Founded in 1997, BIMSTEC is a regional body comprising of seven member states lying in ‘littoral and adjacent areas of the Bay of Bengal constituting a contiguous regional unity.’ With five members from South Asia, including India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka and two from Southeast Asia — Myanmar and Thailand — the grouping works as a bridge between the two sub-regions of the Asian continent. BIMSTEC is home to 1.5 billion people, constituting around 22 percent of the global population with a combined GDP of USD 2.7 trillion, making it a grouping of fastest-growing economies that have been able to sustain a growth rate above 6 percent in last five years.
While the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) seems to have failed in forging a consensus for regional development, the BIMSTEC summit comes as an opportunity for the countries of the region to carry out the fundamental objectives of greater socio-cultural and economic integration. BIMSTEC has become the forward-looking replacement to SAARC as it carries no baggage of tensions between India and Pakistan.
In October 2016, while hosting the BRICS summit in Goa, India being chair of the group had extended invites to the BIMSTEC members to attend the BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach summit. It was a well-thought initiative by India as it fulfilled the mounting vacuum in regional-cooperation after the 19th SAARC summit, scheduled to be held in Islamabad, was cancelled over terrorist attacks in India. The outreach summit was not only lauded by the BIMSTEC member countries but also heads of the BRICS had appreciated the effort for being a conduit between developing economies. Chinese President Xi Jinping who was part of the Outreach Summit called it a productive initiative.
The forthcoming BIMSTEC summit is likely to see sub-regional transport and connectivity, tourism, environment and disaster management, infrastructure development, energy, poverty alleviation, a common security space in addressing terrorism and transnational crime, and an enhanced economic integration on the agenda. At the BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach Summit in Goa, the outcome document “BIMSTEC Leaders’ Retreat 2016” had laid the foundation of agenda for the 4th Summit which included connectivity in various “forms and manifestations” as a key to regional integration.
India, which shares borders with five BIMSTEC members, has been keen on building connectivity through road, railway, waterways, and air links to facilitate intra-BIMSTEC trade and access to global markets. The Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project; the Trilateral Highway connecting India, Myanmar and Thailand; and the Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) signed in 2015 for the Regulation of Passenger, Personnel and Cargo Vehicular Traffic among India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, are a few of the critical connectivity projects under the BIMSTEC framework. However, these projects are moving at a snail’s pace.
Despite an agreement at the Bangkok Summit in 2004 on conducting a BIMSTEC Summit every two years, an optimism bound BIMSTEC has been able to conduct only three summits in the last 20 years.
Other than connectivity, trade is another important area among the 14 areas of cooperation identified under BIMSTEC. During the Bangkok Summit in 2004, a Framework Agreement for aBIMSTEC Free Trade Area was agreed upon with a hope that countries will finalize a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The FTA has been discussed at a number of Ministerial Level Meetings. Meanwhile, the “customs cooperation, as well as other trade facilitation” related technicalities, are being worked out. The 4th Summit should see important steps taken in this regard. Considering a combined GDP of 2.7 trillion, BIMSTEC is a promising platform. Unfortunately, despite a 14 years’ time span, the FTA still remains under discussion.
While connectivity and trade have taken too long in summing-up a clear road-map, substantial progress has been made in the area of a common security space to address the issue of terrorism in the region. On March 21, 2017, the first meeting of the National Security Chiefs was held in New Delhi in pursuance to the decisions taken at the BIMSTEC Leaders’ Retreat held in Goa in 2016. Followed by the second meet on March 28, 2018 in Dhaka, BIMSTEC has taken steps in condemning terrorism. Further, a joint military exercise where the armies of the seven BIMSTEC member countries will take part is scheduled to be held in September in India: “The aim of the exercise is to promote strategic alignment among the member-states and to share best practices in the area of counter-terrorism.” Notably, the pace in discussing and executing plans on terrorism has been rapid under the BIMSTEC framework as Pakistan is not a member of the group.
It will be for the fourth time that Prime Minister Modi will be travelling to Nepal in last four years of his administration. Soon after his grand victory in May 2014, Prime Minister Modi had visited Nepal in a show to convey the importance of Nepal in his “neighborhood first” policy. However, the relationship between India and Nepal had fallen to diplomatic disaster after an alleged blockade at the Nepal-India border in 2015 affected emergency supplies to land-locked Nepal. Meanwhile, through a number of high-level bilateral visits, India and Nepal have tried to be at ease in the last three years. Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Nepal in May this year was a significant step in this regard. BIMSTEC Summit shall be a new meeting ground for the two.
At present, BIMSTEC has 14 areas of cooperation under its ambit. During the 2nd Ministerial meeting in Dhaka on November 19, 1998, only six sectors were prioritized including trade and investment, transport and communications, energy, tourism, technology, and fisheries. However, the numbers grew from six to 13 as seven new sectors were added at the 8th Ministerial Meeting in Dhaka in December 2005. Climate change was added as the 14th area of cooperation at an 11th ministerial meet in 2008. While these 14 sectors of cooperation are essential to the development of the region, too many potential sectors may cause delays. SAARC had witnessed a similar problem in its more than 30 years of existence. Hence, to be an effective platform in forging regional cooperation, BIMSTEC needs to identify critical sectors and set a target to resolve them in the agreed time.
In January 2018, the present chair of BIMSTEC, Nepal, pushed the member countries to agree on a BIMSTEC Charter that will provide clarity on the vision and purpose of forward-looking cooperation. Nepal has taken the lead in conveying the need to member countries, and theforthcoming summit might see some consensus in this regard. While the organization has a founding document, the absence of a vision framework in the last 20 years of its inceptions is a symbolic and technical failure.
Cooperation is a continuous process and should not be hijacked by the unwillingness or disagreements of the few. Hence, it is essential to understand the potential and execute the plans accordingly. Considering the slow demise of the SAARC and Pakistan being at the heart of the problem, BIMSTEC appears to be more promising. However, despite an agreement at the Bangkok Summit in 2004 on conducting a BIMSTEC Summit every two years, an optimism bound BIMSTEC has been able to conduct only three summits in the last 20 years. Hence, the present summit needs to ensure that Summits are held every two years and that set targets are achieved on time. Also, India, being the biggest economy in the grouping, needs to take the lead in ensuring that BIMSTEC does not become another SAARC.
（Rishi Gupta is a Doctoral candidate at the Center for South Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.）