What’s in the news?
- Addressing the latest summit of Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for strengthening the BIMSTEC and welcomed the unveiling of the Charter of the organisation that connects the littoral countries of the Bay of Bengal.
- Under the new Charter, the members were expected to meet once in every two years.
- With the Charter, the BIMSTEC now has an international personality. It has an emblem, it has a flag. It has a formally listed purpose and principles that it is going to adhere to. It represents a significant evolution of the grouping. From our perspective signing of the Charter was the most important outcome.
- Mr. Modi called for a Free Trade Agreement among the member countries. He mentioned the necessity for coastal shipping ecosystem and electricity grid interconnectivity, as two of the necessary components of the evolving shape of BIMSTEC.
- The summit saw the declaration of the Master Plan for Transport Connectivity that would provide a framework for regional and domestic connectivity.
- The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation is a regional organisation that comprises seven member states adjacent to the Bay of Bengal.
- It includes: five deriving from South Asia, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and two from Southeast Asia, including Myanmar and Thailand.
- It is headquartered in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
- BIMSTEC came into existence on June 6, 1997 through the Bangkok Declaration.
- Initially, the economic bloc was formed with four Member States with the acronym ‘BIST-EC’ (Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation)
- Following the inclusion of Myanmar on 22 December 1997, the group was renamed ‘BIMST-EC’.
- With the admission of Nepal and Bhutan in 2004, the name of the grouping was changed to ‘Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation’ (BIMSTEC).
- BIMSTEC is a sector-driven cooperative organization.
- BIMSTEC has 14 priority areas of cooperation, namely (i) Trade and Investment (ii) Technology (iii) Energy (iv) Transportation and Communication (v) Tourism (vi) Fisheries (vii) Agriculture (viii) Cultural Cooperation (ix) Environment and Disaster Management (x) Public Health (xi) People-to-People Contact (xii) Poverty Alleviation (xiii) Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime and (xiv) Climate Change.
- The founding principles of BIMSTEC are as follows:
- Cooperation within BIMSTEC will be based on respect for the principle of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, political independence, no-interference in internal affairs, peaceful co- existence and mutual benefit.
- Cooperation within BIMSTEC will constitute an addition to and not be a substitute for bilateral, regional or multilateral cooperation involving the Member States.
- The BIMSTEC region is home to around 1.5 billion people which constitute around 22% of the global population with a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of 2.7 trillion.
- The objective of BIMSTEC is to harness shared and accelerated growth through mutual cooperation in different areas of common interests.
- The regional group constitutes a bridge between South and South East Asia and represents a reinforcement of relations among these countries.
- BIMSTEC has also established a platform for intra-regional cooperation between SAARC and ASEAN members.
What is India’s interest in the grouping?
- The two Southeast Asian countries in the grouping, Myanmar and Thailand, have a crucial place for India’s ambitious connectivity plans for the North-Eastern region.
- India’s Act East Policy—within it, BIMSTEC, in particular—is seen as a critical alternative to the country’s non-participation in the China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). A crucial driver of this policy is India’s Northeast, as seen in a renewed infrastructure push in the region.
- In terms of connectivity, BIMSTEC has several projects that, when finished, could transform the movement of goods and vehicles through the countries in the grouping.
- For eg: Kaladan Multimodal project. The project envisages connecting Kolkata to Sittwe port in Myanmar, and then Mizoram by river and road. India and Myanmar had signed a framework agreement in 2008 for the implementation of this project. It’s yet to be finished.
- Another important project is the Asian Trilateral Highway connecting India and Thailand through Myanmar. The highway will run from Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar and represents a significant step in establishing connectivity between India and Southeast Asian countries. The project is expected to be completed soon.
- With the India-Pakistan disputes coming in the way of a smooth functioning of the SAARC, groupings such as BIMSTEC can take forward the concept of regional cooperation in a different manner.
- Better connectivity projects would help India leverage the untapped potential of BIMSTEC’s possible trade linkages.
- Currently, intra-BIMSTEC trade has grown at a meagre rate of 0.62% annually. The absence of free trade agreements and the lack of seamless movement of goods and services within the region explain these low levels of intra-regional trade.
- Apart from improving connectivity and enhancing regional trade, BIMSTEC could also help in partially addressing India’s growing energy requirements. India, along with other BIMSTEC countries, is exploring energy opportunities at the Rakhine coast of Myanmar in the northern part of the Bay of Bengal.
- In this context, BIMSTEC has already established an energy centre in New Delhi to provide logistic, technical and research support.
- There has been a view that the proliferation of commitments via 14 priority areas didn’t yield tangible results over the past two decades and the regional grouping should trim its list of priorities.
- Being the largest and most developed country in this grouping, the onus of steering the organisation forward lies with India. However, if India pursues an approach of selective usage, it restricts the ability of the organisation to live up to its full potential.
- The benefits from greater regional integration are much higher than simply using BIMSTEC as a diplomatic tool for isolation within the region.