BIMSTEC: a key to a new South Asian regional order

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    In News 

    •  In recent years, India seems to have moved its diplomatic energy away from SAARC to BIMSTEC

    About SAARC 

    • The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was established with the signing of the SAARC Charter in Dhaka on 8 December 1985. 
      • SAARC comprises eight Member States: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. 
    • It aims to promote the welfare of the people of South Asia and to improve their quality of life

    Existing Issues in SAARC 

    • SAARC has failed abjectly in accomplishing most of its objectives.
    • South Asia continues to be an extremely poor and least integrated region in the world. 
    • Intraregional trade and investment in South Asia are very low when compared to other regions such as the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Sub-Saharan Africa.
    • Pakistan has adopted an obstructionist attitude within SAARC by repeatedly blocking several vital initiatives such as the motor vehicles agreement, aimed at bolstering regional connectivity. 
    • Deepening hostility between India and Pakistan has made matters worse. 
      • Since 2014, no SAARC summit has taken place leaving the organisation rudderless, and practically dead.
    • A weakened SAARC also means heightened instability in other promising regional institutions such as the South Asian University (SAU), which is critical to buttressing India’s soft power in the region.

    The emergence of BIMSTEC 

    • The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is a regional organization that was established on 06 June 1997 with the signing of the Bangkok Declaration
    • Initially known as BIST-EC (Bangladesh-India-Sri Lanka-Thailand Economic Cooperation), the organisation is now known as BIMSTEC and comprises seven Member States with the admission of Myanmar on 22 December 1997, and Bhutan and Nepal in February 2004.
      • Pakistan is not a BIMSTEC member.

    The purposes of BIMSTEC:

    • To create an enabling environment for rapid economic development through the identification and implementation of specific cooperation projects in the already agreed areas of cooperation and such other areas that may be agreed upon by the Member States. 
    •  To accelerate the economic growth and social progress in the Bay of Bengal region through joint endeavours in a spirit of equality and partnership.
    • To promote active collaboration and mutual assistance on matters of common interest in the economic, social, technical and scientific fields.
    • To maintain peace and stability in the Bay of Bengal region through close collaboration in combating international terrorism, transnational organized crimes as well as natural disasters, climate change and communicable diseases.

    How is Better than SAARC?

    • The BIMSTEC Charter is significantly better than the SAARC Charter. 
      • For instance, unlike the SAARC Charter, Article 6 of the BIMSTEC Charter talks about the ‘Admission of new members to the group. 
        • This paves the way for the admission of countries such as the Maldives.

    Loopholes 

    •  the BIMSTEC Charter boosts economic integration and does not contain the flexible participation scheme of the kind present in the ASEAN Charter. 
      • A flexible ‘BIMSTEC Minus X’ formula might have allowed India and Bangladesh or India and Thailand to conduct their ongoing bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations under the broader BIMSTEC umbrella. 
        • Thus, no country enjoys veto power to thwart economic integration between willing countries. 

    Conclusion and Way Forward 

    • Reviving SAARC in the current scenario is too idealistic. so the next best scenario is to look at other regional instruments such as BIMSTEC
      • BIMSTEC should not end up as another SAARC. For this, its member countries should raise the stakes. 
    • A high-quality FTA offering deep economic integration something that Prime Minister Narendra Modi also advocated at the last BIMSTEC ministerial meeting would be an ideal step. 
    • Likewise, India should explore legal ways to move successful SAARC institutions such as SAU to BIMSTEC. 
      • These steps will give stronger roots to BIMSTEC and enable erecting of a new South Asian regional order based on incrementalism and flexibility, ushering in prosperity and peace in the region.
    • BIMSTEC can contain a flexible participation scheme which would eventually strengthen BIMSTEC by enabling the gradual and incremental expansion of these binding commitments to other members.
      •  India should press for this amendment in the BIMSTEC Charter.

    Mains Practice Question 

    [Q]  Examine the aims and objectives of BIMSTEC. What importance does it hold for India?