Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) was established as a grouping of four nations — India, Thailand, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka through the Bangkok Declaration of 1997 to promote rapid economic development. Its members lie in the littoral and adjacent areas of the Bay of Bengal constituting a contiguous regional unity. BIMSTEC not only connects South and Southeast Asia, but also the ecologies of the Great Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal.
ISSUES IN THE FUNCTIONING OF BIMSTEC
- A strong BIMSTEC presupposes cordial and tension free bilateral relations among all its member-states. This has not been the case, given the trajectory of India-Nepal, India-Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh-Myanmar ties in recent years.
- Bangladesh is facing one of the worst refugee crises of Rohingyas from Myanmar who are fleeing prosecution in the state of Rakhine in Myanmar. There is a border conflict between Myanmar and Thailand.
- Uncertainties over SAARC hover, complicating matters. Both Nepal and Sri Lanka want the SAARC summit revived, even as they cooperate within BIMSTEC, with diluted zeal.
- China’s decisive intrusion in the South-Southeast Asian space has cast dark shadows.
- The military coup in Myanmar, brutal crackdown of protesters, and continuation of popular resistance resulting in a protracted impasse have produced a new set of challenges.
- BIMSTEC planned to hold summits every two years, and ministerial meetings every year, but only four summits have taken place in 20 years up to 2018.
- In fact, BIMSTEC received special attention as India chose to treat it as a more practical instrument for regional cooperation over a faltering SAARC.
- Most multilateral groupings from G20 to ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) held their deliberations at the highest political level even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, BIMSTEC leaders failed to do so.
- BIMSTEC FTA was negotiated in 2004, talks on it are yet to be concluded.
- What has been missing from recent deliberations is a reference to the lack of progress on the trade and economic dossier.
- A January 2018 study by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry had suggested that BIMSTEC urgently needed a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement to be a real game changer. Ideally it should cover trade in goods, services and investment; promote regulatory harmonisation; adopt policies that develop regional value chains; and eliminate non tariff barriers.
As BIMSTEC prepares itself to celebrate the silver jubilee of its formation next year, it faces a serious challenge: to affect a paradigm-shift in raising the level of our cooperation and regional integration. The grouping needs to reinvent itself, possibly even rename itself as ‘The Bay of Bengal Community’. It should consider holding regular annual summits. Only then will its leaders convince the region about their strong commitment to the new vision they have for this unique platform linking South Asia and Southeast Asia.