“Towards a Resilient Region, Prosperous Economies, Healthy People”, the theme of the fifth Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) Summit sums up the vision of the member states
This regional forum, based on the mutually shared geographic space of the Bay of Bengal littorals came into being as BIST-EC (Bangladesh-India-Sri Lanka-Thailand Economic Cooperation) on June 6, 1997, through Bangkok Declaration. With the inclusion of Myanmar later in December 1997, this regional grouping was renamed BIMST-EC; with ‘M’ in the acronym referring to its fifth member. Bhutan and Nepal, the landlocked states for whom the Bay of Bengal is their proximate maritime gateway were added in 2004, forum name was changed and got adopted as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) during the first Summit in 2004 at Bangkok.[i]
Starting with six areas for cooperation in 1997 (trade, technology, energy, transport, tourism, and fisheries), the regional forum over the period expanded to 14 areas like agriculture, public health, poverty alleviation, counter-terrorism, and environment, culture, people-to-people contact, and climate change. As a later thought, the forum added an institutional mechanism in form of a permanent Secretariat in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2014. BIMSTEC has five members from South Asia and two from South East Asia follows a rotational chairmanship among member countries (alphabetically). Srilanka was the chair from 2019 till hosting of the fifth Summit and now its the turn in Thailand. BIMSTEC organises interactions through Expert Group Meetings, Senior Officials Meetings, Ministerial Meetings, and Summits. Summit being the highest level of decision making is responsible for laying down a vision for the grouping. Holding only three summits in 17 years up to 2014 against the mandated once in two years because of a lack of political consensus explains why the forum progressed at a slow pace.
However, there has been a paradigm shift in the level of mutual cooperation in BIMSTEC since2016 starting with India’s initiative to organise the Leaders’ Retreat at Goa and subsequent hosting of the fourth Summit at Kathmandu in 2018 where the leaders could interact and deliberate on issues of mutual interest. It was during Kathmandu Summit that leaders recognised the need for rationalising the avenues of cooperation as the existing 14 areas were unmanageable and to adopt a Charter for meaningful cooperation.
Fifth Summit Takeaways
The fifth BIMSTEC Summit held in online mode at Colombo on 30 March 2022 is a significant step forward. Meet witnessed acceptance and signing of agreements by the heads of states of member states (less Myanmar which only had a representative to obviate diplomatic controversy) which will have permanent and long-term implications in taking forward the regional cooperation. The summit gains more significance as Sri Lanka, the current chair of BIMSTEC concluded the meeting after a delay of almost two years due to the pandemic and the crisis in its own country and in Myanmar. There were five much-awaited agreements signed for enhancing regional cooperation.
Adoption and signing of the BIMSTEC Charter, the particular instrument would facilitate putting in place a set of rules, a framework, and long-term goals for the organisation. This will help streamline the operations of BIMSTEC and at the same time allow the organisation to enhance its potential.
Master Plan for Transport Connectivity was also adopted at the Summit. This lays out a guidance framework for connectivity-related activities in the region in the years ahead. Devised by ADB, it lists 267 projects with a total investment of $124 billion.[ii]
The signing of the BIMSTEC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters will greatly contribute to more effective cooperation in controlling criminal activities in the region and effectively dealing with complex aspects and consequences of crimes in various new forms and dimensions. Since another convention on Cooperation in Combating International Terrorism, Transnational Organised Crimes and Illicit Drug Trafficking is in place since March 2021, the forum has strengthened its security architect in the region.[iii]
The signing of the BIMSTEC Memorandum of Understanding on Mutual Cooperation in the field of Diplomatic Training to facilitate cooperation in training in the field of diplomacy and international relations amongst participants
The signing of the Memorandum of Association on Establishment of the BIMSTEC Technology Transfer facility at Colombo will go a long way in strengthening cooperation in technology transfer among BIMSTEC members by promoting the transfer of technology, sharing of experience, and capacity building.
Rationalisation of areas of cooperation and reduction from earlier 14 to now seven with each member state as a lead country shows that the forum is focused and ambitious about the outcome and results in various established areas. There are no areas left out but some have been subsumed in the new verticals for better integration and cooperation. The largest three partners have chosen to be the lead countries in the vital areas of cooperation- security (India), connectivity (Thailand), and Trade, Investment, and Development (Bangladesh). The other areas include environment and climate change (Bhutan), agriculture and food security (Myanmar), people to people contact (Nepal) science, technology, and innovation (Srilanka).
Augment the operational budget of the Secretariat, in the wake of the additional responsibilities of reconstituted sectors, India has extended a package of US $ 1 million for the smooth functioning of the Secretariat.[iv] This financial commitment is only with respect to enhancing the ‘existing capacity’ of the Secretariat in addition to India’s annual contribution.
The Summit has not made a time-bound commitment on its much desired Free Trade Agreement other than expressing a resolve to intensify regional cooperation to strengthen economic and physical connectivity to enhance regional trade, investment, tourism, technology, energy, and other forms of exchanges.
BIMSTEC FTA was signed in2004 and after 19 years the same is yet to be implemented as a result it’s not surprising that the intra BIMSTEC trade stands at only 7% as compared to around 23% for ASEAN. As per Cecile Fruman, Director, Regional Integration and Engagement in the South Asia Region (SAR), World Bank; it takes 138 hours to move a truck across the border from India to Bangladesh, and there are 22 documents required and 55 signatures.[v] Therefore, regional connectivity and trade facilitation remain real challenges for the forum to reap the fruits of multilateralism.
There can be no denying that setting up legal frameworks and related institutions gives BIMSTEC necessary structures. The challenge that remains for the member countries is attaining the goals of seamless connectivity in various forms like coastal shipping, road transport, and energy grid connections. The Thailand PM GEN PRAYUT Chan-o-Cha as the new Chair expressed his resolve to work for a “Prosperous, Resilient and Robust, and Open (PRO) BIMSTEC” during his tenure. Holding the next summit in Thailand in 2024 will be vital to keep the momentum going. Thailand as a co-founder and key driver along with India, the largest member of the forum have a vital role to play in shaping the degree of cooperation and future trajectory of BIMSTEC.
[i] History, BIMSTEC Secretariat, https://bimstec.org/?page_id=4863#:~:text=Search-,History,-The%20Bay%20of, accessed on March 30, 2022.