Sri Lanka is gearing up to host the Fifth Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) Summit, now in its silver jubilee year (the summit is being held in virtual/hybrid mode on March 30, and Sri Lanka is the current BIMSTEC chair). This special occasion makes it imperative for BIMSTEC leaders to reinforce their commitments and efforts in building the momentum of collaborations in the Bay of Bengal region for the security and development of all.
This summit is expected to build the required momentum of collaborations among the member states — Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand — as there has been commendable teamwork among them and a finalisation of several agreements to enhance regional strategic and economic integration. The unique ecology of BIMSTEC is witnessing enriched political support and commitment from India.
Undoubtedly, BIMSTEC has special significance for India in a changing mental map of the region. India has made the Bay of Bengal integral to India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act East’ policies which can accelerate the process of regional integration. BIMSTEC matters for India and the region.
An area of importance
Finalising the BIMSTEC Charter; BIMSTEC Master Plan for Transport Connectivity; BIMSTEC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters; BIMSTEC Technology Transfer Facility (TTF); cooperation between diplomatic academies/training institutions; and a template of Memorandum of Association for the future establishment of BIMSTEC centres/entities present signs of optimism as well as the comeback of the Bay of Bengal as a new economic and strategic space.
Further, the economic and strategic significance of the Bay of Bengal is growing rapidly with a re-emergence of the idea of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region. This notion assumes that the growing economic, geopolitical and security connections between the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions are creating a shared strategic space. The Bay of Bengal is evolving as the centre of the Indo-Pacific region again. The renewed focus has given a new lease of life to the developmental efforts in the region, in particular BIMSTEC.
As the BIMSTEC process turns 25 years, it is all set to make visible progress through advancing concrete cooperation among the member states. They have invested some fresh energy in the last couple of years to make BIMSTEC a valuable institution for regional integration and collaboration.
A bridge between Asias
BIMSTEC has huge potential as a natural platform for development cooperation in a rapidly changing geopolitical calculus and can leverage its unique position as a pivot in the Indo-Pacific region. There has been tangible progress in BIMSTEC cooperation in several areas that include security, counter-terrorism, intelligence sharing, cybersecurity and coastal security, and transport connectivity and tourism, among others.
The growing value of BIMSTEC and its attempt to generate synergy through collective efforts by member states can be understood, for three key reasons. First, there is a greater appreciation of BIMSTEC’s potential due to geographical contiguity, abundant natural and human resources, and rich historical linkages and a cultural heritage for promoting deeper cooperation in the region. Indeed, with a changed narrative and approach, the Bay of Bengal has the potential to become the epicentre of the Indo-Pacific idea — a place where the strategic interests of the major powers of East and South Asia intersect. Political support and strong commitment from all member countries are crucial in making BIMSTEC a dynamic and effective regional organisation.
Need for connectivity
Second, BIMSTEC serves as a bridge between two major high-growth centres of Asia — South and Southeast Asia. Connectivity is essential to develop a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable Bay of Bengal region. Therefore, BIMSTEC needs to address two dimensions of connectivity – one, upgrading and dovetailing national connectivity into a regional road map; and two, development of both hard and soft infrastructures.
The BIMSTEC Master Plan for Transport Connectivity will provide the necessary boost to connectivity. There is growing involvement of educational institutions, industries and business chambers through various forums and conclaves which are helping to enhance cooperation in the areas of education, trade and investments, information technology and communication among others. Resisting the temptation to make lofty promises, the BIMSTEC leaders have focused on priority areas through a concrete action plan on time.
Third, the BIMSTEC Secretariat coordinates, monitors and facilitates the implementation of BIMSTEC activities and programmes. The leaders must agree to strengthen the institutional capacity of the BIMSTEC Secretariat. Approval of a charter for BIMSTEC during the summit will further augment its visibility and stature in international fora. Likewise, India has implemented its promise to set up a Centre for Bay of Bengal Studies (CBS) at Nalanda University, Bihar for research on art, culture and other subjects related to the Bay of Bengal. The quest for economic growth and the development of the BIMSTEC region can be achieved with single-minded focus and cooperation among the member counties. In this endeavour, India has a key role in accelerating regional cooperation under the BIMSTEC framework and in making it vibrant, stronger and result-oriented.
Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy is Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Centre for Bay of Bengal Studies at Nalanda University, Bihar