BIMSTEC as key to a new South Asian regional order

Source– The post is based on the article “BIMSTEC as key to a new South Asian regional order” published in The Hindu on 8th December 2022.

Syllabus: GS2- Regional grouping

Relevance–  BIMSTEC

News– The article explains the importance of BIMSTEC and scope for improvement in its working. It also explains the weaknesses of SAARC.

What is SAARC? SAARC is an intergovernmental organisation. It was established by Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to promote economic growth in South Asia. Afghanistan acceded to SAARC later.

What are the weaknesses of 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.

The intraregional trade and investment in South Asia are very low when compared to other regions such as the ASEAN and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Pakistan has adopted an obstructionist attitude within SAARC. It has repeatedly blocked 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 practically dead.

Why is regionalism important for South Asia?

Bilateralism is undoubtedly important. It can at best complement, not substitute, regional or multilateral efforts. Regionalism has brought immense success in other parts such as East Asia and Africa.

A new concept of new regional economic order has been developed. It is a process through which developing countries search for a trade-development model, based on incrementalism and flexibility.

Regionalism can deliver prosperity in the South Asian region too, especially because multilateralism is weakening.

Current government has adopted ‘neighbourhood first’ policy. India can judiciously employ regionalism to serve its interests in the entire region.

What is BIMSTEC and its importance?

Reviving SAARC by infusing political energy into it and updating its dated Charter can make it functional, but doesn’t look practical at present. So, the next best scenario is to look at other regional instruments such as the BIMSTEC. It is an intergovernmental organisation established in 1997.

BIMSTEC comprises five South Asian nations named Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, India and Sri Lanka and two ASEAN countries named Myanmar and Thailand. Importantly, Pakistan is not a BIMSTEC member.

After 25 years, BIMSTEC finally adopted its Charter earlier this year. 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.

What is the weakness of BIMSTEC?

BIMSTEC Charter, to boost economic integration, does not contain the flexible participation scheme found in ASEAN Charter. This flexible scheme, also known as the ‘ASEAN Minus X’ formula, allows two or more ASEAN members to initiate negotiations for economic commitments.

A flexible ‘BIMSTEC Minus X’ formula might have allowed India and Bangladesh or India and Thailand to conduct their ongoing bilateral free trade agreement negotiations under the broader BIMSTEC umbrella. This would have eventually strengthened BIMSTEC by enabling the gradual and incremental expansion of these binding commitments to other members.

What are the steps that need to be taken for strengthening the BIMSTEC?

BIMSTEC should not end up as another SAARC. its member countries should raise the stakes.

A high-quality FTA offering deep economic integration. would be an ideal step.

India should explore legal ways to move successful SAARC institutions such as SAU to BIMSTEC.

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