Introduction

The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is a regional organization comprising seven Member States lying in the littoral and adjacent areas of the Bay of Bengal constituting a contiguous regional unity.

  • The regional group constitutes a bridge between South and South East Asia and represents a reinforcement of relations among these countries.
  • This sub-regional organization came into being on 6 June 1997 through the Bangkok Declaration.
  • The BIMSTEC member states—Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka,Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan—are among the countries dependent on the Bay of Bengal.
  • 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 economy.
  • In the last five years, BIMSTEC Member States have been able to sustain an average 6.5% economic growth trajectory despite global financial meltdown.
  • Leadership is rotated in alphabetical order of country names.
  • The permanent secretariat is in Dhaka.

Background

  • On 6 June 1997, a new sub-regional grouping was formed in Bangkok under the name BIST-EC (Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand Economic Cooperation
  • Following the inclusion of Myanmar on 22 December 1997 during a special Ministerial Meeting in Bangkok, the Group was renamed ‘BIMST-EC’ (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation).
  • With the admission of Nepal and Bhutan at the 6th Ministerial Meeting (February 2004, Thailand), the name of the grouping was changed to ‘Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation’ (BIMSTEC).
  • On 31 July 2004, in the first Summit the grouping was renamed as BIMSTEC or the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation.

Founding principles of the BIMSTEC

The cooperation within BIMSTEC will be based on respect for the principle of

  1. sovereign equality,
  2. territorial integrity,
  3. political independence,
  4. non-interference in internal affairs,
  5. Peaceful co-existence and mutual benefit.

This cooperation within BIMSTEC will constitute an addition to, and not be a substitute for, bilateral, regional or multilateral cooperation involving the member states.

Objectives

The objective of building such an alliance was to harness shared and accelerated growth through mutual cooperation in different areas of common interests by mitigating the onslaught of globalization and by utilizing regional resources and geographical advantages.

Unlike many other regional groupings, BIMSTEC is a sector-driven cooperative organization.

There are 14 main sectors of BIMSTEC along technological and economic cooperation among south Asian and southeast Asian countries along the coast of the Bay of Bengal.

  1. Trade & Investment
  2. Transport & Communication
  3. Energy
  4. Tourism
  5. Technology
  6. Fisheries
  7. Agriculture
  8. Public Health
  9. Poverty Alleviation
  • Counter-Terrorism & Transnational Crime
  • Environment & Disaster Management
  • People-to-People Contact
  • Cultural Cooperation
  • Climate Change

Member nations are denoted as Lead Countries for each sector.

A) Other important functions include

  1. Provide cooperation to one another for the provision of training and research facilities in educational vocational and technical fields,
  2. Promote active collaboration and mutual assistance in economic,social ,technical and scientific fields of common interest,
  3. Provide help to increase the socio-economic growth of the member countries.

B) Permanent Secretariat

  • BIMSTEC Permanent Secretariat is at Dhaka was opened in 2014
  • India provides 33% of its expenditure.
  • Current Secretary General of BIMSTEC is Ambassador Mohammad Shahidul Islam from Bangladesh and former Secretary General was Sumith Nakandala from Srilanka.

C) Chairmanship

  • BIMSTEC uses the alphabetical order for the Chairmanship.
  • The Chairmanship of BIMSTEC has been taken in rotation commencing with Bangladesh
  • The Country holding the Chairmanship of BIMSTEC is responsible for the conduct of regular meetings, including the BIMSTEC Summit, Ministerial Meeting, Senior Officials’ Meeting and BIMSTEC Working Group Meeting.

BIMSTEC Mechanism

The Bangkok Declaration provides for the following institutional mechanisms:

  • Annual Ministerial Meetings, to be hosted by the Member States on the basis of alphabetical rotation.
  • Senior Officials Committee, to meet on a regular basis as and when required.
  • BIMSTEC Working Group, the lower tier of the BIMSTEC process comprising Ambassadors/Representatives from Member States to carry on the work in between Annual Ministerial Meetings.
  • Specialized Task Forces and other mechanisms as deemed necessary by the Senior Officials to be coordinated by Member States, as appropriate.

A) Policy-Making Bodies

  1. BIMSTEC Summit
  • This is the highest policy making body in the BIMSTEC process.
  • The Summit is held every two years, as possible. The First Summit Meeting of the Heads of the BIMSTEC Countries was held in Bangkok, Thailand in 2004.
  1. Ministerial Meetings

Ministerial Meetings cover the area of foreign affairs (MM) and the area of trade and economic affairs (TEMM).

  • Foreign Ministerial Meetings (MM)
  1. It is the second apex forum of BIMSTEC next to the Summit Meeting of BIMSTEC, and the second highest policy-making body attended by the External/Foreign Ministers of Member States.
  • Trade/Economic Ministerial Meetings (TEMM)
  1. The TEMM consists of the Trade/Economic Ministers of the Member States, and are mandated to follow up and accelerate the implementation of economic activities. To date, five TEMMs have taken place:

B) Operational Bodies

The Senior Officials’ Meeting is divided into the area of foreign affairs (SOM) and the area of trade and economic affairs (STEOM).

  1. Senior Officials’ Meetings (SOM)
  • The Senior Officials Meeting (SOM) precedes the Ministerial Meeting and is represented by the Senior Officials of the Foreign Ministries of the Member States at the Foreign Secretary Level.
  • The SOM helps the Ministerial Meeting in monitoring and providing overall direction to the BIMSTEC activities. It is therefore the most important policy level organ of the BIMSTEC Grouping reporting ultimately to the Ministerial organ.
  1. Senior Trade/Economic Officials’ Meetings (STEOM)
  • The Senior Trade/Economic Officials Meeting (STEOM) is an operational body comprising Senior Officials of the Trade/Commerce Ministry of the Member States and representative from Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
  1. Business Forum and Economic Forum

Two forums under the STEOM allow active participation of the private sector.

  • In the Business Forum, private sector representatives from the BIMSTEC Member States meet and discuss various issues.
  • Results from the Business Forum will be forwarded to Economic Forum where the private sector have an opportunity to discuss freely with representatives from the public sector from Member States.

The Economic Forum will then report outcomes of its meetings to the STEOM. The last Forum was held in New Delhi

BIMSTEC’s immense potential

A) To diplomatically isolate Pakistan

  • India began focusing on BIMSTEC after a series of terrorist attacks on Indian defence establishments in Uri and Pathankot.
  • After the Uri attack of 2016, India boycotted the SAARC summit, which was to be held in Islamabad.
  • Thereafter, the 2018 BIMSTEC summit in Nepal saw the grouping pass a resolution demanding that states that “encourage, support or finance terrorism, provide sanctuaries to terrorists and terror groups” be held accountable.
  • Since Pakistan is not a part of BIMSTEC, India has used the organization, effectively it within South Asia.

B) Economic opportunity

  • According to a recent World Bank report, South Asia is one of the most densely populated but poorly integrated regions in the world. Its intra-regional trade is less than 5% of the total trade of South Asian countries.
  • The report argues that there is potential to at least double this figure. But this cannot be achieved through SAARC, as the organization has fallen victim to the bilateral dispute between India and Pakistan. Herein lies the opportunity that BIMSTEC provides.

C) Help Develop North Eastern States

  • Leveraging BIMSTEC, India should focus on connectivity projects in and around the Bay of Bengal region.
  • This could help unleash the potential of the seven northeastern states in India.
  • Sittwe port in Myanmar is closer to the northeast region than Kolkata.

D) The BIMSTEC as a bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia.

  • The two Southeast Asian countries in the grouping, Myanmar and Thailand, have a crucial place for India’s ambitious connectivity plans for northeastern region.
  • Myanmar is only Southeast Asian country India has a land boundary with. An India-Myanmar-Thailand highway is one of the key projects that figures in a big way in the government’s Act East (earlier Look East) policy.
  • Furthermore, physical connectivity with BIMSTEC would also help India integrate itself with ASEAN’s Master Plan of Connectivity 2025.
  • Better connectivity projects would help India leverage the untapped potential of BIMSTEC’s possible trade linkages.
  • The absence of free trade agreements and the lack of seamless movement of goods and services within the region explains these low levels of intra-regional trade. Thus the need to finalize a BIMSTEC FTA.

E) Fulfil India’s Energy needs

  • 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.

Challenges

A) Climate change and Health

  • The countries of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) are particularly susceptible to the adverse impacts of climate change due to myriad factors including large coastal areas, densely populated coastlines, and reliance on agriculture
  • BIMSTEC countries face similar public health risks from climate change. Due to changing climates, people in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka are expected to experience mortality and morbidity due to vector and waterborne diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera, malaria, and chikungunya.
  • Along with vector-borne diseases, climate change will also affect nutritional outcomes by magnifying food insecurity. Carbon dioxide concentration is likely to reduce the nutritional content of crops such as rice, wheat, and barley, which are staple foods in the region
  • Forced displacement also arises due to urgent health concerns and loss of habitable land and livelihoods South Asia has previously, and continues to experience climate-induced transboundary migration. In this regard, it is critical that BIMSTEC countries pay adequate attention to climate-proofing different sectors of the economy, particularly health, to avert future crises.

B) Regional disputes among the members

BIMSTEC member countries need to take the initiative to resolve ongoing regional disputes.

  • The ambitious cooperation efforts in the BIMSTEC region are threatened by regional disputes and complications of three members – Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar.
  • Current and future cooperation efforts in the region are at the risk of being undermined by the unresolved Teesta water-sharing problem between India and Bangladesh,
  • As the situation worsens and competition for scarce water resources increases over time, the political and social stability of the region is being threatened, with upsetting consequences for regional cooperation efforts.
  • The continuing Rohingya refugee crisis.
  • Bangladesh is currently hosting over a million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. In the face of declining foreign assistance, the financial burden of hosting the refugees will fall upon the government of Bangladesh, which is already struggling to finance its development activities.

C) Inconsistency in Meetings and Neglect by member states

  • BIMSTEC planned to hold summits every two years, ministerial meetings every year, but only four summits have taken place in 20 years up to 2018.
  • India has used BIMSTEC only when it fails to work through SAARC in the regional setting and other major members like Thailand and Myanmar are focused more towards ASEAN than BIMSTEC.

Way Forward

The following transformative and innovative recommendations are suggested to revamp the efforts of BIMSTEC for stronger regional cooperation:

A) Incorporation of climate change -related health challenges

  • Incorporation of climate-related health challenges in the vision statement will provide the BIMSTEC platform the necessary guidelines for long-term action and reinforce its commitment to fighting climate change and public health risks.

B) Implementation of BIMSTEC Free Trade Agreement (FTA)

  • There is empirical evidence that the FTA has potential economic benefits for the region
  • Hence there is a need to expedite the BIMSTEC FTA to boost our intra-regional trade from its present level of 7% to 21%,
  • Additionally, trade agreements can enable countries to achieve development goals by “removing tariffs and harmonizing standards on goods and services, and eliminating distortionary and poorly designed subsidies

C) Promotion of knowledge development and exchange

  • The platform should be committed to sharing good practices in regional risks through the participation of multiple stakeholders including government, development partners, civil society, non-government organizations, academia, and the private sector from the BIMSTEC region and beyond.
  • In addition, the platform should priorities the participation of local agencies that collaborate with grassroots stakeholders in developing and implementing community-based solutions

D) Play a proactive role by facilitating Resolution of Regional Disputes

  • The BIMSTEC initiative needs to assist these countries in resolving the Rohingya crisis.
  • It is also imperative that the BIMSTEC platform plays a proactive role by facilitating energetic diplomacy to help resolve the Teesta River issue between India and Bangladesh
  • It needs to help members set aside differences, so as to addressing economic, political, and social concerns.

E) Promote security issues to curb terrorism and violent extremism

  • Terrorism is the most significant threat in the Bay of Bengal region as well as South East Asia and require immediate cooperation amongst the member states

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *