The Bay of Bengal Initiative for the Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) Forum recently celebrated its 25th anniversary on 6 June, coinciding with the signing of the Bangkok Declaration on the same date in 1997.
In this landmark epoch of the Forum set up by the member countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand – many discussions are happening about the role played by the Forum and on whether an optimal situation has been reached in the 25 years of its existence.
There are seven priority areas of cooperation, each under a member State that BIMSTEC operates in, including:
a) trade, investment, and development; b) environment and climate change; c) security; d) agriculture and food security; e) people-to-people contact; f) science, technology, and innovation; and g) connectivity.
The potential of BIMSTEC can be understood from the combined GDP figure, which is about $3 trillion and covers nearly 23 per cent of the world’s population.
However, the current Bay of Bengal region is one of the least integrated areas in the world, and hence, its optimal potential is not being realised in these seven priority areas.
Is BIMSTEC Going the SAARC Way?
Trade among BIMSTEC members accounts for about $40 billion, although it was earlier estimated to be $250 billion for the last two years, much of the shortfall being due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the larger points being discussed are about why BIMSTEC has not taken off despite mutual goodwill among member countries and whether it has gone the SAARC way.
The slow evolution of the institutional framework of BIMSTEC has been fashioned along that of SAARC. No effort seems to have been made to learn from the failures or constraints of SAARC.
The BIMSTEC Charter was adopted on 30 March, during the fifth summit this year, and is yet to enter into force.
If one examines the Charter, one realises that it is not futuristic or visionary – there is a reluctance underpinning regional cooperation, let alone integration, to take place in a meaningful way.
However, some development can happen to strengthen institutional arrangements if progress is made on the signed legal instruments during the fifth summit:
BIMSTEC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters.
Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Mutual Cooperation between Diplomatic Academies/Training Institutions of BIMSTEC Member States.
Memorandum of Association on the Establishment of BIMSTEC Technology Transfer Facility (TTF) in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Although member states talk of their commitment to BIMSTEC, there is hardly any demonstrable action towards meaningful regional cooperation or integration in the Bay of Bengal region.
‘If Member States Are Serious'
If member states are serious about meaningful regional cooperation or integration, it has to necessarily involve the people of the region.
A purely state-led and government-driven initiative confined to the realm of officialdom can hardly be seen as commitment to regional cooperation or integration.
If the member states are serious, the movement of trade, goods, and people should be more free. But there is little movement on initiatives towards advancing such programmes. The BIMSTEC visa proposal has seen no progress in years. The BIMSTEC free trade agreement (FTA) has been under negotiation for nearly two decades. All members have been signatories of a Free Trade Area Framework Agreement since 2004, but no real trade boost has happened, despite the intent.
The Secretary-General of BIMSTEC is of the rank of an ambassador. The Secretariat does not have its own funds or experts to be able to implement projects. It is funded through contributions by member states and is run like a deeply bureaucratic organisation that has to get the approval of all member states for everything.
Its role is mainly limited to coordination. Even channels of communication with member states are extremely official and stringent.
BIMSTEC's Master Plan
BIMSTEC is strictly state-led and government-driven. There is a BIMSTEC Network of Policy Think Tanks (BNPTT), which has made some recommendations, but the study of which has been rather slow. Possibly, this has to be energised and the seven member countries in their respective areas have to engage the think tanks to provide sectoral inputs for work and activities.
Although there is talk of BIMSTEC being a bridge between South and Southeast Asia, any effort towards building such a link remain invisible. Thus, the prospects of having BIMSTEC move ahead on trade and cooperation with ASEAN is missing.
From an Indian perspective, the Act East Policy can be best realised if BIMSTEC and ASEAN are seen to be working more closely in identified areas.
There is a BIMSTEC Master Plan for transport connectivity, which was approved by the fifth summit. How successful this will be in realising the projects in the Master Plan is unclear.
The prospects of water connectivity among the countries are tremendous. The ports in the region have tremendous potential of facilitating trade. Even Nepal and Bhutan, away from the ports of their own, are to benefit when waterways are used for connectivity.
The Objectives of BIMSTEC
It is important to revisit the objectives of BIMSTEC as a whole – if it is to impact the lives of the people of the region, it would need to rethink its working methods and prioritise a few meaningful and progressive goals to achieve them in a time-bound manner.
The BIMSTEC visa may be an example of such a goal, as also the seamless transition and movement of students in one field, with a transfer of credits and harmonised curricula. A smooth labour transfer in some categories and student work visas should also be facilitated.
The Bay of Bengal has always been considered a next-generation theatre for strategic powers to play a big role in developing a stronger Asia. In the near future, almost all of the western influence in Asia will need support in the Bay of Bengal, and BIMSTEC is gradually becoming an appropriate option for such a cooperation.
Hence, for a country like India, it becomes extremely important to provide proper leadership and solutions to all problems in the region. That is why BIMSTEC’s main focus will always have to be uniting the Bay of Bengal.
(Subimal Bhattacharjee is a commentator on cyber and security issues around Northeast India. He can be reached @subimal on Twitter. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)