Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC)

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.  

  • This sub-regional organization came into being on 6 June 1997 through the Bangkok  Declaration.  
  • It constitutes seven Member States: five deriving from South Asia, including Bangladesh,  Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and two from Southeast Asia, including Myanmar and  Thailand.  
  • Initially, the economic bloc was formed with four Member States with the acronym  ‘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). 
  • The regional group constitutes a bridge between South and South-East Asia and represents a reinforcement of relations among these countries.  
  • BIMSTEC has also established a platform for intra-regional cooperation between SAARC  and ASEAN members.  
  • 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 economies.  
  • In the last five years, BIMSTEC Member States have been able to sustain an average  6.5% economic growth trajectory despite the global financial meltdown.

GUIDING PRINCIPLES 

  • Sovereign Equality 
  • Territorial Integrity 
  • Political Independence 
  • No-interference in Internal Affairs 
  • Peaceful Coexistence
  • Mutual Benefit 
  • Constitute an addition to and not be a substitute for bilateral, regional or multilateral cooperation involving the Member States. 

Objectives 

  • Creating an enabling environment for the rapid economic development of the sub-region. 
  • Encouraging the spirit of equality and partnership. 
  • Promoting active collaboration and mutual assistance in the areas of common interests  of the member countries 
  • Accelerating support for each other in the fields of education, science, and technology,  etc. 

Potential 

  • The bridge between South and South-East Asia and represents a reinforcement of relations among these countries. 
  • A platform for intra-regional cooperation between SAARC and ASEAN members.
  • Home to around 1.5 billion people that constitute around 22% of the global population.
  • With a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of 2.7 trillion economies, BIMSTEC  Member States have been able to sustain an average 6.5% economic growth trajectory in the last five years. 
  • A fourth of the world’s traded goods cross the bay every year. 
  • Important Connectivity Projects:  

o Kaladan Multimodal Project – links India and Myanmar. 

o Asian Trilateral Highway - connecting India and Thailand through Myanmar. 

o Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicles Agreement - for seamless flow of passenger and cargo traffic. 

Significance for India 

  • Allows India to pursue three core policies:  

o Neighborhood First - primacy to the country’s immediate periphery; 

o Act East - connect India with Southeast Asia; and 

o Economic development of India’s northeastern states – by linking them to the  Bay of Bengal region via Bangladesh and Myanmar. 

  • Allows India to counter China’s creeping influence in countries around the Bay of Bengal due to the spread of its Belt and Road Initiative. 
  • A new platform for India to engage with its neighbours with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) becoming dysfunctional because of differences between India and Pakistan. 

Areas of Cooperation 

  • Trade and Investment 
  • Technology 
  • Energy 
  • Transportation and Communication 
  • Tourism 
  • Fisheries 
  • Agriculture 
  • Cultural Cooperation 
  • Environment and Disaster Management 
  • Public Health 
  • People-to-People Contact 
  • Poverty Alleviation 
  • Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime 
  • Climate Change 

Institutional Mechanisms 

  • BIMSTEC Summit – highest policymaking body in the BIMSTEC process and is comprised of heads of state/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 the private sector. 

Challenges 

Though largely devoid of bilateral tensions, as is the case in SAARC, BIMSTEC does not seem to have made much progress. 

  • Inconsistency in Meetings: 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. 
  • Neglect by member states: It seems that 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. 
  • Broad Focus Areas: The focus of BIMSTEC is very wide, including 14 areas of cooperation like connectivity, public health, agriculture etc. It is suggested that BIMSTEC  should remain committed to small focus areas and cooperate in them efficiently. 
  • 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. 
  • No FTA: BIMSTEC FTA was negotiated in 2004, talks on it are yet to be concluded.
  • BCIM: The formation of another sub-regional initiative, the Bangladesh-China-India Myanmar (BCIM) Forum, with the proactive membership of China, has created more doubts about the exclusive potential of BIMSTEC.


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Blog Post written by:
Anurag Trivedi
UPSC Mentor