Explained | How has BIMSTEC finetuned its regional agenda? 

What are the aims and functions of the multilateral grouping in handling challenges in the Bay of Bengal region?

April 03, 2022 01:06 am | Updated 01:10 am IST

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina delivers a virtual speech at the fifth Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) summit in Colombo on March 30, 2022.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina delivers a virtual speech at the fifth Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) summit in Colombo on March 30, 2022. | Photo Credit: AP

The story so far: Amid the financial crisis of 1997, leading Southeast Asian and South Asian nations came together to form the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). The underlying factor behind the grouping was that if connected together, the economic powerhouses of South Asia and Southeast Asia could deal with the challenges of pursuing free market economies in the limits imposed by local political and economic factors. In its 25th year, and at its fifth summit held in hybrid format in Colombo, the organisation adopted a charter which aims at providing greater coordination among the seven members — Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar and Thailand.

Why is there a need to revitalise the multilateral grouping?

The new charter comes at a time when the need for an alternative regional-global organisation is increasingly being felt because of the moribund nature of SAARC which has not met since November 2014. For long, BIMSTEC existed as a platform for policy dialogue but the global churning over sanctions on Russia after the war in Ukraine appears to have contributed towards finetuning the focus of the grouping. It wants to be an organisation which can find autonomous space away from bigger trade and defence groupings and work for the development of the region around the Bay of Bengal.

What does BIMSTEC's connectivity vision aim to achieve?

The BIMSTEC Master Plan for Transport Connectivity seeks to connect several major transport projects in India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand and establish a shipping network across the Bay of Bengal that will benefit the littoral states as well as the Bay of Bengal dependent states like Nepal and Bhutan. The BBIN connectivity project of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal is expected to be merged with the port and infrastructure projects like the Sittwe port of Myanmar and Payra port of Bangladesh and Colombo of Sri Lanka.

Is the Free Trade Agreement plan feasible?

A framework agreement for a Free Trade Agreement among the members of BIMSTEC was signed in 2004, and has been revived again. The idea is to create stronger trade relations among players in the Bay of Bengal region but negotiations on finalising legal instruments for coastal shipping, tying up road transport and other issues will take time to be sorted out.

What is the security pillar aiming to achieve?

The Bay of Bengal has enormous significance from the security point of view. It borders the Strait of Malacca which is the main energy lane for the eastern and Southeast Asian nations. That apart, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have often suffered from terrorism. The security relevance of BIMSTEC, therefore, has been growing especially after the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka in 2019. India will steer the security pillar of BIMSTEC and is expected to coordinate regionwide security cooperation on jointly agreed issues.

Will it mediate in bilateral issues?

BIMSTEC members like Myanmar and Bangladesh have challenges like the Rohingya crisis that both sides have been dealing with since 2017. The tense relations between the two countries had hampered smooth working of the BIMSTEC for some time. But as of now the grouping, by including Myanmar in the summit in Colombo, has indicated that it will not interfere in domestic political problems and nor will it allow any member to be sidelined within the organisation. SAARC has been weighed down by bilateral problems between India and Pakistan and a lesson probably has been learnt to keep bilateral troubles away from a regional grouping for better coordination among the members.

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