Realizing the importance of regional groupings and forums, which are increasingly evolving as strategic groupings of much influence, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) has also decided to enhance cooperation in many areas, particularly through a Free Trade Agreement in a bid to increase intra-regional and inter-regional importance.
India and Thailand, the two strongest economies of the grouping were the pioneers of BIMSTEC. As their economic interests grew in the region, the two nations realized the importance of a geographically determined grouping such as BIMSTEC which could promote and secure the economic interests of their own economies while dispensing development across the region as well. India primarily evolved and expanded BIMSTEC as an integral expression of its Look East Policy, while Thailand approached it in context of its Look West Policy.
Formed in 1997, the BIMSTEC initially comprised of Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand. While Myanmar joined the same year, Nepal and Bhutan joined in 2004. This was the same year BIMSTEC held its first summit in Bangkok in 2004.
However, despite India’s efforts to expand its Look East Policy towards a more fruitful direction, challenges in its neighborhood will substantially deter India to promote BIMSTEC in a credible way.
Except Bhutan, most BIMSTEC members have serious internal problems, be it Thailand, Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or India. How then, can a block like BIMSTEC be promoted successfully?
Unless the member countries don’t address their domestic issues, it will be very difficult for the grouping to push forward key economic projects which can boost the region’s growth prospects. Border issues, refugee issues and other bureaucratic hurdles have long stalled BIMSTEC’s ability to move forward in a progressive manner. Lack of political will has also derailed the process.
The natural and indispensible geographical connectivity should automatically translate into regional cooperation, trade and investment. The member countries are facing relative problems from emerging non-traditional security threats like food and energy security, climate change and disaster management for which regional cooperation is essential to collectively deal with these mounting problems. Trade and investment, energy, climate, tourism and cooperation in agriculture can also boost growth.
Indeed, BIMSTEC has identified these areas of cooperation as priority areas. In all, it has identified fourteen priority sectors. While trade and investment, transport and communication, energy, tourism, technology and fisheries were inducted as early as 1998 at their ministerial meeting, by 2005 they had identified areas like agriculture, public health, poverty alleviation, counter-terrorism and trans-national crime, environment, natural disaster management and culture were which were also included. In addition, each country was given a lead role under all these themes, commensurate with their ability and credibility.
While the expansion of cooperation has been commensurate with time as it increased from technical and economic to include aspects like culture, climate and security, there is still a long way to go for the group in terms of accountability and follow-up action.
The fact that the group is yet to implement the Free Trade Agreement which is being spoken about for the past sixteen years means that there is a lack of political will to take such crucial measures seriously. Also, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand have been largely unsuccessful in fully implementing the transport corridor between the countries, which is a prime cause of concern as it doesn’t solve any purpose to talk of increased trade and investment without actually having tangible infrastructure to support it. Moreover, the Trade Negotiating Committee which was set to debate and negotiate its agendas on trade and investment still lacks any credible achievement.
Recently BIMSTEC conducted its third summit in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar. The summit was attended by the heads of state of member countries. While they recognized the threat that terrorism poses to peace, stability and economic progress in the region and emphasized the need for closer cooperation in combating terrorism and transnational crime, the domestic problems in most of the countries is spiraling out of control.
While Thailand is undergoing a huge political unrest as an anti-government wave in the country is keeping the government at its knees and its economy in a downward spiral, Bangladesh is also undergoing huge economic and political stress, especially in light of the controversial war crime trials. India is headed into general elections which are maintaining an anxious mood among the people and investors alike. Sri Lanka is fire-fighting the remnant concerns of the LTTE while tackling the charge of human rights violation and Nepal is at a make or break stage as the economy is in a disastrous shape and the political future of its government remains largely uncertain.
In such a scenario, wherein all member governments (except Bhutan) are under intense pressure, it is very difficult to imagine just how successful their newly agreed upon plans will be. Moreover, bilateral relations among member countries continue to remain an impediment to the successful implementation of relevant projects.
India and Bangladesh still have huge reservations over the Teesta water sharing dispute and the refugee problem. Bangladesh and Myanmar also have ongoing problems in regard to the Rohingya Muslims as refugees. India and Sri Lanka continue to have friction on the fishermen issue. Domestic and economic compulsions of individual member countries also often discourage them from undertaking major trade and infrastructure plans as decided by the group.
Therefore, unless the group doesn’t work in a comprehensive manner to assure a peaceful, stable and cooperative regional environment, BIMSTEC will not be able to deliver on its plans.
Together, the BIMSTEC countries account for over 20% of world population and a combined GDP of over US $2.5 trillion, which automatically translates into how potentially significant this grouping can be in terms of demographics and economics alone. Moreover, BIMSTEC is geographically and strategically a link between SAARC and ASEAN, which can have significant strategic dimensions for the whole of Asia.
The importance of BIMSTEC is naturally important for the smaller economies like Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, who definitely need a path such as BIMSTEC to realize their economic development, but more importantly, in context of the emerging power struggle in Asia, the strength of the group can also be a crucial factor for the Look East and Look West Policies of India and Thailand respectively.
For India particularly, the success of its Look East Policy to a great extent rests on the success of how well it manages to push forth its agendas in BIMSTEC to complement its North-East region. As India talks big on integrating its North-East into its economic and strategic policies, there can be no better chance to do so than through BIMSTEC. This approach will not only expedite development in India’s North-East, which is the only link to the BIMSTEC region, it will also give a credible boost to its Look East Policy.
Thus, BIMSTEC is crucial for these countries as the successful progress of BIMSTEC will not only boost their regional standing, it could also alleviate the status of the region as it rightfully deserves. Moreover, BIMSTEC can gain a lot of strategic importance primarily because of its geographic location which it can only take on once the group itself performs work that justifies its creation.
BIMSTEC policies should be made with the agenda of promoting national and regional interests at a multilateral level. Through this platform, the BIMSTEC countries can attract international support and cooperation for developmental projects and fruitful economic policies. Countries like Myanmar and Nepal, that are at the realm of undertaking major economic transformations can hugely benefit from such efforts. Through BIMSTEC, their co-members can invest in the development and progress of these countries and promote regional interest. This will also boost the image of the group.
Conversely, the group must also press concerns and help its co-member countries from tackling domestic issues in a responsible and accurate manner. Currently, countries like Bangladesh, Thailand and Sri Lanka are undergoing tumultuous times at the domestic front. BIMSTEC must press these countries to bring stability back so that the broader region doesn’t get affected.
Also, BIMSTEC can prove to be an apt platform for member countries to discuss bilateral issues and foster relations among each other to strengthen the regional bloc and promote peace and stability in the region.
BIMSTEC must ensure that the crucial agendas and strong points of member countries are fostered and targeted for development and prosperity in the region. This approach will help cultivate the individuality of member countries while strengthening BIMSTEC’s authority as a responsible bloc. More importantly, it will help create the image of BIMSTEC as a group of significance and relevance.