CHALLENGES AT BIMSTEC
- August 30, 2018, 6:42 pm
The fourth BIMSTEC summit is being held in Nepal, Kathmandu for two days, August 30 and 31, 2018. The summit will witness participation from all member states, including India with PM Narendra Modi arriving in Nepal to hold discussions on trade, security, and development of the region.
THEME OF BIMSTEC SUMMIT 2018
The theme of the fourth BIMSTEC summit is 'Towards a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable Bay of Bengal region'.
The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) summit in Kathmandu, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to attend, will be another milestone for India after the BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach Summit hosted by it in 2016, as the grouping has gradually emerged as a key vehicle to take forward India’s regional, strategic and economic interests.
The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is a regional organization comprising seven Member States lying in the littoral and adjacent areas of the Bay of Bengal constituting a contiguous regional unity.
This sub-regional organization came into being on 6 June 1997 through the Bangkok Declaration.
It constitutes seven Member States:
Five deriving from South Asia, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and two from Southeast Asia, including Myanmar and Thailand.
The objective of building such an alliance was to harness shared and accelerated growth through mutual cooperation in different areas of common interests by mitigating the onslaught of globalization and by utilizing regional resources and geographical advantages.
Unlike many other regional groupings, BIMSTEC is a sector-driven cooperative organization. Starting with six sectors—including trade, technology, energy, transport, tourism and fisheries—for sectoral cooperation in the late 1997, it expanded to embrace nine more sectors—including agriculture, public health, poverty alleviation, counter-terrorism, environment, culture, people to people contact and climate change—in 2008.
WHAT BIMSTEC MEANS FOR INDIA AND CHALLENGES
- For India, the establishment of BIMST-EC, later BIMSTEC, was yet another opportunity, besides the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to engage with Southeast Asia, at least partially.
- The scope for direct connectivity with Southeast Asia via Northeast India and Myanmar, counter-terrorism and anti-insurgency cooperation with Myanmar and other members, potential access to alternative energy resources in Myanmar as well as economic opportunities available in the ASEAN region had evoked sufficient interest in New Delhi to join BIST-EC.
- Reason for India to reach out to its BIMSTEC neighbours has been the stagnation of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). This limited both the scope of India’s growing economic aspirations as well as the role it could play in improving regional governance.
- India is currently the largest contributor to the BIMSTEC secretariat’s budget. India’s annual contribution was Rs. 2 crore (or 32% of the total secretariat budget) for 2017-18. With the secretariat planning to strengthen its capacity by increasing human resources and the number of officials representing each member state, India may need to consider allocating more resources. India’s generosity would be a key test of its commitment to the subregional grouping.
- Another issue would be for India to counter the impression that BIMSTEC is an India-dominated bloc, a problem that it faced for a long time in SAARC. In reality, the suspicion was mutual in SAARC — while India was wary of the smaller neighbours ‘ganging up’ against it, the smaller neighbours were worried that closer integration might lead to India’s domination.
- The China question:Another strategic challenge for India is that China has long desired to be part of the SAARC grouping. Some SAARC members also have their own interests in bringing China into the equation: they want it to balance India’s dominance. China has observer status in SAARC. When this was given, it only increased the demand to make China a full member of SAARC.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR OTHER MEMBERS
Besides India, other members too considered it as an important mechanism to achieve their national goals and regional aspirations.
Membership in regional and sub-regional groupings like ASEAN and BIMSTEC provided its military rulers an opportunity to gain some sort of recognition among the regional stakeholders.
Thailand, was looking for an opportunity to enhance its trade and connectivity with the South Asian countries under the ambit of its ‘Look West’ policy. So, in a way, India’s ‘Look East’ and Thailand’s ‘Look West’ policy complemented each other within the ambit of BIMSTEC.
The ongoing India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and the India-Myanmar Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project are expected to further augment connectivity and economic cooperation in the sub-region and beyond.
Countries like Sri Lanka considered BIMSTEC as an opportunity to engage with the economically booming Southeast Asian countries, especially after several failed attempts to join ASEAN in the decade prior to the establishment of BIMSTEC. With India and Thailand as its important economic partners, Sri Lanka is looking forward to the implementation of BIMSTEC Free Trade Agreement and BIMSTEC Motor Vehicles Agreement.For the land-blocked countries like Nepal and Bhutan, BIMSTEC holds the prospect of enhancing their connectivity with the rest of the region.
RENEWED INTEREST IN BIMSTEC
Earlier in October 2016, India had hosted the BIMSTEC members at Goa during the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Outreach Summit. It was viewed as a pragmatic step on India’s part, demonstrating its potential to play the role of a regional leader, an aspiration which was instrumental in transforming its ‘Look East’ into ‘Act East’ policy.
India has been clearly signaling its renewed interest in BIMSTEC. Apart from India, other member states too appear to be showing interest in strengthening BIMSTEC.
For BIMSTEC to become an enabler of regional cooperation, it will have to evolve as an organisation that works through a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach. The people-centric approach seems to be the best as BIMSTEC seriously lags behind ASEAN and other regional organisations in terms of people-to-people contacts.
Also, the organisation needs to focus on fewer priority areas for purpose of better implementation. It needs to undertake projects that are economically feasible and result-driven. This would add to the credibility of BIMSTEC. Finally, since the BIMSTEC region is notable for its diversity, the member states need to build on the regional synergies and work towards utilising the available resources in the most optimal manner. This would help build a stronger and a more dynamic BIMSTEC.
India will have to carefully navigate the emerging regional geopolitics, as many of the elements that made SAARC hostage to political rivalry and turned it into a defunct mechanism can re-emerge in BIMSTEC.