BIMSTEC as an alternative #30

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Mains Paper: 2 | International Relations

'BIMSTEC could be an alternative to SAARC for regional cooperation'. Comment.


• South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is unlikely to make a comeback, the election of Imran Khan in Pakistan notwithstanding.

• India’s efforts to promote regional cooperation will continue to focus on the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).

• But unless leaders from the seven BiIMSTEC member-states use this week’s summit in Kathmandu to strengthen the organization’s capacity and set clear priorities.

What is BIMSTEC?

The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is an international organisation of seven nations of South Asia and South East Asia, housing 1.5 billion people and having a combined gross domestic product of $2.5 trillion (2014). The BIMSTEC member states—Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan, and Nepal—are among the countries dependent on the Bay of Bengal.

Can India lead?

• India has a special responsibility to prove it sees Bimstec as more than a rebound relationship to SAARC.

• In October 2016, just after the cancellation of Saarc summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi convened a Brics-Bimstec outreach summit in Goa,

• He promised to revive BIMSTEC as India’s priority organization to promote regional cooperation.

• He emphasized that the Bay of Bengal countries had “shared aspirations for growth, development, commerce and technology”, and that Bimstec was the natural platform for India to simultaneously implement its regional connectivity, Neighbourhood First and Act East policies.

Why is BIMSTEC is important for India?

. South Asia is one of the least integrated region in the world. With SAAFTA being a non starter and the continuous animosity between India and Pakistan, sub regional cooperation is the only way forward.

• With China breathing down their necks, several of these smaller states are welcoming greater Indian initiative across the region, even if only to tactically increase their own bargaining power with Beijing.

• Bimstec will continue to underperform in each and every regard unless member-states commit significant resources to strengthen the organization.

Problems with BIMSTEC:

• First, nothing will progress unless the BIMSTEC secretariat is significantly empowered.

• Regions often lead to multilateral organizations, but strong organizations can also make or revive regions.

• With a paltry budget of $0.2 million and a total staff of less than 10 people, including the secretary general and three directors, the secretariat will need significantly more human and financial resources to implement its bold mandate.

• Member-states will also have to delegate autonomy to the secretariat to hire technical experts, set the multilateral agenda, and serve as the driving force between summits and ministerial meetings.

• If leaders fail to meet at the highest level, as during last year’s 20th anniversary, they can’t expect officials to perform magical implementation.

• India will need to take on an informal Bimstec leadership role and lead by example.

• Officials from Thailand, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka have repeatedly expressed their willingness to focus on Bimstec, provided India walks the talk and takes the first step.


• Bimstec will have to prioritize economic connectivity, which is the prerequisite for regional integration in any other domain.

• While the Bimstec free trade agreement has stalled once again, India has instead focused on security issues, including by hosting the first meeting of the Bimstec national security chiefs.

• However, with its limited resources, Bimstec’s success continues to primarily hinge on removing the formidable physical and regulatory obstacles to the free flow of goods, capital, services and people between its member-states.

• Geostrategic imperatives, security dialogues, or counterterrorism cooperation initiatives are no substitute for Bimstec’s primary mandate to increase regional connectivity and revive the Bay of Bengal community.

Related terms:

  • Kaladan multimodal project
  • Trilateral highway- India, Myanmar, Thailand
  • BBIN
  • BCIM

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Hemant Bhatt

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