5th BIMSTEC Summit – Explained, pointwise

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Introduction

The 5th Bay of Bengal Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) Summit would occur on 30th March 2022 in a virtual mode and hosted by Sri Lanka, the current BIMSTEC chair. To prepare for the Summit, meetings of BIMSTEC Senior Officials (SOM) took place on 28 March 2022 followed by meetings of the BIMSTEC Foreign Ministers (BMM) on 29 March 2022. The summit on March 30 will be a completely virtual affair, largely because of concerns among member states about the situation in Myanmar following last year’s military coup. Some member states, including India, were reluctant to share a platform with Myanmar’s junta, which has shown no signs of moving the country back towards democracy.

What is 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 organization is now known as BIMSTEC. 

It comprises seven Member States with the admission of Myanmar on 22 December 1997, and Bhutan and Nepal in February 2004. It is headquartered at Dhaka, Bangladesh.

It not only connects South and Southeast Asia, but also the ecologies of the Great Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal. It aims to create an enabling environment for economic development; accelerate social progress and promote collaboration on matters of common interest in the region.

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What are the expectations from the current summit?

BIMSTEC Charter: The adoption of rules, a framework and long-term goals is expected to streamline the operations of BIMSTEC and allow the organization to finally deliver on its potential.

It will help BIMSTEC to become a dynamic and productive regional organization through meaningful cooperation between the members.

BIMSTEC Master Plan for Transport Connectivity: It is a vision for implementing multimodal connectivity projects for greater regional integration. It will seek to combine shipping routes with road transport for the movement of people and cargo.

What have been the achievements of BIMSTEC?

BIMSTEC Centre for Weather and Climate: The Memorandum of Association (MoA) on the establishment of this centre was signed in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar on 4 March 2014 at the Third BIMSTEC Summit. Currently the BIMSTEC Centre for Weather and Climate Change functions from the National Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting (NCMRWF), Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India.

BIMSTEC Energy Centre (BEC): The First BIMSTEC Energy Ministers Conference held on 04 October 2005, agreed to the setting up of a BIMSTEC Energy Centre (BEC). It aims to share experience in reforms, restructuring, regulation and best practice in the energy sector.

The BIMSTEC Permanent Secretariat was opened in 2014 at Dhaka. It helps in better management of regional issues.

BIMSTEC Permanent Working Committee (BPWC) to deal with administrative and financial matters of the Secretariat was set up post the 4th Kathmandu summit of 2018.

BIMSTEC convention on cooperation in combating international terrorism, transnational organised crime and illicit drug trafficking has come into force in March 2021. It encourages data sharing and intelligence gathering on criminal activities.

What is the significance of BIMSTEC?

Alternative to SAARC: South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) has largely become defunct because of differences between New Delhi and Islamabad. Further the operability of the grouping has again come under peril considering the declining security situation in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover.

Strategic Location: The Bay region is a key transit route between the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. Therefore BIMSTEC as a grouping can help in ensuring freedom of navigation in the waters. It can also help in harnessing and sharing the Bay’s natural wealth.

Combating the web of uncertainties: The institution can help member states tackle future uncertainties that will arise due to climate change, COVID – 19 pandemic and Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Tackling Security Challenges: Members of the grouping face several traditional and non-traditional security challenges that can be duly addressed with enhanced cooperation. 

In this regard, NSAs of members have met thrice since 2017 and are collaborating on counter-terrorism, intelligence-sharing, coastal security, cybersecurity etc.

Development of North East: BIMSTEC can boost the development of the northeast region by providing greater interaction with Bangladesh and Myanmar. For instance, the master plan of connectivity includes the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway and Kolkata-Siliguri-Guwahati-Imphal link.

Better cooperation with ASEAN: India has already come out of RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) agreement that may hinder its trade potential. Therefore a more robust cooperation with Thailand and Myanmar can help in resolving India – ASEAN differences and ensure better implementation of ‘Act East Policy’. 

What are the challenges faced by BIMSTEC?

Stalemate on Agreements: The Free Trade Agreement (FTA), coastal shipping agreement and motor vehicles agreement have undergone numerous negotiations but no consensus is developed over them.

Priority to Bilateralism: The focus remains primarily on enhancing bilateral ties, with multilateralism yet to gain ground despite common ecological concerns and a shared past.

Big brother attitude: Allegations are made on India for playing a dominant role in the organization and neglecting the agendas of small states.

Irregularity in working: The summits are not held on regular intervals and slow pace is observed in working. For instance, it took almost 17 years to establish a permanent secretariat.

Preference to other organizations: Countries like Myanmar and Thailand show more enthusiasm towards ASEAN and neglects the vision of BIMSTEC.

Resource Deficit: Lack of adequate financial and manpower resources is impairing the performance of the body. Although, India is the largest contributor and contributes annually about 32% of the budget.

What lies ahead?

First, it is expected that the BIMSTEC charter would be adopted by member states on 30th March, 2022. However, the countries must not rest on this achievement and instead move on to ‘next steps’ that can be taken to further strengthen BIMSTEC.

Second, the members must accelerate our efforts to boost intra BIMSTEC trade and economic ties. 

They should focus on developing a network of regional supply chains that will reduce our vulnerability to external shocks and give their economies greater resilience and transparency.

Third, India must encourage other member states to consider joining the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI). This will enhance disaster cooperation as all the BIMSTEC members live in one of the most disaster prone regions of the world.

Fourth, the members states cannot ignore the challenges that transnational crime, terrorism, violent extremism or indeed new challenges such as cyber-attacks, pose to them. 

Considering this, they need to put in place the remaining elements of the legal architecture that will enable their law enforcement agencies to collaborate more closely and more effectively.

Fifth, the group should move forward by doing ‘institutional hedging’. This means focus should be on developing collective soft as well as hard power for the group. Thereby  protecting individual interests and shaping up a regional order that works for all the members involved.

Sixth, India should project itself as a compatriot and an equal partner to other BIMSTEC member-countries. This will help reduce its trust deficit and ensure better integration in the region.

Conclusion

BIMSTEC over the years has emerged as a promising sub-regional grouping with growing strategic and economic interests of the member states as well as of the international community in the Bay of Bengal region. India remains committed to further building the momentum of regional cooperation under the BIMSTEC framework and make the organization stronger, vibrant, more effective and result-oriented.

Sources: Hindustan Times, Ministry of External Affairs, Indian Express

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