India and BIMSTEC

JUN 10

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WHY IN NEWS:

  • 24th BIMSTEC Day was observed on June 6, 2021, and heads of BIMSTEC countries conveyed their hope of increased cooperation among the member countries in the pursuit of building a secure, peaceful and prosperous Bay of Bengal region.

ABOUT

  • BIMSTEC stands for Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation
  • It 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.
  • This sub-regional organization came into being on 6 June 1997 through the Bangkok Declaration.
  • Member States:
    • Five deriving from South Asia, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and
    • Two from Southeast Asia, including Myanmar and Thailand.
  • The Permanent Secretariat of BIMSTEC was established in Dhaka, Bangladesh
  • The Chairmanship of BIMSTEC rotates among the Member States.

INSTITUTIONAL MECHANISMS IN BIMSTEC

  • BIMSTEC Summit
    • Highest policymaking body in BIMSTEC process and is comprised of heads of government of member states.
  • Ministerial Meeting
    • Second apex policy-making forum of BIMSTEC attended by the External/Foreign Ministers of Member States.
  • Senior Officials’ Meeting
    • Represented by Senior Officials of Foreign Ministries of the Member States.
  • BIMSTEC Working Group
    • Attended by Ambassadors of BIMSTEC Member Countries to Bangladesh or their representatives on a monthly basis at the BIMSTEC Secretariat in Dhaka.
  • Business Forum & Economic Forum
    • The two important forums to ensure active participation of private sector.

SIGNIFICANCE OF BIMSTEC FOR INDIA

  • Strategic or Geopolitical:
    • Aligned with India’s foreign policy priorities
      • For India, BIMSTEC stands at the very important juncture of ‘Neighborhood First’ and ‘Act East Policy’.
      • It also aids our South-South cooperation efforts.
    • A platform which is free from bilateral tussles:
      • A new platform for India to engage with its neighbors with SAARC becoming dysfunctional because of differences between India and Pakistan.
      • Absence of Pakistan in the grouping (unlike SAARC) >> will give more space of open discussions and negotiations
    • To contain China:
      • The rapidly changing geostrategic context of Asia and India’s need to look at Bay of Bengal as a key theatre for containing an increasingly capable and assertive China >> brings BIMSTEC in to center stage.
  • Economic:
    • Market:
      • The BIMSTEC region offers a market of 1.6 billion people, about a fifth of the global population.
    • Trade potential
      • The implementation of the proposed BIMSTEC Free Trade Agreement can help the intra-BIMSTEC trade grow up to USD 240 billion from the current estimated USD 40 billion.
    • Vast marine wealth:
      • Potential for development of blue economy around the Bay of Bengal region
    • Empowerment of North-East India:
      • Development of the North-eastern region through integration with South East Asia.
    • Mineral exploration:
      • Petroleum and natural-gas discoveries have been made in the Bay of Bengal, notably offshore of the Godavari and Mahanadi deltas
      • There are placer deposits of titanium off northeastern Sri Lanka and rare earths off northeastern India
    • Tourism
      • Tourism has rich potential in the BIMSTEC region, as this region is home to ancient civilizations with deep civilization and cultural linkages, several historic monuments, and natural splendour.
      • BIMSTEC Tourism Information Centre was established in in Delhi to create a Network of Tour Operators among the BIMSTEC Member States to promote tourism in the region
  • Scope for regional integration:
    • The projects pending with BIMSTEC such as Kaladan Multimodal project, Trilateral Highway, BIMSTEC Motor Vehicle Agreement, BIMSTEC Coastal Shipping Agreement, when finished, are likely to transform the region, especially India
    • BIMSTEC also constitutes a bridge between South and South East Asia and represents a reinforcement of relations among these countries.
  • Security
    • Greater cooperation among BIMSTEC states enables better capability for countering terrorism, drug trafficking, piracy etc.
    • With gaining central leadership in BIMSTEC India could assert the position of ‘net security provider’ in the Indian Ocean Region
    • Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime:
      • Terrorism remains the single largest significant threat to peace and stability in the region.
      • BIMSTEC, through its various sub-groups under Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime has been working towards strengthening cooperation against terrorism.
  • Environment and Disaster Management
    • BIMSTEC region is vulnerable to a variety of natural disasters.
    • Building regional capacities for coordinated disaster response, risk reduction and rehabilitation is accordingly important to the region.
    • The BIMSTEC Summit in 2014 resolved to enhance cooperation in environmental protection and sustainable development and promote capacity building in the area of disaster management.
    • India has also taken the initiative for addressing regional susceptibilities in this regard by setting up a BIMSTEC Centre for Weather and Climate
    • The first BIMSTEC Disaster Management Exercise hosted by India in 2017 saw participation from all Member States

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS

  • BIMSTEC Leader's Retreat in 2016
    • The BIMSTEC Leader's Retreat hosted by India in Goa in October 2016 served as an important impetus to BIMSTEC.
    • A robust policy agenda agreed during the Retreat was meant to translate the shared commitment into delivery of specific, people oriented initiatives to achieve greater connectivity, trade, people-to-people contacts, and sustainable use of resources
  • Disaster Management Exercise in 2017
    • India conducted the first BIMSTEC Disaster Management Exercise with the National Disaster Response Force as the lead agency in New Delhi.
  • Military exercise in 2018
    • India hosted the first ever military exercise of BIMSTEC countries in Pune.
  • 20th Anniversary of BIMSTEC:
    • A series of events were organised by India to mark the 20th anniversary of BIMSTEC in 2017-18.
    • These include:
      • A BIMSTEC business conference by Indian Chamber of Commerce (ICC) at Agartala
      • BIMSTEC Tele-Medicine Network by JIPMER
      • BIMSTEC Festival of Buddhist Heritage
  • Invitation to swearing-in ceremony in 2019
    • BIMSTEC leaders were invited to the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

CHALLENGES:

  • Geopolitical and Strategic:
    • China factor
      • China’s strategic and economic influence on BIMSTEC members >> can make BIMSTEC hostage to Indo-China regional rivalry.
    • Confusion over India’s intentions
      • BIMSTEC is sometimes perceived as grouping driven by India for the sole purpose of isolating Pakistan
      • India will need to convince other BIMSTEC members that its new outreach to them is not a “rebound relationship,” a short-term measure to isolate Pakistan.
    • India fails to provide a central leadership
      • India, its largest member, has often been blamed for not providing a strong leadership.
      • Consequent to slow progress of its mandate, Thailand and Myanmar have often seen ignoring BIMSTEC for ASEAN Forum.
    • Political unrest in Myanmar
      • Ongoing military coup in Myanmar and popular protest against the military coup is a new practical challenge.
    • The impression that it is an India-dominated bloc:
      • This perception of Indian hegemony, coupled with big brother attitude portrayed by India in certain cases such as Nepal’s Constitution building etc. >> pose a great challenge for the forum to succeed  
  • Economic:
    • Lack of connectivity
      • Lack of good infrastructure especially in the coastal area has acted as a barrier to trade by raising cost and time
      • Physical connectivity between member countries is at nascent stage, and many of such projects faces delays
      • For instance the tri-lateral highway connecting India-Myanmar-Thailand has not yet operationalized.
    • Poor intra-regional trade and investment:
      • The BIMSTEC Free Trade Agreement (FTA), signed in 2004, is yet to be implemented.
      • The protectionist economies of South Asian countries and so-called national interests are making free trade an unattainable objective.
      • The growth of intra- regional investment is negligible
  • Institutional:
    • Apathy towards holding regular annual summits:
      • Only four summit meetings have been held since its inception 22 years back.
      • It took seven years for its first summit to take place in 2004 at Thailand.
      • While most of the regional organization (SCO, ASEAN, G20) were able to meet at a high political level even during the Pandemic, BIMSTEC leaders failed to meet.
    • Lack of institutional support and funding
      • It also took 17 long years for this Forum to establish its permanent secretariat at Dhaka in 2014.
      • The secretariat faces a severe resource crunch, both in terms of money and manpower, which has adversely affected its performance
  • Bilateral issues between member nations:
    • Bangladesh is facing one of the worst refugee crisis of Rohingyas from Myanmar who are fleeing prosecution in the state of Rakhine in Myanmar.
    • There is a border conflict between Myanmar and Thailand.
    • A maritime dispute between India and Sri Lanka remains unsolved >> Despite an agreement in 1974 (Indo-Lanka Maritime Boundary Agreement) Indian fishermen tend to cross the maritime border into Sri Lanka in the Palk Strait

WAY FORWARD:

  • India should take the lead
    • As BIMSTEC suffers from a lack of human and financial resources >> India needs to allocate more resources to its BIMSTEC budget and should take an informal leadership role to provide BIMSTEC with momentum.
  • Focusing on institution building
    • There should be consistency in the frequency of the summits >> to ensure regularity in decision-making
    • Improving the capacity of the secretariat, both in terms of manpower and funding
  • Gujral Doctrine:
    • Application of Gujral doctrine will help to build trust between BIMSTEC member states
  • Ensuring tangible results
    • This will add to the motivation of the countries to concentrate on BIMSTEC
    • Projects in the areas of tourism, digital connectivity, energy connectivity and humanitarian assistance in disaster relief should be considered as priority
  • A platform for dispute resolution
    • Empowering BIMSTEC to be a platform for dispute resolution among member countries.
  • Balancing Security and Economy:
    • India has led through constant focus and follow-up — to the extent that some member-states have complained about the ‘over securitization of BIMSTEC.
    • Hence, there is a need to ensure maintaining security and forging solid arrangements for economic cooperation.

CONCLUSION

  • BIMSTEC provides the Bay of Bengal nations an opportunity to work together to create a common space for peace and development.
  • With the member countries exhibiting enough political will and mutual respect, it should be possible to move towards a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable Bay of Bengal region in the near future.

PRACTICE QUESTION:

Q. Examine the successes and failures of BIMSTEC, as a unique platform linking South Asia and Southeast Asia

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