A Driving Force In Global Affairs
The fifth summit of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) was hosted virtually by Sri Lanka on Wednesday (March 30), with the seven member nations signing a charter with an aim to make the regional body as a driving force in global affairs. The signing took place on the third and last day of the conference of the international body of South Asian and Southeast Asian nations, housing over 1.7 billion people and having a combined gross domestic product of $3.8 trillion (2021). Sri Lanka is the current chair of the regional grouping.
Heads of BIMSTEC member states Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand addressed the conference while the foreign minister represented Myanmar. The new Charter gives the group an international identity and lays out the basic institutional architecture through which it will carry out its work. The cooperation within BIMSTEC had initially focused on six sectors in 1997 (trade, technology, energy, transport, tourism, and fisheries) and expanded in 2008 to incorporate agriculture, public health, poverty alleviation, counter-terrorism, environment, culture, people-to-people contact, and climate change. Tourism, which is finally starting to re-emerge after two years of near inactivity, holds great potential for all BIMSTEC nations.
Bangladesh views BIMSTEC as a platform to position itself as more than just a small state on the Bay of Bengal, and Sri Lanka sees it as an opportunity to connect with Southeast Asia and serve as the subcontinent’s hub for the wider Indo-Pacific region. Nepal and Bhutan aim to connect with the Bay of Bengal region and escape their landlocked geographic positions. For Myanmar and Thailand, “connecting more deeply with India…would allow them to access a rising consumer market and, at the same time, balance Beijing and develop an alternative to China’s massive inroads into Southeast Asia. For India, the region’s largest economy, a lot is at stake.
China has undertaken a massive drive to finance and build infrastructure in South and Southeast Asia through the Belt and Road Initiative in almost all BIMSTEC countries except Bhutan and India. BIMSTEC could allow India to push a constructive agenda to counter Chinese investments, and instead follow best practices for connectivity projects based on recognised international norms. The Chinese projects are widely seen as violating these norms. The Bay of Bengal can be showcased as open and peaceful, contrasting with China’s behaviour in the South China Sea. “It could develop codes of conduct that preserve freedom of navigation and apply existing law of the seas regionally. In addition, BIMSTEC could stem the region’s creeping militarisation by instituting, for instance, a Bay of Bengal Zone of Peace that seeks to limit any bellicose behaviour of extra-regional power
The Charter, and India’s decision to lead the ‘security pillar’ out of the seven designated pillars of the revived BIMSTEC, has given India’s regional aspirations a new orientation, away from the stalemated SAARC that has been unable to meet since November 2014. The new opportunity is also accompanied by its own set of problems. These inherent challenges were reflected in the time taken to finalise the Charter — one of the key factors was the Rohingya crisis that has weakened bilateral Bangladesh-Myanmar ties, with Dhaka seeking full repatriation of the refugees and Naypyidaw disinclined to respond positively to international pleas. Unlike SAARC, which is burdened by India-Pakistan hostilities, BIMSTEC is relatively free of sharp bilateral disagreements and promises to provide India with a co-operative sphere of its own. Given the complexity of domestic and geopolitical factors, this sphere will require sustained bilateral and group-level discussions to prevent problems such as the Rohingya crisis from becoming impediments to the smooth delivery of economic and security outcomes. India too will have to ensure equally sustained political engagement with partners such as Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to prevent any domestic political spillover from affecting bilateral and group-level working relationships.
The security- and trade-related lessons from the troubled SAARC and SAFTA experiences also ought to serve BIMSTEC well in the long run. Ultimately though, for the revived grouping to realise its trade and economic potential, India will have to take a leadership role in assuaging any apprehensions among the smaller members of intragroup power imbalances and strive to facilitate greater cross-border connectivity and flow of investments by lowering barriers to the movement of people and goods.
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