- The fifth summit of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) was hosted virtually by Sri Lanka on March 30, 2022.
- Sri Lanka is the current Head of the regional grouping.
Highlights of the Summit
- The Summit’s theme was "Towards a Resilient Region, Prosperous Economies, Healthy People”.
- The main outcome of the Summit was the adoption and signing of the BIMSTEC Charter, which formalizes the grouping into an organization made up of member states that are littoral to, and dependent upon, the Bay of Bengal.
- The Summit also saw considerable progress being achieved in the BIMSTEC connectivity agenda with the adoption of the ‘Master Plan for Transport Connectivity’ by Leaders which lays out a guidance framework for connectivity related activities in the region in the future.
- Three BIMSTEC agreements were signed, which represent progress being achieved in ongoing cooperation activities:
(i) BIMSTEC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters;
(ii) BIMSTEC Memorandum of Understanding on Mutual Cooperation in the field of Diplomatic Training and
(iii) Memorandum of Association on Establishment of BIMSTEC Technology Transfer Facility.
- The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is a multilateral regional organisation established with the aim of accelerating shared growth and cooperation between littoral and adjacent countries in the Bay of Bengal region.
- It has a total of seven member countries- five from South Asia, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, and two from Southeast Asia, including Myanmar and Thailand.
- It was founded as BIST-EC, in June 1997, with the adoption of the Bangkok Declaration, with Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand as members.
- It became BIMST-EC (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation) with the entry of Myanmar in late 1997, and eventually, it was named in its current form, when Nepal and Bhutan became members in 2004.
Working mechanism of BIMSTEC
- Until the current summit, BIMSTEC did not have a formal document or organisational architecture, which was adopted this time in the form of the BIMSTEC Charter.
- However, it did have a working mechanism for policy making and operational goals.
- Policy making would be done through two types of meetings: Summits, which are supposed to be held every two years; and ministerial meetings of Foreign and Commerce Ministers of member countries for deciding on trade and economic affairs, to be held once every year.
- An operational meeting of senior officials to monitor the activities of the grouping is also supposed to be held twice a year.
- Since its inception, BIMSTEC’s policy making meetings have not been held as per plan.
- Meanwhile, 18 ministerial meets have taken place so far; and between 2014 and 2017, the Senior Officials meet was postponed seven times.
- BIMSTEC didn’t have an official headquarters or secretariat until 2011 and 2014 respectively when the headquarters were established in Dhaka and its first Secretary General — Sri Lankan diplomat Sumith Nakandala was appointed.
BIMSTEC Working Group
- BIMSTEC has a coordinating body called the BIMSTEC Working Group, which has a rotating chairman based on which member country chairs the organisation (the current Chair of BIMSTEC is Sri Lanka).
- Under this, meetings are to be held monthly at the Dhaka secretariat to review the progress of the regional grouping.
Significance of BIMSTEC
- The BIMSTEC region hosts 22% of the world population or 1.68 billion people; and the member states have a combined GDP of US$3.697 trillion/per year.
- For India, BIMSTEC aligns with its ‘Act East’ Policy for greater regional cooperation in southeast Asia.
- It could also be seen as aligning with India’s larger goal to gain trade and security prominence in the Indian Ocean region and to cater to the concept of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region, a major focus of Quad countries.
- Another important factor for India in becoming a prominent leader in the Bay and maintaining peace and security, is China making inroads in the Indian Ocean Region over the years.
- Besides, China today is involved in a widespread drive to build infrastructure in South and Southeast Asian countries, it has projects under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in all BIMSTEC members except India and Bhutan.
Alternative to SAARC
- The idea of BIMSTEC also gained prominence after the 2016 Uri attack when India was able to get SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) nations on its side to boycott the organisations’ summit, which was to be held in Islamabad, Pakistan.
- The progress of SAARC has stalled over the years due to Indo-Pak relations and what experts call Pakistan’s obstructionist approach to the organisation, BIMSTEC emerged as an alternative platform for cooperation.
- The BIMSTEC Energy Centre was set up in Bengaluru, along with the BIMSTEC Business Council, a forum for business organisations to promote regional trade.
- It aims to create free-trade and power grid interconnectivity agreements, and a masterplan for transport connectivity in the Bay of Bengal region (adopted at the current summit).
- 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.