Recently, the foreign ministers of BIMSTEC (the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) met in a virtual conference. This is the first ministerial since the globe has been hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. BIMSTEC as a regional organization has achieved a lot in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief and security, including counterterrorism, cybersecurity, and coastal security cooperation. However, there are many obstacles that limit the regional body in realizing its full potential.
BIMSTEC was established as a grouping of four nations — India, Thailand, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka — through the Bangkok Declaration of 1997. Initially, BIMSTEC didn’t hold much geopolitical weight. This can be reflected by only just three summits in the first 20 years of its formation.
Significance of BIMSTEC for India
- The strategic shift from SAARC to BIMSTEC happened after the recent strains in the bilateral relations between India and Pakistan making India to look for a parallel platform which would be devoid of Pakistan.
- BIMSTEC connects India’s northeast with BIMSTEC countries and act as a platform to realize India’s Neighbourhood First Policy and Act East Policy. The cooperation enables economic development in the region, removing its isolated nature and address the issues faced by the region and also provides better connectivity.
- BIMSTEC Free Trade Area Framework Agreement, was signed in 2004, but over 20 rounds of negotiations it is still to be operationalized.
- China’s decisive intrusion in the South-Southeast Asian space is causing a limiting effect on India’s zone of influence.
- Moreover, a renowned Bangladeshi scholar argued at a recent conference that BIMSTEC would make progress if China is accepted as its principal interlocutor and partner.
- The military coup in Myanmar, brutal crackdown of protesters, and continuation of popular resistance resulting in a protracted impasse have produced a new set of border management challenges for India.