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For years, the BIMSTEC, known as Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand- Economic Cooperation) in its previous Avatar, was perceived as an example of southern Asian sub-regionalism by proxy. To some, it was Plan B of regional cooperation in the Indian subcontinent, the mini-SAARC, the primary motive of which was: to create a positive and forward-looking alternative to over-securitised and deadlocked SAARC. Binding two Southeast (Myanmar, Thailand), and five South Asian (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka) together, BIMSTEC sub-region is home to around 1.7 billion people and a combined GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of US$3 trillion.

As BIMSTEC celebrates its silver jubilee this year, it has transformed itself into a new hope for transnational cooperation in the Bay of Bengal sub-region. Brimming with multi-sectoral cooperation potential, and the rapid emergence of Bangladesh as the new sub-regional economic dynamo, the grouping fits well with India’s Indo-Pacific agenda and Eastward engagement calculations. However, for India and its partners, BIMSTEC is an opportunity that requires building greater regional trust, resilience, and sustained efforts for its realization.

The idea of establishing and promoting the BIMSTEC perfectly aligned with India’s attempts to rescue regional cooperation from the India-Pakistan binary on one hand, and deprive the latter of engaging in any regional leadership competition with India on the other hand.

From India’s point of view, the Look/Act East successes have clearly motivated it to ‘travel more than half’ and make the Bay of Bengal a zone of confluence for its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and ‘Indo-Pacific vision’. This was clearly manifested in the recently-held fifth BIMSTEC Summit in Sri Lanka where India not only offered to play the role of a ‘security pillar’ but also proposed members to have a BIMSTEC Free Trade Agreement.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi also pledged USD 1 million for the BIMSTEC Secretariat’s operational budget. Situated in Bangladesh, the Secretariat was an outcome of India’s efforts to provide institutional architecture to the BIMSTEC.

The year 2022 marks the silver jubilee of the BIMSTEC. During the summit, the BIMSTEC charter was adopted and three important documents were signed, namely: BIMSTEC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters; BIMSTEC MoU on Mutual Cooperation in the field of Diplomatic Training; and, Memorandum of Association on Establishment of BIMSTEC Technology Transfer Facility.

BIMSTEC is an important platform for India to consolidate regional cooperation in its neighbourhood. Since 2014, India has been consistently working on the Neighbourhood First policy. The very first foreign policy framework initiated by the Modi government in 2014 was the Neighbourhood First policy. Pakistan was also included in the policy in its initial phase. There were attempts to normalise ties with Pakistan. With that spirit, Modi even invited Nawaz Sharif, then Prime Minister of Pakistan to his swearing-in ceremony in 2014.

However, Pakistan’s refusal to be a part of India’s South Asian satellite plan and non-stop efforts to sponsor terrorist attacks in India; the success of Look/Act East policy, efforts to put northeastern states to the mainstream, and qualitative improvements in ties with Bangladesh compelled the Modi government to choose BIMSTEC over SAARC. A decisive shift in that direction was made in 2016 when Modi sidelined SAARC and invited BIMSTEC leaders for the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa)-BIMSTEC Outreach Summit in Goa.

During his remarks at the 2022 summit, Modi urged the BIMSTEC leaders to make it a bridge of connectivity, prosperity, & security. These three issues drive India’s regional diplomacy. Soft and hard infrastructure connectivity is one of the top regional foreign policy priorities for India. India’s recent initiatives such as the BBIN (BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement), upscaling cross-border railway linkages with Nepal and Bangladesh in South Asia, and India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway, attempts to start direct flights between Indian cities and tourist destinations in Southeast Asia, and the SAGAR initiatives bear testimony to this fact.

Trade is one of the foundational pillars of intergovernmental regional cooperation across the world. As the Bay of Bengal littoral economies, particularly India and Bangladesh, are scaling up their production of tradable goods and contribution to the global trade volume, it is imperative for the member countries to work towards greater harmonisation of their trade policies and lowering intra-group tariff barriers. Modi’s proposal to launch a BIMSTEC Free Trade Area is not only timely but also strategic.

It is noteworthy that in April itself India and Australia signed an interim Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement. In February 2022, a Free Trade Agreement with the United Arab Emirates was inked. India is also in different stages of negotiating a trade agreement with the European Union, United Kingdom, and the United States. These trade agreements are designed to thwart the possible negative impact of India’s decision to pull out of the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership).

However, the revival of the Bay of Bengal dynamism and recapturing its old glory are tasks easier said than done. For one, this subregion is one of the biggest sources of humanitarian crisis in the Indo-Pacific region, which primarily emanates from the Rohingya crisis and domestic political upheavals in Myanmar. The domestic political and economic crisis in Sri Lanka demands a more proactive role of BIMSTEC, particularly India, which has proposed to act as the “security pillar” for the group.

Terrorism has been a major security concern for India. Since 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, one of India’s consistent efforts have been to ensure that Nepal and other countries on its eastern seaboard are not exploited for harbouring cross-border, state-sponsored terrorism. It is not surprising, therefore, that India has taken up the responsibility as the “Lead Country” in tackling Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC).

Moreover, perennial transnational challenges such as gun-running, maritime piracy, human trafficking, and other non-traditional security challenges make the Bay of Bengal region vulnerable. As India and other members of BIMSTEC are working towards creation of an institutional architecture for BIMSTEC, it is important to keep members’ respective strengths and weaknesses in perspective.

Article was first published at Financial Express on April 11, 2022.

Last Update: 12/04/2022