Editorial Articles

volume-12, 22 - 28 June 2019

Bimstec and its Importance

Zafri Mudasser Nofil

BIMSTEC, a grouping of seven countries led by India, is gradually emerging as an alternative regional engagement platform.

The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation or the BIMSTEC has Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan as its member states. Founded in 1997, BIMSTEC acts as a bridge between South Asia and South East Asia and represents over 1.5 billion people - nearly 21 per cent of the world population - and has a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of USD 3.5 trillion (approx Rs 240 lakh crore).

India is keen to enhance regional cooperation under BIMSTEC as SAARC has not been able to achieve its goals completely. The decision to invite BIMSTEC leaders for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's swearing-in ceremony on May 30, 2019 is an indication.

Bangladesh President Abdul Hamid, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, Myanmar President U Win Myint, Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, Nepal's Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli and Special Envoy of Thailand, Minister Grisada Boonrach, were present when Narendra Modi took oath for the second consecutive term as Prime Minister.

Interestingly, in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a major initiative to reach out to the neighbourhood, had invited all SAARC leaders, including the then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for his swearing-in ceremony.

Nawaz Sharif's attendance had raised hopes of better Indo-Pak ties. The two leaders also met several times. However, the ties nosedived again after the September 2016 terror attack on an Indian Army camp in Uri in Jammu and Kashmir.

Of late, India has been maintaining that it was difficult to proceed with the SAARC initiative under current circumstances, particularly due to Pakistan's continuing support to cross-border terrorism.

The last SAARC (South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation) Summit was held in 2014 in Kathmandu, which was attended by Narendra Modi.

The 2016 SAARC Summit was to be held in Islamabad. But after the Uri attack on September 18 that year, India expressed its inability to participate in the summit.

The summit was subsequently called off after Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan also declined to take part.

BIMSTEC is now seen as an important overlay to the neighbourhood policy.

A few days after taking charge, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar while speaking at a seminar in New Delhi said that the implementation of developmental projects in neighbouring countries and elsewhere will be one of his key focus areas.

He also said regional connectivity is going to be a key priority for India and BIMSTEC could be a key vehicle for economic prosperity and regional integration.

BIMSTEC, according to him, was witnessing a great deal of positive energy and so it was decided to leverage that and invite the leaders of the nations of this grouping to the swearing-in ceremony of the new government.

Jaishankar said there was enormous scope for improving India's record in implementation of projects and that he is planning to personally monitor status of various key projects to ensure their speedy implementation.

Noting that South Asia was among the least interconnected regions in the world, he said India will look towards BIMSTEC to spur growth in the region.

The importance India attaches to BIMSTEC can also be gauged by the first official trips undertaken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Jaishankar after assuming office. While Modi visited the Maldives and Sri Lanka, Jaishankar went to Bhutan.  

BIMSTEC has identified 14 priority areas where a member country takes lead. India is lead country for Transport & Communication, Tourism, Environment & Disaster Management and Counter Terrorism & Transnational Crime.

The South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was created in 1985 as an expression of the region's collective decision to evolve a regional cooperative framework. The eight member countries in SAARC are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It also has nine Observers - China, EU, Iran, Republic of Korea, Australia, Japan, Mauritius, Myanmar and the USA.

In January 2018, the government had informed the Lok Sabha that SAARC has been unable to achieve its potential as key initiatives, including in the important area of connectivity, are held back due to lack of response or obstructionist approach of Pakistan.

Though India did not participate in the Islamabad Summit, it has been taking various initiatives including asymmetrical responsibilities for enhancing regional cooperation under SAARC.

India launched the South Asia Satellite, a first of its kind initiative, in May 2017. The project has wide ranging applications in health, education, disaster response, weather forecasting and communic-ations.


BIMSTEC is a regional organisation comprising seven member states lying in the littoral and adjacent areas of the Bay of Bengal constituting a contiguous regional unity.

This sub-regional organisation came into being on June 6, 1997 through the Bangkok Declaration. Initially, the economic bloc was formed with four member states - 'BIST-EC' (Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation).

Following the inclusion of Myanmar on December 22, 1997 at a special ministerial meeting in Bangkok, the group was renamed 'BIMST-EC' (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation).

With the admission of Nepal and Bhutan at the 6th ministerial meeting (February 2004, Thailand), the name of the grouping was changed to 'Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation' (BIMSTEC).

The regional group constitutes a bridge between South and South East Asia and represents a reinforcement of relations among these countries. BIMSTEC has also established a platform for intra-regional cooperation between SAARC and ASEAN members.

The objective of such an alliance was to harness shared and accelerated growth through mutual cooperation in different areas of common interests by mitigating the onslaught of globalisation and by utilising regional resources and geographical advantages.

BIMSTEC is a sector-driven cooperative organisation, unlike many other regional groupings. Starting with six sectors- trade, technology, energy, transport, tourism and fisheries - for sectoral cooperation, it expanded to embrace nine more sectors - agriculture, public health, poverty alleviation, counter-terrorism, environment, culture, people to people contact and climate change - in 2008.

The grouping functions according to the founding principles of BIMSTEC as laid down in the Bangkok Declaration and directions given by the leaders of the member states.

The founding principles of BIMSTEC are:

*          Cooperation within BIMSTEC will be based on respect for the principle of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, political independence, no-interference in internal affairs, peaceful co-existence and mutual benefit.

* Cooperation within BIMSTEC will constitute an addition to and not be a substitute for bilateral, regional or multilateral cooperation involving the member states.

The chairmanship of BIMSTEC rotates among the member states. Currently, Sri Lanka is the chair of BIMSTEC. The first chair was Bangladesh while India has headed it twice (2000, 2006-2008).

BIMSTEC meets regularly at different levels. Each type of meeting is tasked with unique responsibilities, but is closely interrelated to one another. The country holding the chairmanship of BIMSTEC is responsible for the conduct of regular meetings, including the BIMSTEC Summit, ministerial meeting, senior officials' meeting and BIMSTEC working group meeting.

The BIMSTEC Summit is responsible for the highest policy making decisions in the BIMSTEC process. According to norms, the summit should be held every two years, as possible. The first summit was held in Bangkok in 2004 while the last summit - the fourth in order - was held in Kathmandu in 2018.

Ministerial meetings cover the area of foreign affairs and the area of trade and economic affairs. While the foreign ministerial meetings act as prime mover determining the overall policy, as well as recommendations for the leaders' summit, trade and economic ministerial meeting monitors the progress in the trade and investment sector as well as FTA policy.

At the fourth BIMSTEC Summit in Kathmandu in 2018, the member countries among other decision affirmed their solemn commitment to making the Bay of Bengal Region peaceful, prosperous and sustainable by building on common strengths through collective efforts.

They recognised that eradication of poverty is the greatest regional challenge in realisation of development objectives and committed to work together for the implementation of the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development.

They also underlined the importance of multidimensional connectivity, which promotes synergy among connectivity frameworks in the region, as a key enabler to economic integration for shared prosperity.

The members deplored terrorist attacks in all parts of the world including in BIMSTEC countries and strongly condemned terrorism in all its forms and manifestations wherever and by whomsoever committed, stressing that there can be no justification whatsoever for any act of terrorism.

"Affirm that the fight against terrorism should target not only terrorists, terror organizations and networks but also identify and hold accountable States and non-State entities that encourage, support or finance terrorism, provide sanctuaries to terrorists and terror groups and falsely extol their virtues. Reiterate our strong commitment to combat terrorism and call upon all countries to devise a comprehensive approach in this regard which should include preventing financing of terrorists and terrorist actions from territories under their control, blocking recruitment and cross-border movement of terrorists, countering radicalisation, countering misuse of internet for purposes of terrorism and dismantling terrorist safe havens," the summit declaration said.

In this regard, the members said they look forward to the signing of the BIMSTEC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters and called upon for its early ratification. They expressed satisfaction that many member states have ratified the BIMSTEC Convention on Cooperation in Combating International Terrorism, Transnational Organised Crime and Illicit Drug Trafficking.

BIMSTEC cooperation under Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime has been divided into four sub-groups with lead shepherds - Intelligence Sharing (Sri Lanka); Combating Financing of Terrorism (Thailand), Legal and Law Enforcement Issues (India) and Prevention of Illicit Trafficking in Narcotics Drugs, Psychotropic Substances and Precursors (Myanmar).

The Ministry of External Affairs hosted fifth sub-group on Legal & Law enforcement issues in January 2013 in New Delhi where draft Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters was finalised. The members signed 'BIMSTEC Convention on Combating International Terrorism, Transnational Organised Crime and Illicit Drug Trafficking' in December 2009. India has ratified it.

BIMSTEC aims to be a dynamic, effective and result-oriented regional organisation for promoting a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable Bay of Bengal Region through meaningful cooperation and deeper integration. For this, a fair, just, rule-based, equitable and transparent international order and reaffirming faith in the multilateralism with the United Nations at the centre and the rule-based international trading system is the key.

(The author is a Delhi based Senior Journalist, e-mail:  znofil@gmail.com)

Views expressed are personal.

(Image Courtesy : Google)