25 years of BIMSTEC

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    In Context

    June 6 marked the completion of 25 years since the 1997 Bangkok Declaration launched a modest grouping with the acronym, BIST-EC. 

    What is BIMSTEC?

    • The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is a multilateral regional organisation established with the aim of accelerating shared growth and cooperation between littoral and adjacent countries in the Bay of Bengal region.
    • Origin and Membership 
      • It was founded as BIST-EC, in June 1997, with the adoption of the Bangkok Declaration, with Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand as members.
      •  It became BIMST-EC (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation) with the entry of Myanmar in late 1997, And eventually, it was named in its current form, when Nepal and Bhutan became members in 2004.
    • Significance 
      • The BIMSTEC region hosts 22% of the world population or 1.68 billion people; and the member states have a combined GDP of US$3.697 trillion/per year.

    Key Achievements

    • The grouping has succeeded in rejuvenating itself. Since its Kathmandu summit in 2018, it is viewed as an instrument of regional cooperation and integration, not just of sub-regional cooperation
    • BIMSTEC has crafted a new Charter for itself, spelling out the grouping’s vision, functions of its constituent parts, and has secured a legal personality
    • It has prioritised the sectors of cooperation, reducing them from the unwieldy 14 to the more manageable seven, with each member-state serving as the lead country for the assigned sector.
    •  It has taken measures to strengthen the Secretariat, although some members are yet to extend adequate personnel support to it
    • Above all, its success lies in its survival through the turns and twists of internal tensions. 
      • The BIMSTEC region witnessed the influx of over a million Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh, the result of oppression by the Myanmar military; the coup in Myanmar that led to its virtual boycott by a large segment of the international community; and the grave political and economic crisis afflicting Sri Lanka.
    • The grouping has also registered progress in combating terrorism, forging security cooperation, and creating mechanisms and practices for the better management of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. 
    • 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. 

    BIMSTEC’s Importance for India 

    • For India, BIMSTEC aligns with its ‘Act East’ policy for greater regional cooperation in southeast Asia. 
    • It could also be seen as aligning with India’s larger goal to gain trade and security prominence in the Indian Ocean region and to cater to the concept of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region, a major focus of Quad countries.
    • India also made efforts to enhance the pace of BIMSTEC’s progress in recent years. 
      • The BIMSTEC Energy Centre was set up in Bengaluru, along with the BIMSTEC Business Council, a forum for business organisations to promote regional trade.
      • It aims to create free-trade and power grid interconnectivity agreements, and a masterplan for transport connectivity in the Bay of Bengal region (adopted at the current summit).

    Challenges and setbacks

    • Lack of efficiency and “sluggish” pace of BIMSTEC’s progress. 
    • The inconsistency in holding policy making and operational meetings was mentioned earlier. 
    • BIMSTEC secretariat also suffers from inadequate financial and manpower assistance for its operational activities
    • BIMSTEC members have not adopted a Free Trade Agreement yet, they are involved in multiple bilateral and multilateral free trade, preferential trade and economic cooperation agreements with other countries.
    • The other disappointment is connectivity — in infrastructure (roads, railways, air, river, and coastal shipping links), energy, the digital and financial domain, and institutions that bring people closer together for trade, tourism and cultural exchanges.

    Conclusion and Way Forward 

    • After 25 years, BIMSTEC can do much better as a grouping, addressing shortcomings in trade and connectivity
    • New synergy should be created between BIMSTEC and the  Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF). 
      • It should accelerate the region’s economic development by collaborating with the newly minted IPEF. 
    • For greater regional connectivity, more financial resources are needed. 
      • The movement towards establishing the BIMSTEC Development Fund is minimal. The grouping has talked about the Blue Economy and more attention is required in this context .
    • Finally, while all member-states are equal, three have a special responsibility and all members  must be the engine to pull the BIMSTEC train with imagination and determination.