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The Editorial Analysis: A Silver Moment to Propel a Bay of Bengal Dream

 

BIMSTEC UPSC: Relevance

  • GS 2: Bilateral, regional and global groupings and agreements involving India and/or affecting India’s interests.

 

BIMSTEC: Context

  • Recently, June 6 marked the completion of 25 years since the 1997 Bangkok Declaration launched a grouping of Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand, with the acronym, BIST-EC.

 

BIMSTEC evolution

  • Three countries (Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar) joined the grouping later to make it the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).
  • This unique set of five countries from South Asia and two from Southeast Asia are parents to an institution with an unwieldy name but lofty ambitions.
  • At the grouping’s birth, the world was stamped by America’s ‘unipolar moment’.
  • India and Thailand joined hands to start an experiment of infusing a part of South Asia with the economic and institutional dynamism, similar to Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
  • But BIMSTEC found the burdens of South Asia too heavy to carry, and so it grew slowly.
  • Now in the third decade of the 21st century, the strategic contestation between the United States and China defines the region’s geopolitics and geo-economics, creating new tensions and opportunities.

 

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BIMSTEC: Key achievements

  • It has crafted a new Charter for itself, spelling out the grouping’s vision, functions of its constituent parts, and has secured a legal personality.
  • It has prioritised the sectors of cooperation, reducing them from the unwieldy 14 to the more manageable seven, with each member-state serving as the lead country for the assigned sector.
  • It has taken measures to strengthen the Secretariat, although some members are yet to extend adequate personnel support to it.
  • Its success lies in its survival through the turns and twists of internal tensions. Example: The BIMSTEC region witnessed the influx of over a million Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh, the result of oppression by the Myanmar military; and the grave political and economic crisis afflicting Sri Lanka.
  • Unlike the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), post-2014, BIMSTEC has continued to hold its summits and meetings of Foreign Ministers.
  • Unlike the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) which held only one summit since its establishment in 1997, BIMSTEC has succeeded in holding five summits so far; it has now resolved to hold regular summits once in two years.
  • The grouping has also registered progress in combating terrorism, forging security cooperation, and creating mechanisms and practices for the better management of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

 

BIMSTEC: Issues

  • A major failure relates to the continuing inability to produce a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (FTA) 18 years after the signing of the Framework Agreement.
  • The other disappointment is connectivity — in infrastructure (roads, railways, air, river, and coastal shipping links), energy, the digital and financial domain, and institutions that bring people closer together for trade, tourism and cultural exchanges.
  • Only limited progress has been achieved so far, despite the adoption of the Master Plan for Connectivity supported by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
  • The grouping has talked about the Blue Economy but is yet to begin any work on it. Business chambers and corporate leaders are yet to be engaged fully with the activities of BIMSTEC.

 

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BIMSTEC: Recommendations

  • Heads of state and government need to assert their authority or abandon the FTA as an unachievable goal.
  • In this Indo-Pacific century, the Bay of Bengal Community (BOBC) has the potential to play a pivotal role, deepening linkages between South Asia and Southeast Asia.
  • It should accelerate the region’s economic development by collaborating with the newly minted Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF). New synergy should be created between BIMSTEC and the IPEF.
  • Finally, while all member-states are equal, three have a special responsibility: Bangladesh as the host of the BIMSTEC Secretariat; Thailand as the representative of Southeast Asia; and India as the largest state in South Asia. This trio must be the engine to pull the BIMSTEC train with imagination and determination.

 

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