Critics have called it a talk shop; diplomats feel that it has fallen short of realising its full potential. The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), an innovative but under-performing regional grouping, turns 20 on June 6.
There have been endeavours to revive it, one of the most recent ones coming about quite by accident. Had India-Pakistan relations not come under serious stress last year, India and the other neighbouring countries may not have decided to stay away from the SAARC summit which was scheduled to be held in Islamabad in November 2016. With SAARC entering a frozen zone, South Block consciously chose to invite BIMSTEC leaders for an Outreach Summit with the leaders of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in Goa. This high-level interaction, preceded by the BIMSTEC Leaders’ Retreat – both held on 16 October 2016 – generated hopes of BIMSTEC putting fresh wind in its sails.
The organisation started out initially on 6 June 1997 with only Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand as its members. Myanmar joined in before the year ended. Nepal and Bhutan became members in 2004, which was how the grouping acquired its unwieldy name.
Its remit thus runs to a new region, carved out of South Asia (five countries) and South East Asia (two countries). It is a potential bridge between the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), but one that achieved very little until last year. Sumith Nakandala, who became the organisation’s first secretary general in 2014, raised the valid question, “How long can we afford to live in the dream world of regional cooperation and integration?”  He added for good measure, “BIMSTEC needs a leader.”
In my view, it already has one: India. Its leadership, however, will need to be exerted with a mix of sensitivity, generosity, astuteness and determination. China’s recent Belt and Road Forum has made this task more challenging, but all the more essential. New Delhi, by showing a strong commitment through enlightened actions, can, with a little help from its friends, ensure a bright future for BIMSTEC.
Seven months after the organisation was in the spotlight in Goa, there is reason to hope that in the years to come BIMSTEC will be shaped by what the member states actually do and achieve collectively rather than by their declarations of intent. In this sense, the next BIMSTEC summit, likely to be held in Nepal before the year’s end, assumes some significance. Its deliverables will merit close scrutiny. BIMSTEC, according to its highest leaders, has “considerable potential for economic and social development through mutually beneficial cooperation in the identified priority areas”. They committed themselves last year “to work collectively towards making BIMSTEC stronger, more effective and result oriented.”
The first obvious step in the desired direction should be to focus on only a few core areas out of the 14 that BIMSTEC has been working on for the past many years. It is wise to learn walking before trying to fly. Each country seeks to press what it considers important, and thus, the list becomes too long. Given its constraints, the organisation has no choice, but to be selective and balanced. Perhaps the most pragmatic thing to do may be to forge practical cooperation in six areas, to start with: trade and investment, connectivity, energy, tourism, counter-terrorism, and Blue Economy.
The seven leaders also need to identify BIMSTEC as a common development and security space in a calibrated manner. Security challenges must be addressed through a realistic programme, already drawn up by the national security advisers at their first meeting held in New Delhi in March 2017. But the grouping’s principal focus must remain on social and economic development, as enshrined in the Bangkok Declaration of June 1997.
BIMSTEC needs to produce a few visible results or successes in the short term. Concluding the protracted negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in goods, and later, services, and investment, is the way forward. Without an appropriate FTA, the grouping will continue to be perceived as an empty shell. Besides, the very credibility of the words of its top leaders is at stake. Last October, they again “directed” their officials to expedite finalisation of the agreement on goods, and speed up negotiations for a similar pact on services and investment. Will the ministers and officials deliver soon?
BIMSTEC should strive harder to become an effective instrument of “economic growth and social progress” and “active collaboration and mutual assistance” on issues that promote the common interest of member states “in the economic, social, technical and scientific fields”.
There are several other measures for BIMSTEC to consider seriously. It must seek closer engagement of business leaders of the member states in its mission to deepen and expand economic cooperation – and this is beginning to happen.
India’s Northeast is located literally at the centre of the BIMSTEC region. Its development and connectivity must be linked with that of its neighbours in the east and west. Expanding the region’s physical, digital and institutional connectivity with Nepal and Bhutan, on the one hand, and Bangladesh and Myanmar, on the other, will be immensely helpful. The possibility of concluding a BIMSTEC Motor Vehicle Agreement should also be explored proactively.
With the idea of the Bay of Bengal Community gaining traction, BIMSTEC needs to accord priority to the Blue Economy. The relevant sectors, which will bring benefit to the littorals and their adjacent states, include fisheries, aquaculture (both inland and coastal), hydrography, seabed mineral exploration, coastal shipping, eco-tourism and renewable ocean energy, with the objective of promoting holistic and sustainable development.
Further, as BIMSTEC faces a huge financial constraint, India, which is by far the largest member state, needs to consider allocating a respectable sum – about $1 billion – for implementation of some of the connectivity and energy projects in the short term.
Finally, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are BIMSTEC’s natural partners: if they are included in a few of its development activities and projects, the grouping will gain credibility in the region.
Veteran Thai diplomat Kobsak Chutkul, who was involved in the co-founding of BIMSTEC in 1997, spoke recently of a bridge spanning the Bay of Bengal. It was not so much about physical infrastructure as “a bridge of the mind, a bridge for imagination.” Concerted endeavours may move BIMSTEC closer to such a vision.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme, Gateway House. He has extensive experience of diplomatic work and study in Southeast Asia.
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 Research and Information System for Developing Countries, “BIMSTEC – The Road Ahead”, 2016, <http://ris.org.in/pdf/BIMSTEC%20Report.pdf>
 These are: Trade and Investment, Transportation and Communication, Tourism, Fisheries, Technology, Energy , Agriculture, Cultural Cooperation, Environment and Disaster Management; Public Health, People-to-People Contact, Poverty Alleviation, Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crimes, and Climate Change.
 Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Nepal, “BIMSTEC Leaders’ Retreat 2016 Outcome Document: Geo, India”, 17 October 2016, <https://www.mofa.gov.np/bimstec-leaders-retreat-2016-outcome-document-16-october-2016-goa-india/>
 Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, “First meeting of the BIMSTEC National Security Chiefs”, 21 March 2017, <http://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/28193/First_meeting_of_the_BIMSTEC_National_Security_Chiefs_March_21_2017>
 Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Bangladesh, “Declaration on the Establishment of the Bangladesh-India-Sri Lanka-Thailand Economic Cooperation (BIST-EC), Bangkok, 6 June 1997, <http://www.bimstec.org/downloads/mm/declaration-on-bimstec-establishment.pdf>
 India’s apex business chamber, Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), has recently established a Core Group of experts on BIMSTEC, comprising relevant CEOs, scholars and former ambassadors and tasked them to craft a BIMSTEC Policy Document for the consideration of member-governments.
 The BIMSTEC Transport Logistics and Infrastructure Study (BTLIS), conducted by the Asian Development Bank, proposed 165 projects relating to maritime, civil aviation, road and railway sectors.. Some of the most appropriate ones that benefit Myanmar, Bangladesh and India’s Northeast should be selected for this purpose.