Should India prefer BIMSTEC over SAARC? - Seeker's Thoughts

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Should India prefer BIMSTEC over SAARC?

The shift of focus from other regional initiatives such as SAARC to BIMSTEC in the past five years can be attributed to the inability of SAARC to foster regional cooperation and make progress.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi called BIMSTEC leaders in his swearing-in ceremony on May 30, 2019.  The term BIMSTEC stands for the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Co-operation. 

During 2014, for the first time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi took his oath, SAARC leaders were invited.  SAARC stands for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.

BIMSTEC already includes five SAARC members except for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Maldives.

 Does India give privilege to BIMSEC over SAARC? If so, what are the reasons for India for ignoring SAARC and favoring BIMSTEC? There are a lot of questions, but before starting reasons, we have to understand about the BIMSTEC and SAARC.

What is BIMSTEC?

BIMSTEC was founded by Bangkok declaration in 1997, and it stands for Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation.

The BIMSTEC member states—Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal, and Bhutan —are among the countries dependent on the Bay of Bengal.

It Is an International Organization between South Asia and South East Asia. These member countries are dependent upon the Bay of Bengal. 
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1.    Why was BIMSTEC founded?

BIMSTEC was founded for the Technical and Economic Cooperation along the coast of Bay of Bengal.

The purpose for all the members for coming together was to create an enabling environment for rapid economic development through identification and implementation of specific cooperation projects in the sectors of trade, investment and industry, technology, human resource development, tourism, agriculture, energy, and infrastructure and transportation.

These countries provide mutual assistance to one another in the area of common interest.

Asian Development Bank has become a partner of BIMSTEC in 2005 to undertake the “BIMSTEC Transport and Logistic Study”.

The permanent Secretariat is in Dhaka (opened in 2014) and there 14 identified sectors for cooperation.  

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 What is SAARC?

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is an economic and geopolitical organization of eight South Asian nations. It plays the role of a guiding force for the member countries.

In 1985, the charter of SAARC was founded for working for the common cause in the fields – agriculture, educations, health, climate, science and technology, and environment.

Why did India become distant from SAARC?

Due to tensions between India and Pakistan, India became more lenient towards BIMSTEC.

After a series of attacks on India in Uri and Pathankot, India boycotted the SAARC summit (after Uri attack) as the summit was to be held in Islamabad. 

Other members of SAARC followed suit. Therefore, the summit was called off.

India invited BIMSTEC leaders to the BRICS outreach summit in Goa in 2016.

In 2018, the BIMSTEC summit held in Nepal.  The theme for the 2018 summit was Towards a Peaceful, Prosperous and sustainable Bay of Bengal Region’... and all member states demanded that encourage, support or finance terrorism, provide sanctuaries to terrorists and terror groups should be held accountable.

Therefore, India has been diplomatically isolating Pakistan, and this remains the sole reason for being distant from SAARC.

A report of the World Bank stated that the ‘South Asia’ is one of the most densely populated area but a poorly integrated region in the world.  Due to lesser integration, the intra trade remains lesser than 5 % of total trade in South Asia.

BIMSTEC gives leverage to India to focus on the connectivity projects around the Bay of Bengal, and this could give India to unleash the potential of seven eastern states.

Myanmar’s Sittwe Port can provide well connectivity to the northeastern region of India.

Physical connectivity with BIMSTEC would certainly enhance integration with Eastern Asia.

India has already invested in the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project, and the BIMSTEC Motor Vehicle Agreement. However, these projects are long from being completed due to issues related to the allocation of resources, lack of political will and institutional coordination between countries.

India has growing energy demands, and BIMSTEC can partially help with it.

The good thing is that each area has seen modest growth in cooperation.

Why should India consider a relationship with SAARC?

SAARC as an organization reflects the identity of South Asia, and the countries which are members of SAARC share a natural geographical identity.

There is a cultural, linguistic, religious and culinary similarity between South Asian Nations.

BIMSTEC would be confined to the Bay of Bengal, and the organization made progress in technical areas.

BIMSTEC is moreover a bridge between SAARC and ASEAN, and therefore, India should be a member of SAARC.

SAARC provides a platform for growth in the economic field, and any other organization like BIMSTEC and SCO fails to provide such a platform.

For electing the chairman of BIMSTEC, the alphabetical order is used. 14 Priority Areas are led by different nations to lead the efforts.

India provides 33% of BIMSTEC’s expenditure as well as India leads in Transport and communication, Tourism, Counterterrorism, and Transnational Crime, Environment and Disaster Management.


Even though, SAARC became defunct due to Pakistan’s opposition to connectivity p [ projects such as Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA), energy sharing proposal and South Asian Satellite. However, such agreements did not make progress in another grouping like Bangladesh – Bhutan- India – Nepal (BBIN).

India can adopt SAARC minus Pakistan strategy and cooperate with willing members.

India can use SAARC as a common platform to demand sustainable alternatives for development, and to oppose tariffs together or to demand better terms for South Asian Labour around the world.  

However, India has been growing at a faster pace in recent times and needs products for consumptions, assistance for growth, and some technology to share.

India’s ambition to connect with the region often does not remain so stable and smooth because among other groups like SAARC and SCO. Pakistan and India come to conflicts and relations don’t run smooth.

BIMSTEC can play a vital role as countries share the same interest and India had better relations with these countries since ancient time as well as cornering SAARC would not be fruitful for India either.

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