BIMSTEC and India

BIMSTEC and India

This article deals with ‘BIMSTEC and India Relations – UPSC.’ This is part of our series on ‘International Relations’ which is important pillar of GS-2 syllabus . For more articles , you can click here

1997 BIST-EC ie Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation was formed which was headquartered in Dhaka  
2004 – Nepal and Bhutan joined
– BIST-EC was renamed to BIMSTEC
– BIMSTEC = Bay of Bangal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation  

BIMSTEC is sector-driven cooperative organization
– Initially started  with six sectors— trade, technology, energy, transport, tourism and fisheries.
– In 2008, expanded to embrace eight more sectors— agriculture, public health, poverty alleviation, counter-terrorism, environment, culture, people to people contact and climate change  
2004 Talks on Free Trade Agreement (FTA) started between BIMSTEC nations
2008 2nd Summit held in Delhi
2014 3rd Summit in Nay Pyi Taw (New Capital of Myanmar)  
2016 BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach Summit  held on side-lines of 2016 BRICS Summit in Goa
=> India started to promote BIMSTEC instead of SAARC.  
Aug 2018 4th BIMSTEC Meet held in Nepal  
2019 BIMSTEC leaders were invited for Prime Minister’s swearing in ceremony. (in 2014 SAARC leaders were invited ) => can be seen as change in policy

Why BIMSTEC is important for India

Alternate to SAARC

  • Due to Pakistan’s hostility , SAARC is not able to achieve anything substantial. In such a situation, BIMSTEC presents a viable alternative to SAARC


  • Making Indian stronghold in Indian Ocean Region and tackle intrusion of  China 
  • In line with India’s policies namely
    • Neighbourhood First Policy
    • Act East Policy

Economic Benefits

  • India, being a party to the BIMSTEC can utilise the FTA agreement once signed 
  • Provide investment opportunities to Indian companies
  • Market to Indian companies ( 20% of world population living in BIMSTEC area)
  • Great Tourism Potential

Benefit North East

  • This trade has potential to benefit NE as well. Energising it would also accelerate India’s Act East policy. Various projects already running will help in this
    • India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway
    • India-Myanmar Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project

Potential: Trans border Connectivity

  • BIMSTEC= 20% of world’s population
  • BIMSTEC countries have combined gross domestic product (GDP) close to $2.7 trillion.
  • BIMSTEC  FTA & BIMSTEC Motor Vehicles Agreement are on cards which when signed will bolster trade .
  • Bay of Bengal Tourism can rival Caribbean Tourism (SL PM Ranil Wikramsinghe enthusiat for this)
  • Buddhist heritage sites for religious tourism can help in this regard too


  • India, the largest member of the grouping, has  been criticised for not providing a strong leadership to BIMSTEC.
  • Both Thailand and Myanmar are criticised for having ignored BIMSTEC in favour of ASEAN. 
  • It took more than 15 years to setup Secretariat for BIMSTEC which was setup in 2014 in Dhaka
  • Countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore are not included which are important part of Bay of Bengal littoral
  • Noodle bowl effect’ of regionalism  at work as formation of another sub-regional initiative, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Forum, with the proactive membership of China, created doubts about the exclusive potential of BIMSTEC.
  • Issues of refugee  and ethnic tension among BIMSTEC member countries would pose a challenge to the grouping.
  • So far, BIMSTEC has held only 4 summit meetings 

BIMSTEC, though valuable, is no substitute as this leaves  out our troublesome western periphery

 Revival of BIMSTEC (& death of SAARC) 

  • BIMSTEC leaders were invited for Prime Minister’s swearing in ceremony. This is seen as indicator of India’s policy of engaging neighbours and keeping Pakistan out as in 2014 SAARC leaders were invited for the swearing in ceremony.

Why Change

  • Stagnation of SAARC is a key reason for India to reach out to BIMSTEC as the stagnation limited the scope of India’s growing economic aspirations
  • BIMSTEC also carries a lot of economic promise. 
    • BIMSTEC countries have combined gross domestic product (GDP) close to $2.7 trillion.
    • Despite an adverse global financial environment, all seven countries were able to sustain average annual rates of economic growth between 3 and 7.5 percent from 2012 to 2016. 
    • Bay of Bengal is also rich in untapped natural resources, with reserves of gas and other seabed minerals, oil and also fishing stocks.
  • Bay of Bengal could rival the Caribbean as a high-end tourist destination
  • Better connectivity with BIMSTEC countries opens up opportunities for Indian coastal states and North East states to unlock the potential for development in the region.
  • Strategically, BIMSTEC is a platform to counter assertive China in South and Southeast Asia, where it has undertaken investments through the Belt and Road initiative. 

Why SAARC remains relevant

  • SAARC, as an organisation, reflects the South Asian identity of the countries. BIMSTEC despite its achievements is not tied with such  identity 
  • South Asian countries are closely tied in their socio-political state as they face similar threats and challenges like terrorism, similar economic challenges, disaster etc.
  • Although BIMSTEC offers lot of potential but it has remained as ineffective as SAARC. The relatively rich /powerful countries are India and Thailand. If they take lead, others will follow. But in recent times, Thailand is caught up in internal coups & India too has remained passive till recent times .

But Foreign ministry officials reminding the importance of SAARC say that it is too early to write the obituary for SAARC. They also point out that while SAARC is run by a formal charter and  has a structural order to its functions, BIMSTEC is still only a friendly club of countries who have some common economic interests (counter = BIMSTEC has no written charter and thus more flexible.  )

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