The BIMSTEC Charter: Much Ado About Nothing
BIMSTEC is today nearing completion of the third decade since its formulation in 1994; in that period, it has held just five summits and come out with its first-ever charter only in 2022.
Published: 06th April 2022 01:58 AM | Last Updated: 06th April 2022 01:58 AM | A+A A-
Just last week, the 5th Summit of The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) was held under the auspices of the theme “Towards a Resilient Region, Prosperous Economies and Healthy People”, implicating the core priorities for the organisation. BIMSTEC is a sub-regional grouping of nations that are predominantly littoral states of the Bay of Bengal, while two of the members—Nepal and Bhutan—are landlocked areas. In terms of sheer population and GDP of the region, the BIMSTEC represents a critical grouping of states comprising nearly 1.7 billion in population and a GDP of nearly 3 trillion. While this seems impressive in terms of its relevance to global shifts, in reality the BIMSTEC seems to fall short on multiple fronts. It is today nearing completion of the third decade since its initial conception and formulation in 1994; in that period, it has held five summits and come out with its first-ever charter in 2022.
At the time of its conception, the idea was to reinvigorate regional cooperation at the sub-regional level, bringing together a few states from South Asia and Southeast Asia, particularly as these states shared contiguity over a common maritime space—the Bay of Bengal—thereby furthering a conception of community building for the shared space. Two factors were critical for its inception: first, the processes of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) floundered within a decade following its formation. For India, its bilateral relations with Pakistan held the SAARC hostage to the vagaries of the political ties between the two. At that point the origins of the BIST-EC, as it was initially known, began with an initiative by Thailand, which sought to enhance economic ties with a few of the littoral states around the Bay of Bengal. Second, a key shift allowed for the inclusion of Myanmar in the BIMSTEC in 1997. That year, Myanmar was included as a member to the ASEAN, paving the way for the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and subsequently the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), to find more regional acceptance. The move towards regional integration was seen as a way forward for Myanmar from years of international isolation. The BIMSTEC, therefore, offered Myanmar one more option to pursue its foreign policy of seeking political leverage through regional integration. While it originally started as the Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand – Economic Cooperation, in 2004 the BIMSTEC further expanded to include both Nepal and Bhutan, which were landlocked Himalayan states that needed access to maritime spaces through their neighbouring nations. This enlarged the membership and initiated the move towards a notional concept of a Bay of Bengal community. But the core issues that were critical for any effort towards cooperation was to systematically enhance the substandard levels of trade, improve regional connectivity to further the movement of trade commodities and people, and deepen the levels of integration through cooperation. On some of these core areas, the BIMSTEC is yet to move forward and three challenges are critical to address.
First, where the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is concerned, it has been progressing at snail’s pace. It is today 18 years since the initial moves to start the FTA was initiated in 2004, when the first BIMSTEC summit was held in Thailand. The idea of the BIMSTEC FTA, like all other FTAs, was to promote the reduction of tariff and allow for the movement of goods and services across a wider regional canvas that would potentially promote investment and closer economic cooperation. Even though several rounds of negotiations have been held, the move towards the conclusion of the FTA remains elusive. Closely related to this are the issues of connectivity, where progress has been slow. Moreover, our nation’s reluctance to join the RCEP and the review process of the India-ASEAN FTA, leaves New Delhi shy of a full embrace of the BIMSTEC FTA, which will have a critical impact as the country remains the largest economy within the BIMSTEC. It is imperative to understand that India is to the BIMSTEC FTA what China is to the RCEP.
Second, what began as a forum for furthering economic and technical cooperation has since 2016 begun to show greater focus on security cooperation aspects. For India, the move to revive the BIMSTEC in 2016 was a factor that was determined by the deteriorating ties with its immediate neighbour Pakistan. The revival and outreach to the BIMSTEC members in 2016 provided the sub-regional grouping with visibility. Issues concerning terrorism, maritime security matters and the need to address non-traditional security challenges began to be brought into the ambit of the discussions. In the recently concluded summit, the question of the Ukraine crisis and how the international order has critically shifted was well emphasised in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech, indicating the threshold shift as far as the BIMSTEC is concerned. But the emphasis on these areas still remains rhetorical even as the deepening of ties within the BIMSTEC is a challenge.
Third, two countries of the BIMSTEC will be increasingly relevant: one, the unfolding economic crisis in Sri Lanka and the impact this will have on the country’s political system needs to be closely watched. Similarly, the lack of progress on Myanmar’s political impasse has already created a challenge in how the BIMSTEC will help to address these two member states. So while the charter is a step forward in institutionalising the BIMSTEC, it remains a relatively negligible step towards deepening the integration.
Professor at School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi