BIMSTEC or “Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation” was set up in 1997 to foster economic and social development among member countries, namely, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. Its significance lies in the fact that it serves as the direct linkage between South Asian and South East Asian countries through intra-regional collaboration between the Association of South
East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). The BIMSTEC is a viable alternative to SAARC, which has been in a state of deadlock for quite some time.
The geographical contiguity, abundant natural and human resources, rich historical linkages, and shared cultural heritage are some of the unique advantages that BIMSTEC enjoys. BIMSTEC shares high trade potentials and economic complementarities, but mostly unrealised. Not only is an energy hotspot, BIMSTEC’s strategic location also a great asset in the IndoPacific. Therefore, greater regional cooperation and integration offer immense
opportunities for BIMSTEC.
Advantage BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation)
BIMSTEC becomes highly relevant in the following ways.
First, BIMSTEC with its unique geographic location can play the role of bridging South Asia and Southeast Asia through trade and connectivity.
Second, BIMSTEC member states are surrounded by the Bay of Bengal, which is not only a space to support regional trade and transport connectivity, but also connects international maritime trade routes between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. Maritime connectivity is the key to trade and security.
Third, BIMSTEC member states are a powerhouse in some of the global products and services such as garments (Bangladesh), digital services (India), maritime services (Sri Lanka), consumer durables (Thailand), and tourism (Nepal and Bhutan), among others. Therefore, greater intra- and inter- regional cooperation may pave the way for higher trade and growth in BIMSTEC.
In BIMSTEC, some important instruments were completed such as the BIMSTEC Agreement on Grid Inter-connection; BIMSTEC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters; MoU on Mutual Cooperation between Diplomatic Academies/Training Institutions of BIMSTEC Member States, among others. Besides, there are some important developments in the period between the post-5th BIMSTEC Summit to date, depicting energetic engagements.
Let me discuss some of the major outcomes.
Out of seven members, six countries have established democratic governments and/or rules-based democratic practices. Regional programs are followed based on need and supported by democratic values and governance. Toward that direction, BIMSTEC has introduced the BIMSTEC Charter in 2022. Following the 19th Ministerial Meeting in Bangkok in early 2023, several new areas of cooperation emerged.
At the Ministerial Meeting, the Ministers considered and approved several key documents emanating from decisions of BIMSTEC Summits, including the Rules of Procedure for Core BIMSTEC Mechanisms (i.e. the Summit; the Ministerial Meeting; the Senior Officials’ Meeting; and the BIMSTEC Permanent Working Committee); BIMSTEC Sectoral Mechanisms; and BIMSTEC’s External Relations.
The Rules of Procedure will be submitted to the 6th Summit for adoption. BIMSTEC Foreign Ministers had their first retreat in Bangkok in July 2023. The Ministers also approved the Terms of Reference for an Eminent Persons Group (EPG), which is mandated to make recommendations on the future directions of BIMSTEC; the Agreement on Maritime Transport Cooperation, which is expected to be signed during the sixth Summit; and the BIMSTEC Bangkok Vision 2030, which is to be launched during the 6th Summit.
BIMSTEC leaders have tasked the Working Group on Rules of Origin (ROO) to build on the progress made during its 21st Meeting to finalise the Rules for Determination of Origin of Goods and Operational Certification Procedures and Product Specific Rules as a priority to finalise the Agreement on Trade in Goods of the BIMSTEC FTA. Besides, the BIMSTEC Transport Connectivity Working Group (BTCWG) has been instructed to expedite the implementation of the agreed activities under the BIMSTEC Master Plan for Transport
BIMSTEC leaders have asked to initiate the process of drafting the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) according to the Agreement on Maritime Transport Cooperation for discussion in the Joint Shipping Committee. They have also urged the BTCWG to finalise the Concept Note of the BIMSTEC Framework Agreement on Transit, Transhipment, and Movement of Vehicular Traffic between and among BIMSTEC member states to facilitate the formulation of the draft Framework Agreement. BIMSTEC leaders have emphasised simultaneous negotiation and finalisation of the BIMSTEC Motor Vehicle Agreement for the Regulation of Passenger, Personal, and Cargo Vehicular Traffic between and among the BIMSTEC member states.
BIMSTEC also signed the Host Country Agreement between India and the BIMSTEC Secretariat in August 2023 for establishing the BIMSTEC Centre for Weather and Climate (BCWC) in India. India has also extended US$ 1 million to the BIMSTEC Secretariat as a grant for the use of the Secretariat. The 2nd Meeting of the BIMSTEC Expert Group on Maritime Security Cooperation in the Bay of Bengal took place in New Delhi on 12 October 2023. The series of issues discussed by the Expert Group included consideration of the Draft Guiding Principles for Law Enforcement Agencies for Interaction at Sea and the Draft BIMSTEC Guidelines for Maritime Component of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief.
A Special Meeting of the BIMSTEC Permanent Working Committee convened in Paro on 5-6 October 2023. The Meeting, among others, considered and finalised Memoranda of Understanding between BIMSTEC and several international organisations, namely, UNESCAP, UNOPS, World Bank, UNODC, and IORA for submission to the BIMSTEC Senior Officials’ Meeting for consideration. At the end of November 2023, BIMSTEC formed the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) to provide future direction to the regional body. Nonetheless, the growing India-Bangladesh bilateral relations continue to energise BIMSTEC.
Trade is one of the priority areas of the BIMSTEC. However, BIMSTEC is yet to make substantial progress in the reduction of non-tariff barriers; streamlining regulatory frameworks, and harmonisation of standards. Trade and transit facilitations must be given top priority along with energy and digital connectivity.
BIMSTEC leaders have urged the Trade Negotiating Committee and its Working Groups to accelerate the finalisation of the BIMSTEC Free Trade Area and its constituent agreements including their annexures. They have also tasked the Working Group on Rules of Origin to build on the progress made during its 21st Meeting to finalise the Rules for Determination of Origin of Goods and Operational Certification Procedures and Product Specific Rules as a priority to finalise the Agreement on Trade in Goods of the BIMSTEC FTA.
The connectivity plan is ready, but the real implementation is yet to start. Here, the ASEAN model offers many important lessons. First and foremost, the BIMSTEC Secretariat has to be proactive while dealing with connectivity projects. Since the BMCA is ready, the Secretariat may pick up the maritime sector (e.g. ports, IWT, and shipping) as low-hanging fruit to start with.
While the recent developments have strengthened the foundation of BIMSTEC, BIMSTEC like institution can only be sustained if we promote governance in it. Strengthening governance is possible through the protection and promotion of a vibrant and constructive space for civil society. BIMSTEC Secretariat may consider strengthening linkages with the CSOs.
The Secretariat needs to be adequately resourced and has sufficient delegated powers to fulfil its role as a coordinator of activities across BIMSTEC members. With increased resources, there is now a need to develop a roadmap for capacity building of the BIMSTEC Secretariat. The BIMSTEC Secretariat has been entrusted to come out with Plans of Action (POA) for the region because of reorganisation of priority areas of cooperation. The POA may help the Secretariat to priorities the programmes and implementation of projects.
While hits are plenty, there are misses as well. To cite some examples, BIMSTEC has decided not to go-ahead with the BIMSTEC Development Fund; negotiation of the BIMSTEC FTA is yet to be completed; and BIMSTEC grid connectivity and energy projects are yet to take off.
Although the BIMSTEC has made some tangible progress during 2021 to 2023, the region requires further push to scale up to a higher level. BIMSTEC’s fourth Secretary-General (SG) is from India. Bangladesh is going to take over the chairmanship of BIMSTEC from Thailand once the 6th BIMSTEC Summit is over. There are high expectations from Bangladesh to accelerate the regional integration in BIMSTEC.
Global uncertainties are yet to be over, and the BIMSTEC faces several challenges both in economic and non-economic areas. Regional understanding of global challenges may provide sustainable solutions. Here, a stronger Secretariat is required to drive meaningful interactions among member states. BIMSTEC countries need to work together on governance, connectivity, and trade facilitation, disaster management, climate issues particularly green financing, counter-terrorism, global value chains, digitalization, UPI-based payment, foreign direct investment, and implementation of the BIMSTEC master plan of connectivity.
The postponement of the 6th BIMSTEC Summit has slowed the BIMSTEC integration process. On top, the 1st half of 2024 may witness forthcoming general elections in Bhutan, Bangladesh, and India. There might be further delay in holding the 6th BIMSTEC Summit. That said, we see a temporary halt of BIMSTEC before resuming a long-haul journey.
Pabir De is Professor, RIS, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: This commentary is based on the inputs received from the public domains in general and the BIMSTEC Secretariat in particular. Views are author’s own.
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Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Aasthaba Jadeja, a research intern at IMPRI.