The adoption of the Charter at the Fifth Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) summit promises to re-energise the 25-year-old grouping at a time of growing global uncertainties. The Charter is expected to help impart a more connected vision to the seven-member organisation. 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.
With his call for a BIMSTEC Free Trade Agreement, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has outlined India’s vision to bolster trade connectivity in the grouping. An FTA spanning the maritime resource-rich members such as Myanmar and Sri Lanka could bring dramatic gains for all members. A ‘coastal shipping ecosystem’ and an interconnected electricity grid, in addition to the adopted Master Plan for Transport Connectivity, have the potential to boost intraregional trade and economic ties. Having walked away from mega trade blocs such as the China-led RCEP, New Delhi’s willingness to explore an FTA within the framework of a near-home regional grouping may provide greater accommodation for multi-party interests. 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.