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 an important pillar of the GS-2 syllabus. For more articles, you can click here.


About BIMSTEC

Members

  1. Bangladesh
  2. India 
  3. Bhutan
  4. Nepal
  5. Myanmar
  6. Sri Lanka 
  7. Thailand

(important missing countries: Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore (MIS))


Secretariat

  • Dhaka

Type

BIMSTEC is a sector-driven cooperative organization. 

  • Initially started with six sectors— trade, technology, energy, transport, tourism and fisheries. 
  • In 2008, it expanded to embrace eight more sectors— agriculture, public health, poverty alleviation, counter-terrorism, environment, culture, people-to-person contact, and climate change.

Important Statistic

  • BIMSTEC consists of 20% of the world’s population.
  • BIMSTEC countries have a combined gross domestic product (GDP) close to $2.7 trillion. 
BIMSTEC and India


Timeline

1997 BIST-EC, i.e. Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation, was formed headquartered in Dhaka.  
2004 Nepal and Bhutan joined.
BIST-EC was renamed to BIMSTEC .  
BIMSTEC = Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation.  
2004 Talks on Free Trade Agreement (FTA) started between BIMSTEC nations.   
2008 2nd BIMSTEC Summit held in Delhi.  
2014 3rd BIMSTEC Summit in Nay Pyi Taw (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.  
2018 4th BIMSTEC Meet held in Nepal.  
2019 BIMSTEC leaders were invited to Prime Minister’s swearing-in ceremony (in 2014, SAARC leaders were invited ). Therefore, it can be seen as a change in policy.  
2020 5th summit was proposed to be held in September 2020 in Sri Lanka, but it was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.


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. 

Strategic Importance

  • BIMSTEC can act as a platform to counter assert China in South and Southeast Asia, where it has undertaken investments through the Belt and Road initiative.  
  • It is in line with India’s policies, namely 
    1. Neighbourhood First Policy 
    2. Act East Policy


Economic Benefits

  • Being a party to the BIMSTEC, India can utilize the FTA agreement once signed.
  • BIMSTEC can provide a big market to Indian companies (as 20% of the world population lives in the BIMSTEC area).
  • BIMSTEC has great tourism potential. The Bay of Bengal could rival the Caribbean as a high-end tourist destination. Buddhist heritage sites for religious tourism can help in this regard too.
  • BIMSTEC FTA & BIMSTEC Motor Vehicles Agreement are on the cards, which, when signed, will bolster trade.
  • The Bay of Bengal is also rich in untapped natural resources, with reserves of gas and other seabed minerals, oil, and fishing stocks.
  • 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. 

Benefit North-East

  • The trade between BIMSTEC has the potential to benefit North-East as well. Energizing 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.

Challenges

  • India, the largest member of the grouping, has been criticized for not providing strong leadership to BIMSTEC. 
  • Both Thailand and Myanmar are criticized for ignoring BIMSTEC in favour of ASEAN. 
  • It took more than 15 years to set up Secretariat for BIMSTEC, which was set up in 2014 in Dhaka.
  • Countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore are not included, which are an essential part of the Bay of Bengal littoral.
  • Issues of refugee and ethnic tension among BIMSTEC member countries would challenge the grouping. For example. The Rohingya Refugee crisis has impacted the relations between Myanmar and Bangladesh.
  • 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) 

SAARC vs BIMSTEC

Why the change in policy?

  • The stagnation of SAARC is crucial for India to reach out to BIMSTEC as the stagnation limited the scope of India’s growing economic aspirations. 

Why does SAARC remain relevant?

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

Foreign ministry officials have also said 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 that have some common economic interests.

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