BIMSTEC: RSTV – In Depth

Participants:

Anchor: Smriti Rastogi

Importance of this Episode:

  • The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral, Technical and Economic Cooperation or BIMSTEC, is a regional organization of 7 member states in South Asia and South East Asia.
  • This sub-regional organization came into being on June 6th 1997, through the Bangkok declaration. Headquartered in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the organization includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand.
  • Starting with six sectors, including trade, technology, energy, transport, tourism and fisheries, for the sectoral cooperation in late 1997, it embraced 9 more, including agriculture, public health, poverty alleviation, counter-terrorism, environment, culture, people-to-people contacts, and climate change in 2008.
  • The 4th BIMSTEC Summit is being held in Nepal, Kathmandu for 2 days on August 30th and 31st, 2018.
  • In this episode of In Depth, the inception of BIMSTEC summit, its focus areas, and its significance will be discussed in detail.  

Analysis by the Experts:

  • The 4th BIMSTEC Summit was held in Nepal on the 30th and the 31st of August, 2018. At the conclusion of the 2-day summit, member nations unanimously adopted the ‘Kathmandu Declaration”, calling for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable Bay of Bengal region.
  • They deplored terrorism as a great threat to the international peace and security and pledged to jointly combat terrorism in all its forms. Member nations also signed a memorandum of understanding to establish the BIMSTEC grid interconnection to enhance energy cooperation among member states.
  • Nepalese Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli also handed over the Chairmanship of the forum to Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena. Sri Lanka will now host the 5th Summit of BIMSTEC.

Kathmandu Declaration:  

  • The 18 point Kathmandu declaration is expected to enhance the effectiveness of the BIMSTEC Secretariat by engaging it in various technical and economic activities in the region.
  • The declaration lays stress on Cooperation based on respect for the principles of Sovereign Equality, Territorial Integrity, Political Independence, Non-Interference in internal affairs, Peaceful Co-existence and Mutual Benefit.  
  • Work collectively towards making BIMSTEC a stronger, more effective and result oriented organization for achieving a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable Bay of Bengal region.
  • It also resolves to achieve an enhanced level of economic and social development in the region.
  • It also reposes faith unequivocally in the principles and purposes of the UN Charter and strives to strengthen it.
  • BIMSTEC leaders strongly condemned terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. The declaration says that the nations deplore terrorist attacks in all parts of the world, including in BIMSTEC countries.
  • They also strongly condemn terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.
  • It also states that there can be no justification whatsoever for any act of terrorism.
  • BIMSTEC nations affirmed their support to identify and hold accountable States and non-State entities that encourage, support, or finance terrorism, provide sanctuaries to terrorists and terror groups and falsely extol their virtues.
  • It also calls upon all countries to devise a comprehensive approach to stop terror financing.

PM’s Address:

  • In his address, PM Narendra Modi appealed to BIMSTEC member nations to ensure regional peace and security for the development of the region. He also urged nations to unite to combat terrorism, cross-border crime and drugs.
  • PM Modi made a strong pitch for enhanced regional connectivity at the 4th BIMSTEC summit in Kathmandu. PM Modi said that there was an opportunity to enhance connectivity in trade, economy, transport, digital and people-to-people engagement.
  • PM Modi said that India is committed to work with BIMSTEC member states in critical sectors and to combat terrorism and drug trafficking.
  • The Prime Minister also called for humanitarian assistance and relief efforts from BIMSTEC nations during natural disasters in member countries.
  • PM Modi announced scholarships to students, researchers and professionals from BIMSTEC member states to study at the Nalanda and other Universities. He also invited all BIMSTEC leaders, to attend the International Buddhist Conclave to be held in India in August 2020 as guests of honour.
  • PM Modi mentioned that the region has become a meeting point for India’s neighbourhood first and Act East policies.
  • PM Modi also held several bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the BIMSTEC summit.

This was the 4th summit of the BIMSTEC which is a sub-regional  grouping.

What does BIMSTEC Stand For?

  • BIMSTEC is a regional grouping with 7 member states that lie in the littoral and adjacent areas of the Bay of Bengal. This sub-regional organization came into being on the 6th of June, 1997 through the Bangkok declaration.
  • The BIMSTEC Permanent Secretariat is in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
  • BIMSTEC constitutes 7 member states, namely: 5 from South Asia, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and 2 from Southeast Asia, namely: Myanmar and Thailand.
  • Initially, the economic bloc was formed with 4 member states, with the acronym “BIST-EC”, which included Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. Following the inclusion of Myanmar on 22nd December, 1997, during a special ministerial meeting in Bangkok, the group was renamed “BIMST-EC”. With the admission of Nepal and Bhutan in the 6th ministerial meeting, on February 2004, in Thailand, the organisation became BIMSTEC.
  • Starting with 6 sectors including trade, technology, energy, transport, tourism, and fisheries for sectoral cooperation in late 1997, it expanded to embrace 9 more sectors, namely: agriculture, public health, counter-terrorism, poverty alleviation, environment, culture, people-to-people contacts and climate change in 2008.

BIMSTEC Summits:

  • The first BIMSTEC Summit was organized on the 31st of July, 2004 in Bangkok, Thailand.
  • The second summit was held on 13th November, 2008 at New Delhi, India.
  • The 3rd Summit was held on the 4th of March, 2014 at Nay PyiDaw in Myanmar.
  • The 4th Summit was held on August 30th and 31st, 2018 at Kathmandu, Nepal.
  • The regional group forms a bridge between South and Southeast Asia and represents a reinforcement of relations between these countries.
  • BIMSTEC has established a platform for inter-regional cooperation between SAARC and ASEAN members. The BIMSTEC region is home to around 1.5 Billion people. This constitutes around 22% of the global population with a combined GDP of about 2.7 trillion USD economies.
  • All seven countries have sustained an average annual growth between 3.4% and 7.5% from 2012 to 2016.

The objective of building such an alliance was to harness accelerated growth through mutual cooperation in different areas of common interest 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. With differences coming in way between India and Pakistan in the SAARC, groupings like BIMSTEC can take forward the concept of regional cooperation in a different manner.

Because of its geographical location, BIMSTEC holds utmost importance for South and South East Asia. With a combined GDP of 2.7 trillion dollars, BIMSTEC becomes a sector driven cooperative organization. BIMSTEC also lends itself to sub-regional economic cooperation to other nations. Since it’s an organization of 7 developing nations, it is important for BIMSTEC to respect territorial integrity and political independence.

The two decades old, BIMSTEC has been recently revived by its 7 members. BIMSTEC’s primary objective is to facilitate technological and economic cooperation among its members. When it started in 1997, BIMSTEC had six areas of cooperation, including trade, technology, energy, transport, tourism and fisheries. But with changing times and requirements, 9 more sectors were included in 2008. They included: Agriculture, public health, poverty alleviation, counter-terrorism, environment, culture, people-to-people contacts, and climate change.  

BIMSTEC represents 1.6 Billion people of diverse culture. It is based on two founding principles: a) to respect the principle of Sovereign equality, Territorial Integrity, Political Independence, Non-Interference in internal affairs, Peaceful Co-existence and Mutual Benefit.  It also aims at constituting an addition to and not being a substitute for bilateral, regional, or multilateral cooperation involving member states. India is the region’s largest economy. On the 20th anniversary of BIMSTEC, in 2016, PM Modi said that BIMSTEC not only connects South and South East Asia, but also the ecologies of the great Himalayas, and the Bay of Bengal. He further said that BIMSTEC members have shared values, histories, way of life and destinies that are interlinked. He said that BIMSTEC represents a common space for peace and development. He categorically defined the importance of BIMSTEC as a platform that fulfils India’s neighbourhood first and Act East Policy. BIMSTEC also lends itself to sub-regional economic cooperation, something that is also proposed by India.

Experts believe that BIMSTEC’s regional connectivity failed to grab India’s attention because of member nations that are less developed than India. Even after 2 decades, BIMSTEC’s integration within the region remained limited. But a stronger BIMSTEC means a more stable and flourishing Asia.

Two organizations: SAARC and BIMSTEC focus on geographically overlapping regions. But, they are not equal alternatives. SAARC is a purely regional organization, whereas BIMSTEC is inter-regional and connects both South Asia and the ASEAN. But, they have overlapping interests in terms of functions and goals. To understand the importance of these organizations and their differences, it is necessary to understand the need for regional cooperation in South Asia in the very first place.

Let’s take a look at how SAARC and BIMSTEC are different and what their standing is in the region:

SAARC has 8 member countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. As of 2015, 21% of the world’s population, and 3.8% or 2.9 Trillion USD of its GDP, was in the SAARC region. In the past, India has spent more political capital and effort to make SAARC work than on BIMSTEC. However, the latter lends itself more naturally to regional integration, including physical connectivity and economic cooperation than SAARC which is dominated by India and Pakistan and is naturally hamstrung by tensions between the two countries. Thus, BIMSTEC is becoming a more vibrant organization when compared to SAARC. It has also got the potential to be more successful. Despite having been around for over 30 decades, SAARC’s performance has been less than satisfactory, with its role in strengthening regional cooperation coming under scrutiny.

Objectives of SAARC:

  • Promoting welfare of the people
  • Accelerating economic growth, social progress, and cultural development
  • Strengthening collective self-reliance
  • Contribute to mutual trust and understanding among member nations
  • Strengthening cooperation with other developing countries
  • Cooperating with international and regional organizations  with similar aims and purposes

While SAARC has established itself as a regional forum, it has failed to attain these objectives.

Reasons for failure of SAARC:

  • Lack of trust among member nations like India and Pakistan
  • In recent times, Pakistan’s non-cooperation has stalled many major initiatives, including the SAARC Motor Vehicle Agreement
  • The SAARC Motor Vehicle Agreement (SAARC- MVA), which was crucial for harnessing regional connectivity across South Asia could not be signed in 2014 due to Pakistan’s dithering.
  • The group faced another setback after the 19th SAARC Summit scheduled to be held in Pakistan in 2016. This was suspended for an indefinite period as member countries declined to participate- a signal that there was an absence of a conducive, regional environment.
  • SAARC has also been a failure in the area of security cooperation. For instance, while cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan is a major concern for India, Pakistan has failed to address these concerns.

BIMSTEC, on the other hand, has been hailed as a platform for regional cooperation. It connects the littoral countries of the Bay of Bengal and the Himalayan ecologies. A big reason for the success of BIMSTEC countries is that member countries have generally cordial relationships. However, there are shortcomings as well:

  • The grouping was formed in 1997, but its record in terms of tangible achievements is not so impressive. BIMSTEC emerged as a vehicle for regional cooperation with its primary focus on economic and technical cooperation among the countries of South Asia and Southeast Asia.
  • It’s major strength lies in that it includes two influential regional powers, India and Thailand.
  • This lays to rest the fears of dominance by one big power.
  • BIMSTEC promotes enhanced connectivity with ASEAN countries and helps smaller countries like Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan to develop connectivity with ASEAN nations- the hub of major economic activities globally.
  • Comparing BIMSTEC and SAARC in terms of trade, trade amongst the BIMSTEC countries reached 6% in just a decade, while in SAARC, it has remained around 5% since its inception. BIMSTEC provides nations in the Bay of Bengal region an opportunity to work together to create a common space for peace and development. Given the fairly amicable relationship between member states of BIMSTEC, increasing its performance and its effectiveness, is an achievable goal as long as the countries exhibit enough political will and mutual respect.

Mains Questions:

  1. BIMSTEC as a regional grouping holds more promise for India than the SAARC. Comment.
    (250 Words, 12.5 marks)
  2. BIMSTEC can play a vital role in achieving a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable ‘Bay of Bengal’ region. Analyse. (250 Words, 12.5 marks)

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