BIMSTEC - A Bridge Between South and Southeast Asia - Seeker's Thoughts

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BIMSTEC - A Bridge Between South and Southeast Asia

Reviving BIMSTEC -- Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation -- holds great significance for India, aligning perfectly with India's "Neighborhood First" and "Act East" policies aimed at increasing trade partnerships throughout Southeast Asia.

Its 14 areas of focus span from connectivity and public health to agriculture and it is advised to remain focused on core areas of cooperation.

A Natural Platform for India's Neighborhood First and Act East  Policies

Since SAARC has become dysfunctional due to differences between India and Pakistan, India is exploring different avenues for regional cooperation. One such opportunity is BIMSTEC. By strengthening ties with East Asian neighbors under this banner India can meet its key foreign policy priorities--Neighbourhood First and Act East.

BIMSTEC?s seven pillars--countering terrorism and transnational crime, trade, investment, development, energy consumption, tourism, environmental management and disaster response management as well as people-to-people connections--are in line with India?s vision for the region. India assigns leadership roles within each of these areas among member states within BIMSTEC - India for Security sector while Bangladesh takes care of Trade/Investment respectively.

BIMSTEC boasts an incredible economic potential due to its massive markets and vast natural resources, with an approximate market size of $4 trillion representing an outstanding opportunity for India to advance its economic interests in South and Southeast Asia.

India's "Act East" policy fits seamlessly with BIMSTEC as it seeks to expand India's economic influence in the region. This can be seen through India's focus on free trade agreements within BIMSTEC as well as their proposal of setting up a Secretariat that will be housed in Dhaka.

But there remain challenges in building a functional BIMSTEC. Any regional organization's success requires the continued commitment of its member-states; leaders may attend summits and make grand speeches; however, bureaucracies will ultimately carry the load for implementing decisions at the highest levels.

India has an overwhelming investment in BIMSTEC as its economy relies heavily on trade with its neighbours, especially tea exports to BIMSTEC nations (currently around 24/25 million kg); however, due to market potential and India's commitment to its "Act East" initiative; their tea exports could easily double and strengthen India's relations with BIMSTEC members even more.

How BIMSTEC Enhances India's Connectivity and Cooperation with Myanmar and Thailand

Bay of Bengal boasts a population of 1.5 billion and an annual GDP exceeding $2 trillion, making it home to one-fourth of world trade goods. As such, this region serves as an ideal platform for cooperation among India, its southern Asian neighbors, and Southeast Asian counterparts.

An agreement among BIMSTEC nations could boost export promotion - one of the prime objectives of Modi government - particularly given India?s recent export slump. Improving connectivity (road, rail and maritime shipping), building economic partnerships through regional infrastructure projects and encouraging greater participation by economic partners are also initiatives which would enable this bloc to maximize its full potential.

BIMSTEC stands to take three significant steps that could greatly increase its relevance for India. These are: (1) renewing commitment to "achieving the aims and objectives set forth in the BIMSTEC Charter"; (2) peace settlement process for land and sea borders that could pave way for increased integration and growth in the area; and (3) renewed interest by Myanmar even though domestic constraints limit participation.

At this summit, BIMSTEC member countries adopted and revised its Charter as well as restructuring cooperation activities into seven sectors. Each sector will now be led by one individual member country; India will lead security pillar according to Ministry of External Affairs. Furthermore, this reorganization provides an opportunity for Myanmar which had previously been ignored due to a military coup last year to join.

Reorganization of BIMSTEC underlines its internal challenges and issues, such as expanding digital infrastructure across its bloc. Furthermore, adequate financial and manpower resources must be allocated to ensure effective secretariat operations; while various members should accelerate connectivity projects aimed at stimulating trade while helping implement regional infrastructure strategies more easily - including Kaladan multimodal project, Asian Trilateral Highway and port-led connectivity networks.

BIMSTEC: A Regional Organization that Connects India with the Ecologies of the Great Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal

BIMSTEC represents 1.6 billion people of diverse cultures living together harmoniously. As a result, its potential for economic and social development is immense. Members share a common historical heritage as well as values, cultures and traditions which unite them all - an ideal platform for India to expand its footprint in its neighborhood under its Act East policy.

BIMSTEC was formed in 1997, comprising seven member states with shared geographical, historical, cultural and linguistic affinities. Its founding principles call for respecting Sovereign equality, Territorial integrity, Political independence and Non-interference in internal affairs & peaceful coexistence as fundamental values - while emphasizing its place as an adjunct and not replacement to bilateral or multilateral cooperation among its members.

Though dynamic, BIMSTEC has experienced several obstacles over time that threaten its vitality and progress. Many of these stem from inefficiency and poor coordination, with policy making meetings not taking place consistently or its secretariat not having sufficient funds or manpower for efficient operations.

India's current BIMSTEC chairmanship provides India an opportunity to overcome some of these barriers. They may do this by prioritising connectivity projects and creating an investment fund aimed at encouraging trade and investment within the region, in addition to working towards an unified regional approach towards counterterrorism, transnational crime management, energy generation and disaster mitigation.

India can play an influential role within BIMSTEC by leading on these matters and protecting its own interests while strengthening relationships among members.

India?s foreign policy priorities of Neighbourhood First and Act East rely heavily on BIMSTEC; hence it should take an approach that maximizes its full potential within it. Focusing on its Charter's principles can ensure effective functioning; for this reason, 2016 saw a BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach Summit which provided an important step forward.

India's Role and Interests in BIMSTEC

India recognizes the strategic value of North East Region to advance regional integration and connectivity efforts; yet is acutely aware of ensuring they do not clash with India?s interests elsewhere.

Therefore, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sector Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is seen as an ideal means of engaging with South and Southeast Asia - specifically countering China?s growing influence among ASEAN member states including Myanmar. Furthermore, India can utilize BIMSTEC as part of its "Act East" policy, deepening engagement with countries belonging to CMLV bloc - Cambodia Myanmar Laos Vietnam in conjunction with their BRICS engagement.

For any regional organisation to thrive, it requires considerable investment and sustained commitment from its members. While leaders may show up eagerly at summit meetings with lofty speeches, ultimately it is bureaucracies which must take up the responsibility for translating visions into real projects and achievements - yet after 25 years BIMSTEC has only hosted five summits, eight ministerial meetings and seven Senior Officials Meetings, with many projects remaining uncompleted.

At its 2022 summit, Indian Prime Minister Modi made an impassioned plea for BIMSTEC as an organization that could bridge connectivity, prosperity and security - but for it to reach its true potential it must respond swiftly and appropriately to major developments rather than hosting summits that fail to act upon what was decided upon at these gatherings.

Three recent developments suggest that India is beginning to take BIMSTEC more seriously and is willing to empower it with capacity for finishing existing projects rather than burdening it with additional initiatives. If this trend continues, BIMSTEC may soon become a fully fledged regional organisation. Rohan Ranjan Rai is an ORF Research Intern in Kolkata.