ASEAN centrality is not what it used to be. Covid, post-pandemic economic recovery, the Ukraine crisis and the challenge of China all tested ASEAN capabilities to manage them. It is now up to ASEAN to work out its unity and centrality with a greater sense of responsibility.
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June 6, 2022, marks 25 years since India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar and Thailand joined hands to create BIMSTEC and infuse South Asia with economic and institutional cooperation. The strategic geography of this grouping has the potential to bring new synergy between South Asia and the recently-instituted Indo Pacific Economic Framework, ASEAN and the Quad, for a prosperous, secure Bay of Bengal Community.
The Quad has agreed to launch a satellite-based maritime security initiative to curb illegal fishing by China. India is a global leader in satellite launches, especially in Earth Observation (EO) satellites. The Indo-Pacific nations are looking at the Indian model because it is applicable, economical, and sustainable.
The BIMSTEC charter has laid the foundations for a prosperous, peaceful, and sustainable Bay of Bengal region, a goal that can be achieved by greater integration and deeper collaboration. While ensuring continuity with past efforts and strengthening economic cooperation is necessary, it must also realise its potential in newer areas such as the blue economy, which has three interlinked pillars— connectivity, prosperity, and regional stability.
The recently concluded ASEAN-U.S. Summit has raised the bilateral cooperation to a strategic comprehensive partnership. Key areas of cooperation were identified and global health, SDGs, maritime security and connectivity, and the Ukrainian war dominated the dialogue. The meeting is significant in light of the May 24 Quad Summit, where it is important for the US to have its engagement with ASEAN visible.
The rejuvenated BIMSTEC, with a new charter in hand, is now expanding its ambition and mission. One such area is climate change, which needs greater attention as it will have implications for the Bay of Bengal and beyond. With their unique climate conditions and action plans can together create a model for regional cooperation.
The recently concluded BIMSTEC summit is now a regional intergovernmental organization with a formal charter, giving it a clear mission and legality and a destiny linked to South and South East Asia. It is now better equipped to accelerate economic development for the fifth of the world’s population, which contributes only 4% of global GDP.
BIMSTEC is of special importance to India as it is a crucial link between the Neighbourhood First and Act East policies. This almost 25 year old multilateral can contribute to the Indo-Pacific region by addressing challenges in strategic areas of regional connectivity, security cooperation, free trade, and geoeconomic ties with external partners.
The Anglo-French commercial treaty of 1860 opened trade between France and Bombay, and brought two iconic French companies – a shipping line and the city’s first European bank. Bombay’s affluent residents were already familiar with French fashion, luxury goods, wines and liqueurs.
Concerns of global supply chains being overdependent on China has shifted the focus to India. This became clear in 2021 when Australia, Japan and India together launched the Resilient Supply Chain Initiative. India must now leverage its unique position in the Indo-Pacific region by incorporating well-planned industrial clusters and models.