ON THURSDAY, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached Kathmandu for the fourth summit of the seven-nation grouping BIMSTEC. Although it has existed since 1997, BIMSTEC had been largely ignored until a push in recent years. A look at how it is emerging as a platform in which India and four other SAARC members could discuss sub-regional cooperation:
The renewed push came from India in October 2016, a month after the terror 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. When that summit was postponed, India claimed victory in isolating Pakistan.
India had long felt 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”.
“As former Indian ambassador to Myanmar Rajiv Bhatia once noted that BIMSTEC was at risk of being little more than a ‘rebound relationship’ whenever New Delhi fails to pursue regional integration through SAARC,” Constantino Xavier, fellow at Brookings India, wrote in a paper in 2018 for Carnegie India.
What connects the 7
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 when Myanmar joined, and BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) in 2004 with the inclusion of Nepal and Bhutan.
Around 22% of the world’s population live in the seven countries around the Bay of Bengal, with a combined GDP close to $2.7 trillion. All seven countries have sustained average annual rates of growth between 3.4% and 7.5% from 2012 to 2016. A fourth of the world’s traded goods cross the bay every year.
Xavier wrote in his paper that Bangladesh views BIMSTEC as a platform to position itself as more than just a small state in the Bay of Bengal. Sri Lanka sees it as an opportunity to realise its ambition to connect with Southeast Asia and serve as the subcontinent’s hub for the wider Indian Ocean and Pacific regions. For Nepal and Bhutan, BIMSTEC stands to further their aspirations to reconnect with the Bay of Bengal region and escape their landlocked geographic positions. For Myanmar and Thailand, Xavier wrote, “connecting more deeply with India across the Bay of Bengal also 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”.
For India, the region’s largest economy , a lot is at stake. In a 20th anniversary speech last year, Modi 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 said.
China on mind
The Bay of Bengal is crucial for an increasingly assertive China in maintaining its access route to the Indian Ocean. As 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 is a new battleground in the India-China battle for dominance.
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.
Again, the Bay of Bengal can be showcased as open and peaceful, contrasting it with China’s behaviour in 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 behavior of extraregional power,” Xavier wrote.
Joyeeta Bhattacharjee, senior fellow with Observer Research Foundation (ORF), wrote in a paper this year: “The two organisations — SAARC and BIMSTEC — focus on geographically overlapping regions. However, this does not make them equal alternatives. SAARC is a purely regional organisation, whereas BIMSTEC is inter-regional and connects both South Asia and ASEAN… Since the SAARC summit has only been postponed, not cancelled, the possibility of revival remains.”
Ground to cover
BIMSTEC planned to hold summits every two years, ministerial meetings every year, and senior officials’ meetings twice a year. But only three summits have taken place in 20 years, no ministerial meeting was held between 2014 and 2017, and the senior officials’ meeting was postponed seven times during 2014-17.
In a paper last week, former diplomat Rajiv Bhatia, distinguished fellow at Gateway House, stressed: “… BIMSTEC leaders need vitally to reduce the present number of 14 of chosen fields of cooperation, devoting their attention and resources to a limited canvas —six. The sectors deserving priority attention are: trade and investment, connectivity, energy, people-to-people exchanges, counter-terrorism and the Blue Economy.”
Amid Chinese assertiveness, there have also been suggestions of BIMSTEC engagement with other groupings: ASEAN, (Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal) BBIN, IORA (Indian Ocean Rim Association), MGC (Mekong Ganga Cooperation) and CMLV (Cambodia-Myanmar-Laos-Vietnam).
As BIMSTEC meets, K Yhome, senior fellow with ORF, said, “The irony may be that BIMSTEC was in fact once a well-connected subregion through the littorals’ waterways and seaports up until the middle of the 20th century. Indeed, it may be said that current efforts are merely a ‘rediscovery’ of the old routes that once connected these nations.”