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Recently the 17th Ministerial level meeting of the Bay of Bengal Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) took place in a virtual format. India committed to make BIMSTEC a stronger, vibrant and result-oriented grouping. So, it will help in strengthening regional cooperation among countries. Nonetheless, certain challenges have to be addressed to unleash the true potential of BIMSTEC.
Outcomes of the recent BIMSTEC meeting
- Sri Lanka Chaired the 17th Ministerial Meeting.
- During the recent meeting, the leaders agreed to adopt the BIMSTEC Master Plan for Transport Connectivity. They aimed to adopt this in the next BIMSTEC summit (5th) hosted by Sri Lanka. It will lead to better connectivity and integration in the region.
- Further, the BIMSTEC members also aim to sign 3 more agreements in the next summit. Such as,
- Agreement on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters
- MoU on cooperation between diplomatic academies of member states
- Memorandum of association for establishing a technology transfer facility in Colombo
- BIMSTEC Stands for Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation. It is a regional organization founded in 1997 through the Bangkok Declaration.
- It is an international organization of seven nations of South Asia and Southeast Asia. All the members of the organization are lying in the littorals and adjacent areas of the Bay of Bengal.
- Members – Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal, and Bhutan.
- Aim: To create an enabling environment for economic development; accelerate social progress and promote collaboration on matters of common interest in the region.
- Significance: Nearly 1.5 billion people or 22% of the global population comes under the BIMSTEC. Together, it has a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of $2.7 trillion.
- Sectors: Currently, the organization is involved in 15 sectors. This includes sectors such as trade, technology, agriculture, tourism, fisheries, energy, and climate change among others for sectoral cooperation.
- First Summit: Bangkok, Thailand conducted the First BIMSTEC Summit Meeting in 2004.
- BIMSTEC not only connects South and Southeast Asia, but also the ecologies of the Great Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal.
Relevance of BIMSTEC in Present scenario
- Huge untapped potential: A study by Asian Development Bank has identified 167 projects within the BIMSTEC region that can boost connectivity. However, the grouping has to date only focused on 66 of them. The remaining have not yet received enough attention.
- Synergy with other regions: Better BIMSTEC connectivity can help to improve relations with other regions like south-east Asia.
- For instance, the BIMSTEC master plan will also promote synergy with other connectivity frameworks such as the ASEAN master plan on connectivity 2025.
- Tackling Security Challenges: Members of the grouping face several traditional and non-traditional security challenges. Enhanced cooperation can address them effectively.
- In this regard, National Security Advisors of member countries have met thrice since 2017. Further, the members are collaborating on controlling drug trafficking, facilitating intelligence-sharing, counter-terrorism, coastal security, cybersecurity, etc.
- 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 to tackle any future uncertainties. Especially like challenges in climate change, COVID-19 pandemic and balancing US-China relations, etc.
Achievements of BIMSTEC
- The BIMSTEC Permanent Secretariat was opened in 2014 in 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.
Importance of BIMSTEC for India
- 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.
- Alternative of SAARC: The persistent differences between India and Pakistan in the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) have crippled the organisation. As BIMSTEC comprises similar members excluding Pakistan, it can improve greater cooperation in the region.
- Better cooperation with ASEAN: India has already come out of the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) agreement. As it may hinder India’s trade potential. Therefore, more robust cooperation with Thailand and Myanmar can help in resolving India – ASEAN differences and ensure better implementation of ‘Act East Policy’.
- Countering China: BIMSTEC can help in countering China’s Cheque Book diplomacy. Further, it can strengthen India’s position as a responsible regional power in the Indo-Pacific.
Challenges of BIMSTEC development
- Stalemate on Agreements: The Free Trade Agreement (FTA), coastal shipping agreement, and motor vehicle agreement have undergone numerous negotiations. But so far no consensus is developed over them.
- Priority to Bilateralism: The members of the organization focused primarily on enhancing bilateral ties, with multilateralism. This restricts the development of BIMSTEC despite having common ecological concerns and a shared past.
- Big brother attitude: Allegations are made on India for playing a dominant role in the organisation and neglecting the agendas of small states.
- Irregularity in working: The summits are not held at regular intervals. A slow pace is observed in working. For instance, it took almost 17 years to establish a permanent secretariat.
- Preference to other organisations: Countries like Myanmar and Thailand show more enthusiasm towards ASEAN and neglect 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. India alone contributes about 32% of the annual budget of BIMSTEC.
Suggestions to improve BIMSTEC cooperation
- Member states should adopt the proposed agreements in the upcoming BIMSTEC summit. This will boost the confidence of the organisation.
- Further, the organisation has to develop consensus on long-pending agreements like the BIMSTEC coastal shipping agreement and motor vehicles’ agreement.
- Apart from that, the group has to move forward by doing ‘institutional hedging’. This means focusing on developing collective soft and hard power for the group. Thereby, it will protect individual interests and shape up a regional order.
- Also, The group should focus on facilitating tourism diplomacy, academic and student-exchange programmes, and cross-border public health initiatives.
- India should project itself as a compatriot and an equal partner to other BIMSTEC member-countries. This will reduce the trust deficit and ensure better integration in the region.
- BIMSTEC members have to finalise the Visa Facilitation agreement expeditiously. This will help strengthen the interest of the common man in regional groupings. This is significant as a tide of protectionism is flowing across the world.
The year 2022 will mark the silver jubilee of the organization and would provide a symbolic opportunity to strengthen regional cooperation and multilateral ties. Considering this, India and other member states must work on 3Cs – cooperation, coordination, and collaboration that would unleash the true potential of BIMSTEC.