The recently concluded eighth BRICS summit in Goa, India on October 15-16 saw a range of unprecedented outcomes and engagements. One of the biggest highlights among them was the BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach Summit, where the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) leaders met the heads of government of the BIMSTEC countries. In the last two years, BRICS summits have seen engagements with regional players from the host country’s neighborhood. That India chose BIMSTEC over any other regional grouping is indicative of the importance New Delhi attaches to the Bay of Bengal region. BIMSTEC indeed has huge potential to emerge as a grouping that can accelerate the process of regional integration, security cooperation, and inclusive growth in this region. For India in particular, BIMSTEC can be a pivot to the Act East Policy. Through enhanced cross-border connectivity and interlinkages, India’s northeast region can take center stage as the gateway to South East Asia.
BIMSTEC, which stands for Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, is a multilateral grouping of seven countries: India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. In June 1997, the four Bay of Bengal littoral countries of Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand came together to form BIST-EC (Bangladesh-India-Sri Lanka-Thailand Economic Cooperation). In December the same year, Myanmar joined in to make it “BIMST-EC”, while Nepal received observer status in the organization the following year.
The inauguration of BIMST-EC and the years following it did not see very high profile engagements, as seen in the case of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. Instead, the grouping was off to rather a more modest start, which saw only ministerial-level meetings for a long time. The group started off by laying down the principles, scope, and institutional mechanisms of the organization. In the second ministerial meeting, six sectors were identified for cooperation – trade and investment, technology, transport and communication, energy, tourism, and fisheries.
It was in 2004 that organization as we know it today took shape, with Nepal and Bhutan joining in as full members. It was renamed BIMSTEC, standing for the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, rather than initials of the names of member countries. In July 2004, the first BIMSTEC summit took place in Bangkok, attended by then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who had just taken office after the general elections. The subsequent eighth ministerial meeting in 2005 increased the number of sectors for cooperation to eight.
Though it was decided in the Thailand meeting of 2004 to hold the BIMSTEC summit every two years, only three such summits were held prior to the recent one in Goa. The second high level summit was held in New Delhi in 2008, four years after the Thailand summit. However, ministerial meetings have been constantly held over the years, bringing together foreign ministers and commerce/industry ministers to deliberate upon issues of mutual interest. Besides, other operational bodies have interacted regularly, such as the Senior Trade Economic Officials Meetings. The BIMSTEC Working Group is the coordinating body for all of this activity and its chair rotates with the BIMSTEC Chairmanship, which is currently held by Nepal.
The third BIMSTEC summit was held in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar in 2011. Here it was unanimously decided that a permanent Secretariat for BIMSTEC would be set up in Bangladesh and the first secretary general would be appointed from Sri Lanka. Consequently, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the secretariat in Dhaka’s diplomatic enclave of Gulshan in 2014 and Sumith Nakandala from Sri Lanka took charge as the secretary general.
Goa was the fourth high level summit and the first-ever joint summit of the organization with another multilateral grouping. Through the BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach summit, the BIMSTEC countries sought greater exposure to financial investments for the region. The New Development Bank established by the BRICS is of particular interest in this regard. Among the BIMSTEC countries themselves, there was renewed interest to fast track free-trade agreement negotiations to boost trade, pursue the possibilities for a blue economy, and improve connectivity and people-to-people contact.
Most notably, the BIMSTEC leaders, in the outcome document, unequivocally condemned terrorism:
“We condemn in the strongest terms the recent barbaric terror attacks in the region. We strongly believe that our fight against terrorism should not only seek to disrupt and eliminate terrorists, terror organizations and networks, but should also identify, hold accountable and take strong measures against States who encourage, support and finance terrorism, provide sanctuary to terrorists and terror groups, and falsely extol their virtues. There should be no glorification of terrorists as martyrs.”
After South Asian nations pulled out of the SAARC summit last month, the BIMSTEC summit marked the second time that Pakistan faced strong condemnation for its terrorist designs from leaders in South Asia. Such a condemnation is not only a diplomatic victory for India but also a pertinent stance for all BIMSTEC countries given the grave threat the entire region faces from terrorism.
The BIMSTEC leaders also identified various other areas of cooperation to move forward with concrete action – a BIMSTEC framework agreement on transit, trans-shipment and movement of vehicular traffic; having an annual exercise on disaster management; setting up a BIMSTEC center for technology transfer; initiating talks on a BIMSTEC coastal shipping agreement; information intelligence sharing and an annual meeting of national security chiefs; and so on. It was also decided to form a BIMSTEC eminent persons group to further explore and identify new avenues for collaboration. From the six sectors of cooperation in 1997, BIMSTEC cooperation today spans across 14 sectors, including agriculture, poverty alleviation, climate change, cultural cooperation, counterterrorism, and transnational crimes.
Home to over 1.5 billion people, which constitutes around 22 percent of the world’s population, with strong historical and cultural ties, and a combined GDP of $2.7 trillion, BIMSTEC has immense possibilities for the future. In the last five years, BIMSTEC member states have been able to sustain an average 6.5 percent economic growth rate despite the global financial slowdown. The BIMSTEC region has a huge amount of untapped natural, water, and human resources, from hydropower potential in the Himalayan basin to hydrocarbons in the Bay of Bengal.
There is however a long way to go in establishing satisfactory inter-regional transport connectivity, something that is foundational for several other fields of cooperation. To this end, as many as 100 projects have been identified by the BIMSTEC Transport Infrastructure and Logistics Study (BTILS), which would be funded by the Asian Development Bank. Also in the works is the Kaladan Multi-Modal Project, which would connect India to ASEAN countries, and the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway. Besides inter-regional cross-border connectivity, it is crucial that BIMSTEC countries simultaneously develop their own internal infrastructures – feeder road connectivity, which would form a major part of the supply chain – in order to fully benefit from the fruits of trade liberalization.
With the fresh lease of energy pumped into the organization, BIMSTEC today has political will backing it like never before. With Pakistan perennially playing spoilsport in SAARC, BIMSTEC can be expected to play a greater role in meeting the objectives of regional integration and cooperation in various sectors. BIMSTEC, unlike SAARC, is an “issue-free relationship” in which all countries are looking for cooperation that can help in their development process. Also unlike SAARC, BIMSTEC has no written charter and thus is more flexible. In each of the 14 priority areas of cooperation, a member country takes the lead.
With five countries that also belong to SAARC and two that belong to ASEAN, BIMSTEC can serve as the bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia. With the lifting of sanctions on Myanmar and a democratic government at its helm, the country can particularly play this bridging role. As BIMSTEC celebrates its 20th anniversary next year, Goa could mark the beginning of a new rise in its trajectory.
Kamal Madishetty is a research associate at Vision India Foundation, New Delhi. He is an alumnus of IIT Guwahati and the Jindal School of International Affairs.