BIMSTEC should be energised to boost connectivity, cooperation between South and Southeast Asia

After World War II, the world observed an increase in regional organisations with an objective to strengthen cooperation in shared areas

Aakash Agarwal Aug 13, 2020
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After World War II, the world observed an increase in regional organisations with an objective to strengthen cooperation in shared areas. The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is a regional organisation that came into existence in 1997 through the Bangkok Declaration. On June 6, 2020, the organisation celebrated its 23rd anniversary. It has seven members - all from South and Southeast Asia: India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand.

BIMSTEC holds inter-governmental interactions and there are 14 priority areas that have been identified. India is the lead country for tourism, transport and communication, counter-terrorism and transnational crime, and environment and disaster management. 

What makes cooperation important is the region’s strategic location- 22 percent of the world’s population calls it home and a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of $2.8 trillion. The Bay of Bengal is the largest bay in the world and is the route for about 25 percent of global trade. The Bay also has huge reserves for natural gas which is an untapped source of energy. What adds to the geographical benefit is the potential increase in India’s Blue Economy and Maritime Security. Piracy and trafficking, depleting fish stocks, and irregular migration are some issues, which plague the bay and require regional cooperation in their dealing. 

Whither regional cooperation 

Moreover, South Asia is a region filled with resources, including a digital economy that is expected to cross the US $200 billion in the next five years, and these must be utilised by nations in the region, especially to build relations on common interests. BIMSTEC offers a unique opportunity to do this with its sector-driven approach only if it takes the driver’s seat. It started with six sectors in 1997, which have now expanded to nine - agriculture, public health, technology, energy, poverty alleviation, counter-terrorism, environment, and culture. It has all major players of the region except for Pakistan, Afghanistan and contains five countries from South Asia and two from ASEAN making it a bridge between South and Southeast Asia. 

Failure of SAARC

South Asia has the eight-nation SAARC ( South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), but it has failed to make contributions to regional cooperation because of a lack of smooth functioning. SAARC has failed to meet its objectives, mostly due to the strained relations between India and Pakistan, besides, India’s worries over the engagement of China in the almost invalidated Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor.

For India, particularly regional cooperation would be beneficial in countering the growing advances of China. China continues to further submarine movements in the Bay of Bengal, a funnel of Malacca Straits, which has emerged important in ensuring China's access to the Indian Ocean. Moreover, China’s growing global significance cannot be denied, and the neighbourhood is quickly reflecting it. Whenever India falters, China steps in as seen in Sri Lanka, Nepal, and other neighbouring nations, most of whom now follow a China-first policy.

In the light of the on-going pandemic, China is moving rapidly to fill in the vacuum of global hegemon created by the slow retreat of the US. In order to contain China’s dominance and shield itself from the repercussions, economic and strategic cooperation between the neighbours is essential. 
 
At a time when India’s relationship with its neighbours seems to be strained, it would be wise to use BIMSTEC to strengthen some of these relationships, at least to India's easts.   

Importance of connectivity 

While the benefits are not lost to the member nations, apprehensions about India’s dominance on BIMSTEC and lack of human and financial resources keep the organisation from tapping into its full potential. Connectivity is another big issue - Northeast India is the key player in deepening connectivity with BIMSTEC countries, but underdevelopment of the northeastern states and the narrow passage - or the so-called Chicken Neck - of the Siliguri corridor obstructs the connectivity. Regional instability, underlying apprehensions of China to join BIMSTEC and the absence of strong commitment, politically and economically, have become further obstacles. 

South Asia must unite around joint issues such as water and national security, environment, and food security. The province is swiftly urbanising and is predicted to grow 64 percent by 2050. This manifests a unique possibility for collaborative growth for BIMSTEC countries.

In February, India held its first BIMSTEC conference on drug trafficking, which gave an opportunity to discuss threats posed by drugs and how to curb them. India also held a meeting with SAARC members regarding COVID-19, announcing a $10 million contribution to the SAARC fund, but a response to the pandemic is missing from BIMSTEC.

The presence of BIMSTEC dignitaries at PM Modi's second swearing-in ceremony in 2019 - as opposed to SAARC leaders attending the 2014 swearing-in ceremony - is also indicative of India’s changing priorities in the neighbourhood. A FICCI report indicates that intra-regional trade among BIMSTEC countries was about $40.5 billion in 2016 (about 6 percent) with India having a 50 percent share ($21 billion). 

COVID-19 has provided the organisation with a unique opportunity to come together to counter future challenges such as pandemics.  The relations can be extended to other domains and hopes are they will be utilised to their maximum potential for these countries in a new energised grouping. 

(The writer is a student of economics, Doon University, Dehradun. He can be contacted at aakashagrawal778@gmail.com)

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