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Why BIMSTEC must reinvent itself? India and its Neighbourhood

Why BIMSTEC must reinvent itself? India and its Neighbourhood

Relevance:

  • GS 2 || International Relations || International Organizations || BIMSTEC

Why in the news?

Recently, the foreign ministers of BIMSTEC (the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) met virtually.

Present context:

  • While most multilateral groupings from G20 to ASEAN and SCO held their deliberations at the highest political level in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, BIMSTEC leaders failed to do so.
  • In contrast to a meeting of even SAARC leaders held at India’s initiative a year ago, BIMSTEC could not arrange its ministerial meeting until April 2021.

Unfolding rejuvenation:

  • Established as a grouping of four nations — India, Thailand, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka — through the Bangkok Declaration of 1997 to promote rapid economic development, BIMSTEC was expanded later to include three more countries — Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan.
  • It moved at a leisurely pace during its first 20 years with only three summits held and a record of modest achievements.
  • But it suddenly received special attention as New Delhi chose to treat it as a more practical instrument for regional cooperation over a faltering SAARC.
  • The fourth leaders’ summit, held in Kathmandu in August 2018, devised an ambitious plan for institutional reform and renewal that would encompass economic and security cooperation.
  • It took the important decision to craft a charter to provide BIMSTEC with a more formal and stronger foundation. The shared goal now is to head towards “a Peaceful, Prosperous and Sustainable Bay of Bengal Region”.
  • At the second swearing-in of the Present government in May 2019, the leaders of BIMSTEC, not SAARC, were invited as honoured guests.

What is happening for now?

  • Progress has been made on: Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief and security, including counterterrorism, cyber security, and coastal security cooperation, BIMSTEC Network of Policy Think Tanks.
  • Current hot topics: BIMSTEC charter, Master Plan for Transport Connectivity, mutual legal assistance in criminal matters, cooperation between diplomatic academies, and the establishment of a technology transfer facility in Colombo
  • Need to do more on: Free Trade Agreement, regulatory harmonization, adopt policies that develop regional value chains; and eliminate non-tariff barriers, effort to enthuse and engage the vibrant business communities of these seven countries, and expand their dialogue, interactions and transactions

Obstacles in the path:

  • First, a strong BIMSTEC presupposes cordial and tension-free bilateral relations among all its member-states.
  • This has not been the case, given the trajectory of India-Nepal (border issues), India-Sri Lanka (fishermen issues), and Bangladesh-Myanmar (Rohingyas) ties in recent years.
  • Second, uncertainties over SAARC hovers, complicating matters. Both Kathmandu and Colombo want the SAARC summit revived, even as they cooperate within BIMSTEC, with diluted zeal.
  • Third, China’s decisive intrusion in the South-Southeast Asian space has cast dark shadows.
  • Finally, the military coup in Myanmar, brutal crackdown of protesters and continuation of popular resistance resulting in a protracted impasse have produced a new set of challenges.
  • As BIMSTEC readies itself to celebrate the silver jubilee of its formation next year, it faces a serious challenge: to effect “a paradigm-shift in raising the level of our cooperation and regional integration”.
  • The grouping needs to reinvent itself, possibly even rename itself as ‘The Bay of Bengal Community’.
  • It should consider holding regular annual summits. Only then will its leaders convince the region about their strong commitment to the new vision they have for this unique platform linking South Asia and Southeast Asia.

All about BIMSTEC:

Significance of BIMSTEC alliance:

  • To have growth by utilizing untapped natural resources and geographical advantages.
  • It deepen their security and accelerated growth through mutual cooperation.
  • Kaladan Multimodal Project to link India and Myanmar to enhance trade between landlocked north-eastern states through Kolkata (India) and Myanmar.
  • Northeastern regions are easily connected through Myanmar and Thailand.
  • Asian Trilateral Highway i.e. India Myanmar Thailand highway project has promoted the concept of “Act East policy” and “Neighborhood First policy” through road transportation of goods and services.
  • Bay of Bengal is a funnel to Malacca Strait and allowed free movement of knowledge, goods and services with ASEAN and South Asian countries and paved the way for an Asian common market.
  • Bay of Bengal is largest bay in the world. Over one-fifth (22%) of world’s population live in the 7 countries around it and they have a continued GDP close to $2.7 billion.
  • Promote trade, investment and tourism.

Objectives of BIMSTEC

  • Creating an enabling climate for the sub-rapid region’s economic growth.
  • Promoting a spirit of cooperation and equality.
  • Promoting constructive cooperation and mutual assistance in areas where member countries have shared interests
  • Increasing mutual support in the fields of education, research, and technology, among other things.

BIMSTEC’s beginnings                       

  • The Bangkok Declaration established this sub-regional organization in 1997, and it was initially organized with four Member States under the acronym ‘BIST-EC’ (Bangladesh, India, Sri-Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation).
  • After Myanmar’s inclusion, it was renamed BIMST-EC in 1997.
  • In 2004, the name of the grouping was changed to the ‘Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectorial Technical and Economic Cooperation’ after Nepal and Bhutan were admitted (BIMSTEC).

Principles of BIMSTEC:

  1. Peaceful Coexistence
  2. Sovereign Equality
  3. Non-Interference in Internal Affairs
  4. Territorial Integrity
  5. Political Independence
  6. Mutual Benefit
  7. Constitute an addition to and not be a substitute for bilateral, regional or multilateral cooperation involving the Member States.

It is significant in bridging south and south East Asia:

  • Covers 1/4th of world trade annually.
  • Can lead to immense growth in these countries having immense potential through cooperation
  • Covers countries of both South and South East Asia and through the success of BIMSTEC it can lead a way for greater relations among all south and southeast Asian countries

India’s stake in this region:

  • BIMSTEC not only connect South and Southeast India but also the ecologies of Great Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal.
  • 2.45 million People who are landlocked in northeastern states have opportunity to connect vis the bay of Bengal to Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand.
  • BIMSTEC is a platform which will prove to promote peace, stability and prosperity among its member states.

Challenges associated with BIMSTEC

  • Member-State Bilateral Issues: Bangladesh is dealing with one of the worst refugee crises in the world, with Rohingyas from Myanmar fleeing persecution in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Myanmar and Thailand are at odds about their shared border
  • Member state neglect: It appears that India has only used BIMSTEC when it has failed to operate through SAARC in the regional environment, whereas other major members such as Thailand and Myanmar are more concentrated on ASEAN than BIMSTEC.
  • Meeting Inconsistency: BIMSTEC intended to hold summits every two years and ministerial meetings every year, but only four summits have been held in the last 20 years
  • Broad Scope Areas: BIMSTEC’s focus is very broad, encompassing 14 areas of collaboration such as communication, public health, agriculture, and so on. It is proposed that BIMSTEC stay dedicated to small focus areas and collaborate effectively in them.
  • Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Forum: The establishment of another sub-regional initiative, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Forum, with China as a constructive member, has raised more doubts about BIMSTEC’s exclusive capacity
  • No FTA: The BIMSTEC FTA was signed in 2004, but negotiations are still ongoing.

Suggestions to improve BIMSTEC cooperation

  • The draft agreements should be adopted by member states at the forthcoming BIMSTEC summit. This will increase the organization’s morale.
  • In addition, the organization must reach an agreement on long-awaited agreements such as the BIMSTEC coastal shipping agreement and the motor vehicle agreement.
  • Aside from that, the party must move forward by engaging in what is known as “institutional hedging.” This entails concentrating on the group’s combined soft and hard strength. It will thus defend individual interests while also forming a regional order.
  • In addition, the community should concentrate on tourism diplomacy, college and student exchange programs, and cross-border public health initiatives.
  • India should present itself as a fellow country and equal partner to the other BIMSTEC members. This will help to bridge the confidence gap and improve regional integration.
  • Members of BIMSTEC must complete the Visa Facilitation Agreement as soon as possible. This will continue to bolster the common man’s trust in regional groupings. This is important because protectionism is on the rise.

Conclusion:

As BIMSTEC prepares itself to celebrate the silver jubilee of its formation next year, it faces a serious challenge: to effect “a paradigm-shift in raising the level of our cooperation and regional integration”. The grouping needs to reinvent itself, possibly even rename itself as ‘The Bay of Bengal Community’. It should consider holding regular annual summits so that its leaders convince the region about their strong commitment to the new vision they have for this unique platform linking South Asia and Southeast Asia.

Mains oriented question:

Examine the importance of BIMSTEC in bridging the gap between South and Southeast Asia. What role does India play in the region? Elaborate. (250 words)