressure from Western countries for its violation of human rights. BIMSTEC could provide Myanmar temporary respite from the legitimacy crisis. A representative of the junta participated at the recent summit.
Bangladesh’s internal politics is largely shaped by its independence narrative. In this narrative, Pakistan is treated as a failed/unfriendly state and India is looked upon as a friend. SAARC was the brainchild of Maj. Gen. Ziaur Rahman, the husband of current opposition leader Khaleda Zia and founder of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Moving away from SAARC and staying with BIMSTEC serves the politics of Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia are bitter rivals.
BIMSTEC’s success is important for its members. But this success isn’t guaranteed. Much will depend on how the grouping deals with difficult issues.
China’s influence in the Bay of Bengal region has been growing in terms of economic collaboration with some of the BIMSTEC member states. For India, it would be a great challenge to get BIMSTEC members out of China’s influence. Sri Lanka is in the grip of a serious economic crisis. Can BIMSTEC help it out?
There is the Rohingya refugee crisis too that has been created by Myanmar. The bulk of the burden of this crisis has fallen on Bangladesh as most of the Rohingya refugees have been forced to flee there. Both Bangladesh and Myanmar are BIMSTEC members. Can BIMSTEC help resolve the refugee crisis that involves two of its member states? Or will BIMSTEC simply prefer to ignore issues that divide them?