20 years of BIMSTEC: Hopes and Apprehensions, Rivers as a living entity: Implications and Challenges, Current Affairs 22nd June, 2017DEVENDRA VISHWAKARMA
20 years of BIMSTEC: Hopes and Apprehensions
On June 06 this year, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) completed 20 years of its establishment.
Comprising of Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan, BIMSTEC is home to 1.5 billion people, accounting for approximately 21 per cent of the world population, and a combined GDP of US$ 2.5 trillion. The growth rate sustained by the BIMSTEC countries is around six per cent per annum.
Initially known as the Bangladesh-India-Sri Lanka-Thailand Economic Cooperation (BIST-EC), it was formed after representatives from the aforesaid four countries met at Bangkok in June 1997. With Myanmar joining the grouping as a full member in December the same year, the ‘BIST-EC’ was renamed as ‘BIMST-EC’. In February 2004, when Nepal and Bhutan too joined, the grouping was renamed as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation or BIMSTEC.
So far, BIMSTEC has held three summit meetings. The first one was held in Thailand in 2004, seven years after the establishment of the grouping; the second one was held four years later in India in 2008, and the third one six years later in Myanmar in 2014. The fourth summit meeting is expected to take place later this year in Nepal, the current Chair of BIMSTEC.
According to the June 1997 ‘Declaration on the Establishment of the Bangladesh-India-Sri Lanka-Thailand Economic Cooperation (BIST-EC)’, also known as the Bangkok Declaration, the founding objectives of the sub-regional initiative were:
- Creating an enabling environment for 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.
- Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his message on the 20th anniversary of the establishment of BIMSTEC, described the sub-regional grouping as “a natural platform” to fulfill India’s “key foreign policy priorities of ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act East’”.
- Earlier in October 2016, India had hosted the BIMSTEC members at Goa during the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Outreach Summit. It was viewed as a pragmatic step on India’s part, demonstrating its potential to play the role of a regional leader, an aspiration which was instrumental in transforming its ‘Look East’ into ‘Act East’ policy. The BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach Summit is believed to have given BIMSTEC its due importance by inviting its members to participate in a larger platform comprising five major emerging economies of the world.
- Within few months of the Goa Summit, India hosted the first meeting of the BIMSTEC National Security Chiefs in New Delhi in March 2017.
Potential of BIMSTEC:
BIMSTEC provided opportunities to all its member countries
- For India, the establishment of BIMSTEC, was an opportunity, besides the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to engage with Southeast Asia, at least partially. BIMSTEC provided scope for direct connectivity with Southeast Asia via Northeast India and Myanmar. Counter-terrorism and anti-insurgency cooperation with Myanmar and other members, potential access to alternative energy resources in Myanmar as well as economic opportunities available in the ASEAN region had evoked sufficient interest.
- Besides India, other members too considered it as an important mechanism to achieve their national goals and regional aspirations. Myanmar, for example, became a member at a time when the junta in the country was facing serious international criticism. Membership in regional and sub-regional groupings like ASEAN and BIMSTEC provided its military rulers an opportunity to gain some sort of recognition among the regional stakeholders.
- Thailand, on the other hand, was looking for an opportunity to enhance its trade and connectivity with the South Asian countries under the ambit of its ‘Look West’ policy. So, in a way, India’s ‘Look East’ and Thailand’s ‘Look West’ policy complemented each other within the ambit of BIMSTEC. The ongoing India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and the India-Myanmar Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project are expected to further augment connectivity and economic cooperation in the sub-region and beyond.
- Countries like Sri Lanka considered BIMSTEC as an opportunity to engage with the economically booming Southeast Asian countries, especially after several failed attempts to join ASEAN in the decade prior to the establishment of BIMSTEC.
- For the land-blocked countries like Nepal and Bhutan, BIMSTEC holds the prospect of enhancing their connectivity with the rest of the region.