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Everyday Global: What is BIMSTEC, the Bay of Bengal grouping of nations?

BIMSTEC includes countries of the Bay of Bengal region, and seeks to act as a bridge between South and Southeast Asia.

India had long felt that the potential of SAARC was being under-utilised, and opportunities were being missed due to lack of response and/or an obstructionist approach from Pakistan.

The fifth summit of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) was hosted virtually by Sri Lanka on Wednesday (March 30). Sri Lanka is the current chair of the regional grouping.

Referring to Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in his address: “Recent developments in Europe have raised question marks over the stability of the international order… In this context, it has become important to make BIMSTEC regional cooperation more active… Regional security is very important now.”

It was time to make the Bay of Bengal a “bridge of connectivity, prosperity and security”, the Prime Minister said.

The grouping

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BIMSTEC includes countries of the Bay of Bengal region, and seeks to act as a bridge between South and Southeast Asia. Originally formed as BIST-EC (Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation) in 1997, it became BIMST-EC after Myanmar joined, and BIMSTEC in 2004 with the inclusion of Nepal and Bhutan.

Push in 2016

Before this week’s virtual summit, BIMSTEC leaders had last met in Kathmandu in August 2018. Despite having been in existence for many years, the grouping had been largely ignored until India gave it a renewed push in October 2016, a month after the terrorist attack in Uri. Alongside the BRICS summit in Goa, India hosted an outreach summit with leaders of BIMSTEC countries. Weeks earlier, some of these countries had supported New Delhi’s call for a boycott of the SAARC summit scheduled in Islamabad that November.

India had long felt that the potential of SAARC was being under-utilised, and opportunities were being missed due to lack of response and/or an obstructionist approach from Pakistan. At the SAARC summit in Kathmandu in 2014, Modi said these opportunities must be realised “through SAARC or outside it” and “among us all or some of us”.

Win-win for nations

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Constantino Xavier, research fellow at the public policy think tank Centre for Social and Economic Progress, wrote in a paper for Carnegie India in 2018 that Bangladesh views BIMSTEC as a platform to position itself as more than just a small state on the Bay of Bengal, and Sri Lanka sees it as an opportunity to connect with Southeast Asia and serve as the subcontinent’s hub for the wider Indo-Pacific region.

Nepal and Bhutan aim to connect with the Bay of Bengal region and escape their landlocked geographic positions. For Myanmar and Thailand, “connecting more deeply with India…would allow them to access a rising consumer market and, at the same time, balance Beijing and develop an alternative to China’s massive inroads into Southeast Asia”, Xavier wrote.

For India, the region’s largest economy, a lot is at stake. In a speech given earlier, Modi had said BIMSTEC not only connects South and Southeast Asia, but also the ecologies of the Great Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal. “With shared values, histories, ways of life, and destinies that are interlinked, BIMSTEC represents a common space for peace and development. For India, it is a natural platform to fulfil our key foreign policy priorities of ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act East’,” he had said.

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Countering China

China has undertaken a massive drive to finance and build infrastructure in South and Southeast Asia through the Belt and Road Initiative in almost all BIMSTEC countries except Bhutan and India. BIMSTEC could allow India to push a constructive agenda to counter Chinese investments, and instead follow best practices for connectivity projects based on recognised international norms. The Chinese projects are widely seen as violating these norms.

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The Bay of Bengal can be showcased as open and peaceful, contrasting with China’s behaviour in the South China Sea. “It could develop codes of conduct that preserve freedom of navigation and apply existing law of the seas regionally. In addition, BIMSTEC could stem the region’s creeping militarisation by instituting, for instance, a Bay of Bengal Zone of Peace that seeks to limit any bellicose behaviour of extra-regional power,” Xavier wrote.

First published on: 01-04-2022 at 09:59:50 am
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