BIMSTEC: A Comprehensive Exploration of Regional Integration and Cooperation

BIMSTEC, Foreign Policy, India's Foreign Policy, International Relations, Political Science


The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) represents a dynamic international alliance, bringing together seven nations from South Asia and Southeast Asia. Comprising India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan, and Nepal, this diverse consortium collectively contributes to 22% of the global population, with a combined gross domestic product soaring at USD 2.8 trillion.

Historical Evolution and Founding Principles:

Founded in 1997 under the Bangkok Declaration, BIMSTEC initially operated as BIST-EC (Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand Economic Cooperation). Subsequent expansion, including the inclusion of Myanmar, rebranded it as BIMST-EC, with Bhutan and Nepal joining as full members in 2004. Rooted in the principles of fostering shared growth, mutual cooperation, and leveraging regional resources, BIMSTEC emerged as a strategic force in bridging South and Southeast Asia.

Strategic Significance for India:

For India, BIMSTEC serves as a strategic forum, especially amid challenges faced by other regional initiatives like SAARC, hampered primarily by non-cooperation from Pakistan. BIMSTEC aligns seamlessly with India’s foreign policy priorities, exemplified through initiatives such as ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act East.’ Its unique strength lies in connecting the South and Southeast Asian regions, providing a platform for collaborative economic and technological advancement.

Sector-Driven Cooperation and Structural Framework:

In contrast to many regional organizations, BIMSTEC operates as a sector-driven cooperative entity, focusing on 14 key sectors crucial for the growth and development of member nations. These sectors include Trade & Investment, Transport & Communication, Energy, Tourism, Technology, Fisheries, Agriculture, Public Health, Poverty Alleviation, Counter-Terrorism & Transnational Crime, Environment & Disaster Management, People-to-People Contact, Cultural Cooperation, and Climate Change. Each sector designates a lead country responsible for spearheading initiatives and fostering collaboration.

Recent Milestones: The 5th BIMSTEC Summit:

A recent milestone in BIMSTEC’s journey was the 5th BIMSTEC Summit, convened on 30th March 2022 in Sri Lanka. Conducted in a hybrid mode, the summit’s theme, “Towards a Resilient Region, Prosperous Economies, Healthy People,” underscored the commitment to regional resilience, economic prosperity, and public health. The summit provided a platform for member nations to deliberate on pressing regional issues, forging a path toward collective progress.

Outcomes of the BIMSTEC Summit 2022:

The BIMSTEC Summit held in 2022 yielded significant outcomes, marking a pivotal moment in the organization’s evolution:

Adoption of BIMSTEC Charter:

The highlight of the summit was the formal adoption and signing of the BIMSTEC Charter. This charter transformed BIMSTEC from a loose grouping into a structured organization complete with its own flag, emblem, and a set of formally listed principles that member nations are obligated to adhere to. This move adds a layer of institutionalization to the collaborative efforts of the member countries.

Addressing Challenges Amidst the Pandemic:

Recognizing the unprecedented challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the summit provided a platform for member nations to discuss and strategize collective responses to the health crisis. This demonstrated BIMSTEC’s commitment to regional cooperation in times of adversity.

Agreements on Mutual Cooperation:

The summit saw the signing of three crucial agreements. These encompassed areas of mutual cooperation for diplomatic training, mutual legal assistance related to criminal matters, and the establishment of the BIMSTEC Technology Transfer Facility. These agreements reinforce the commitment to collaboration in diverse fields, from diplomacy to technology.

Key Leadership and Connectivity Projects:

Chairmanship and Secretary General:

As of 2022, Thailand holds the chairmanship of BIMSTEC. The Secretary General, H.E. Mr. Tenzin Lekphell from the Kingdom of Bhutan, assumed his responsibilities on November 6, 2020. This leadership structure signifies the rotation of responsibilities among member nations.

Connectivity Projects:

BIMSTEC is actively involved in crucial connectivity projects aimed at enhancing regional integration. The Kaladan Multimodal Project, connecting India and Myanmar, seeks to establish a multimodal mode of transport linking the eastern seaport of Kolkata with Sittwe seaport in Myanmar, providing an alternative route to India’s North-East. Challenges, including the impact of the pandemic and financial instabilities, have delayed its operationalization.

Kaladan Multimodal Project Status:

Despite facing challenges, the waterways component is near completion, and a port operator has been appointed jointly by India and Myanmar. Road projects in Manipur and Mizoram under the Northeastern Road Sector Development Scheme are also nearing completion.

Asian Trilateral Highway and BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement:

Other noteworthy connectivity initiatives include the Asian Trilateral Highway, connecting India and Thailand through Myanmar, and the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicles Agreement, facilitating seamless flow of passenger and cargo traffic.

Significance for India:

BIMSTEC holds strategic significance for India on multiple fronts:

Neighborhood First and Act East Policies:

BIMSTEC aligns seamlessly with India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act East’ policies, providing a platform for enhanced cooperation with neighboring countries and accelerating ties with Southeast Asian nations.

Countering Regional Influence:

BIMSTEC serves as a strategic counterbalance to China’s growing influence in the region through initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative.

Substitute for SAARC:

Given the challenges faced by SAARC, BIMSTEC emerges as a viable substitute, fostering regional cooperation and addressing shared concerns.

BIMSTEC Free Trade Agreement (FTA):

Despite negotiations and the signing of the FTA in 2004, talks have not concluded. The establishment of a Trade Negotiation Committee, with a permanent chair in Thailand, reflects ongoing efforts to advance economic cooperation.

Policy-Making Bodies and Conclusion:

BIMSTEC’s policy-making bodies, including the BIMSTEC Summit, Ministerial Meetings, Foreign Ministerial Meetings (MM), and other operational bodies, contribute to shaping the organization’s direction. The BIMSTEC Summit, as the highest policy-making body, convenes every two years to deliberate on regional issues, with the latest summit taking place in Sri Lanka in 2022. As BIMSTEC continues to evolve, its role in fostering regional integration and addressing shared challenges becomes increasingly crucial, providing a framework for collective progress among member nations.

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