BIMSTEC Grouping: Relevance & Concerns

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    BIMSTEC Grouping: Relevance & Concerns

    Syllabus: GS2/ Important International Institutions

    In Context

    • The first-ever Foreign Ministers’ meeting of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) began in Bangkok, Thailand.

    BIMSTEC

    • About:
      • BIMSTEC is a regional organisation that was established in 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 members, with Myanmar joining towards the end of 1997, and Bhutan and Nepal in 2004.

    • Permanent Secretariat: Dhaka, Bangladesh.
      • Leadership is rotated in alphabetical order of country names.

    Significance of BIMSTEC 

    • Economical Importance: Around 22% of the world’s population live in the seven countries around the Bay of Bengal, with a combined GDP close to $2.7 trillion. 
      • All seven countries have sustained average annual rates of growth between 3.4% and 7.5% from 2012 to 2016.
    • Boosting Connectivity: Projects within the BIMSTEC can help in improving relations with its neighbors.
    • Platform for resolving issues: The platform can help in addressing the challenges like terrorism, coastal security, drug trafficking etc.
    • Freedom of Navigation: This can serve as a transit route between Indian and Pacific nations. 
    • Countering China: This prevents China from becoming the predominant political, military and economic power in the Indian Ocean region.

    Importance of BIMSTEC 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).
    • 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.

    BIMSTEC and SAARC

    • The idea of BIMSTEC also gained prominence after the 2016 Uri attack when India was able to get SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) nations on its side to boycott the organisations’ summit, which was to be held in Islamabad, Pakistan.
    • SAARC and BIMSTEC focus on geographically overlapping regions. But, they are not equal alternatives. SAARC is a purely regional organization, whereas BIMSTEC is inter-regional and connects both South Asia and ASEAN. 
    • Unlike SAARC, which is burdened by India-Pakistan hostilities, BIMSTEC is relatively free of sharp bilateral disagreements and promises to provide India with a co-operative sphere of its own. 

    Major Concerns

    • Despite signing a framework agreement for a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in 2004, BIMSTEC stands far away from this goal. 
    • 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.
    • 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
    • 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

    Way Ahead

    • A strong political will and collective resolve are required for BIMSTEC to succeed. This corresponds with India’s Act East policy of extending regional connectivity to nations south-east of it.
    • BIMSTEC should focus more in the future on new areas such as the blue economy, the digital economy, and promotion of exchanges and links among start-ups and Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs).
    • India has to ensure equally sustained political engagement with partners such as Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to prevent any domestic political spillover from affecting bilateral and group-level working relationships.
    •  India’s “Act East” and “Extended Neighbourhood” approaches also find consonance with its effort with BIMSTEC to bridge the gaps with nations of SouthEast Asia and Africa and further boost trade relations with them

    Daily Mains Question

    [Q] How BIMSTEC can play a significant role in changing geopolitics? What are the major challenges and setbacks that need to be overcome for the development across South Asia and Southeast Asia?