BIMSTEC’s recent initiatives of strengthening institutional mechanisms are indeed a start but the road ahead is long if not arduous
The agenda of BIMSTEC was to promote economic cooperation and integration between the littoral and island countries of the Bay of Bengal and integrate the South and Southeast Asian economies.Even after its inception, BIMSTEC remained in a stupor for a long time. But as SAARC’s dysfunctionality became more evident in 2014 and the Bay of Bengal region grew in economic and strategic prominence, the South Asian BIMSTEC members began to push for economic integration and connectivity via the regional grouping. In 2016, India hosted the first-ever BRICS–BIMSTEC outreach leadership summit in Goa. This was followed by the fourth BIMSTEC summit in Kathmandu and the fifth summit in Colombo. Throughout all of its summits, the member states displayed their ability to cooperate in various sectors. They signed memorandums of understanding on technology transfer, cooperation of diplomatic academies, transnational crimes, and grid interconnection. In addition, BIMSTEC members also sought support from the Asian Development Bank for their 10-year master plan on connectivity.
To navigate through these ongoing challenges, and to fulfil the broader aspirations of the BIMSTEC countries in the Indo-Pacific, regional integration and institutionalisation have become more important than ever before.In addition, BIMSTEC countries are also facing several challenges that have ramifications for the region. Energy and food insecurity continues to haunt many of the member states. Nepal’s economy has entered a period of recession. Sri Lanka is slowly recovering from its worst economic and humanitarian crisis since independence. Both countries are still facing forex declines, food and fuel inflation, and a shortage of essentials. To protect its forex reserves, Bangladesh has requested the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a precautionary loan. In Myanmar, the country’s economy and security situation are in shambles. The Rohingya issue has also continued to create complications in Bangladesh-Myanmar ties. To navigate through these ongoing challenges, and to fulfil the broader aspirations of the BIMSTEC countries in the Indo-Pacific, regional integration and institutionalisation have become more important than ever before. BIMSTEC is, thus, becoming a foreign policy priority for its members.
Bilateralism is the prevalent and predominant practice among the countries. In such a political environment, for a multilateral organisation to thrive, there is a need to strengthen its institutional mechanisms.In the spectrum of areas of cooperation, BIMSTEC has also reduced the number from 14 sectors to seven comprehensive domains. While this certainly makes BIMSTEC’s objectives more feasible, a lean budget of approximately US$ 200,000 remains a persistent concern. Although initiatives had been undertaken for the creation of a BIMSTEC Development Fund intended to ease the planning, and implementation of projects and programmes under the various cooperation areas, it is yet to be implemented. For BIMSTEC to be truly effective, there is a need for adequate funding.
Given the overlapping membership of both institutions and the commonality in many concerns that they face, the ASEAN example can serve as a template in multilateralism for BIMSTEC to consider.As a member of both organisations, Thailand has a crucial role to play in nurturing such collaborations, ably assisted by India—a BIMSTEC member and an ASEAN Dialogue partner. While Myanmar could also have played a meaningful role in facilitating the ties, its domestic situation can be a restraining factor. Nonetheless, the Junta have continued to show their interest in engaging with the BIMSTEC. The Chairman of the State Administration Council of Myanmar - Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s reaffirmation “to achieve the aims and objectives set forth in the BIMSTEC Charter” during the commemoration of BIMSTEC’s 26th foundation day, further substantiates this commitment.
To prevent national issues from hindering its progress, BIMSTEC can formulate a dispute-resolution mechanism, which operates on the principles of deliberation and consensus.To operate more effectively, BIMSTEC’s recent initiatives of strengthening institutional mechanisms are indeed a start but the road ahead is long if not arduous. To make these initiatives more meaningful and relevant, BIMSTEC needs to be more inclusive in its workings, through the participation of different stakeholders, especially local communities. Furthermore, to prevent national issues from hindering its progress, BIMSTEC can formulate a dispute-resolution mechanism, which operates on the principles of deliberation and consensus. As BIMSTEC tries to emerge as a Bay of Bengal Community, it would also be prudent to invite Indonesia as an observer state into its fold. Sharing the same geopolitical space, and as a prominent ASEAN member, the country has the potential to further refine BIMSTEC’s enterprises if called upon to do so. There is direction and drive for BIMSTEC to realise its destiny in the Bay of Bengal, and to accomplish this, the need of the hour is more deliberations, prompt decisions, and effective deliverance.
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Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy is an Associate Fellow with ORFs Strategic Studies Programme. He focuses on broader strategic and security related-developments throughout the South Asian region ...Read More +
Sohini Bose is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Kolkata with the Strategic Studies Programme. Her area of research is India’s eastern maritime ...Read More +