Rakhahari Chatterji and Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury (Editors), Reimagining BIMSTEC: Strengthening Regional Solidarity Across the Bay of Bengal, February 2021, Observer Research Foundation.
The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) was established in 1997, and over the next 23 years, its membership has expanded, declarations were made and intentions expressed. However, not much has changed on the ground, even as the world has gone through drastic changes—marked by a huge push towards globalisation, a global financial crisis, China’s departure from its “hide your strength, bide your time” strategy to the Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI) and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. Together, these events have changed the face of the world, perhaps irreversibly.
In the global strategic environment, some changes are noteworthy. First, the previously familiar process of unrestricted globalisation has come to a halt and is unlikely to restart any time soon. In its place is newfound nationalism and renewed desire for self-reliance. Second, the conflict between China and the United States has intensified over the last few years, and it is still unclear how the tensions will unfold and shape the world in the future. This alone drives an uncertainty through all other inter-state relations in the world. Third, as Ashley Tellis, the research director of Strategic Asia Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace points out, in times of such uncertainty, the “competition for public resources between non-defense and defense goods is likely to intensify” for almost every country.1 Compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, this intensification will likely be acute, with trade and development suffering immensely.
Under such circumstances, what should a country like India do? Until now, India has been only a casual participant in regional arrangements. While the policies aimed at achieving strategic autonomy and economic self-sufficiency were helpful in the past, they were short-lived—disrupted by wars, oil shocks, and terrorism, from the 1960s through the 1980s. The prospects held out by globalisation from the 1990s to the first decade of the present century have dwindled drastically. Situated in this new strategic and economic environment, India must reconceptualise its role within the neighbourhood. Incidentally, this problem is not limited to India and also affects neighbouring states in the region. These countries, which together make up BIMSTEC, should therefore work towards a strategy of “institutional hedging,”2 to protect their individual interests as well as shape up a regional order that works for all the members involved.
This, in sum, is what drives the imperative for a “reimagining” of BIMSTEC.
Much of BIMSTEC’s objective of ensuring shared and accelerated growth through mutual cooperation, by utilising regional resources and geographical advantages, has remained only on paper. Amongst economic agreements, the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is particularly important for all member states. However, despite several rounds of talks, the FTA has not established a framework, although renewed attempts are underway. Moreover, the focus in the Bay region remains primarily on enhancing bilateral ties, with multilateralism yet to gain ground despite common ecological concerns and a shared past. There is both need and scope for improving people-to-people connectivity in the region, as well as facilitating tourism diplomacy, academic and student-exchange programmes, and cross-border public health initiatives. Another salient, but often neglected, aspect of regionalism in this part of Asia is the lack of leadership. Good leadership, while representing one country, can rise above national concerns and take care of the entire region.3 As portrayed in the 1957 treatise, The King’s Two Bodies,4 a good leader displays two bodies: the national as well as the regional. Unfortunately, BIMSTEC is yet to find such leadership.
Despite these concerns, there are grounds for optimism for the future of BIMSTEC. The recent resurgence of strategic and economic interests in the Bay, as part of a larger maritime strategic space, namely, the IndoPacific, has helped BIMSTEC gain salience as a promising sub-regional grouping. The Bay, being the key transit route between the Indian and the Pacific Oceans, is located at the intersection of Indian and Chinese strategic interests, affecting all other BIMSTEC member-countries. Additionally, the Bay is plagued by a variety of non-traditional security threats, such as illegal migration and armed piracy. Consequently, the important issues of freedom of navigation in the waters, controlling transnational threats, harnessing and sharing the Bay’s natural wealth, and promoting infrastructural and people-to-people connectivity become common to the BIMSTEC member countries.
With regard to India’s role in the region, it has been argued that the country must refrain from assuming a “big brother” posture, instead projecting itself as a compatriot and an equal partner to other BIMSTEC member-countries. This will help reduce its trust deficit and ensure better integration in the region. Considering its “Look/Act East Policy,” India has a major stake in bringing together South and Southeast Asian countries in this common endeavour, which will have long-term consequences for the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.
To truly integrate the region, rigorous and sustained initiatives by states must be complemented by popular enthusiasm and national civil society initiatives. Suitable institutional innovations are necessary to rejuvenate the organisational structure, which will be aided by official commitments as well as popular interest. Media can play a crucial role in this context, tapping into the rich repository of culture, heritage, political history and the prospect of a common future that the countries share. However, media enthusiasm will be determined by on-ground activity.
Calling for a reimagination of the BIMSTEC, this volume collates a variety of papers, each contributing to the initiative. The goal is not to promote the brand value of BIMSTEC, but to generate a purposive and healthy deliberation on the present and future of the regional body.
This volume builds on the international conference “Reimagining BIMSTEC,” organised by Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in collaboration with Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in New Delhi, ORF’s Centre for New Economic Diplomacy, and the UK’s Department for International Development, under the purview of Kolkata Colloquium 2019. The present volume incorporates various issues that were not discussed in the Colloquium but are relevant for a holistic understanding of the sociopolitical, geostrategic and geoeconomic dimensions of BIMSTEC.
The volume is divided into eight sections, following the introduction. Section 1, titled “Historical and Cultural Linkages,” deals with issues related to historical and civilisational connectivity between India and the other Bay littorals and examines the reasons behind the limited awareness on the subject. This section discusses the ways to improve the state of affairs as well as the role that tourism can play in strengthening inter-littoral relations. In his paper entitled “Looking East: A Brief History of Connections in the Bay of Bengal Region,” Ronojoy Sen deals with four broad themes, namely, trade, the role of the empire, the movements of people, and the circulation of ideas. In “Cultural Linkages through Popular Interactions: Written Testimonies in Colonial-Era Vernacular Periodicals,” Sarvani Gooptu analyses how cosmopolitan and nationalist ideas come together in India’s quest for history. Lipi Ghosh, in her paper “Incredible India and Marvellous Myanmar: Prospects in Cultural Tourism,” focuses on the importance of cultural tourism, with special emphasis on heritage architectures in India and Myanmar. In “Revitalising BIMSTEC through Cultural Connectivity from Northeast India,” C. Joshua Thomas analyses various facets of cultural connectivity amongst the BIMSTEC member states, with a focus on India’s Northeast.
Section 2 of the volume is titled “Connecting Nations” and covers the issues of physical and infrastructural connectivity, along with the scope of digital and technical connectivity. The section raises the following key questions: What are the main impediments to the development of infrastructural connectivity? How can existing constraints be resolved to strengthen connectivity amongst the member states? Against this backdrop, Ashish Banik, in his paper “BIMSTEC and Regional Connectivity: Opportunities for Bangladesh,” explains Bangladesh’s role in the organisation, urging for an operational convergence in political, security and economic outlook for expediting the process. In their joint paper “Towards a Tech-Driven BIMSTEC: Prospects and Challenges,” Soumya Bhowmick and Pratnashree Basu explain how technological solutions can bring nations together. In “Strengthening Connectivity in BIMSTEC,” Nisha Taneja and Samridhi Bimal identify the challenges to transport connectivity, while discussing the framework agreements in place. K. Yhome, in “Understanding Myanmar’s Role in BIMSTEC Connectivity,” situates Myanmar in the road transport, energy and maritime connectivity within the BIMSTEC. In “From Words to Action: Creating a BIMSTEC for the Future,” Sujeev Shakya argues that the time is opportune for reviving BIMSTEC and suggests key action points for the same. In his paper “Towards Greater BIMSTEC Cooperation: The Need for Values Connectivity,” Robin Ramcharan argues that BIMSTEC lacks a clear framework on human rights and values, which is essential for the grouping to transcend its role as a mere vehicle for functional connectivity. Such a values framework may be found in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Section 3, “Maritime Order, Connectivity and Blue,” discusses issues such as maritime trade and connectivity, the scope of cooperation in maritime safety, security amongst the Bay littorals in the face of both traditional and non-traditional threats, and the sustainability of a blue economy. In “Connecting the Coasts: The BIMSTEC Experience,” P.V. Rao analyses how the Bay of Bengal region is best suited to synergise land and sea into a cohesive regional trade-and-transport hub. Rohan Masakorala, in “‘Understanding the Global Shipping Industry and Connectivity in the Indian Ocean,” argues that understanding maritime geography is crucial to planning connectivity and infrastructure development that can achieve economies of scale. In “Blue Economy in the Bay of Bengal,” Abhijit Singh opines that the blue economy model is unlikely to deliver results in the Bay of Bengal, unless implemented in a way that balances between the need for economic growth and sustainable ecosystems.
Section 4, “Climate Change, Disaster,” focuses on a central question: Does climate change as an exogenous force feature in the equations of connectivity initiatives between the nations of the regions? While discussing various ways of climate-change mitigation and adaptation, the section evaluates the scope and feasibility of trans-boundary cooperation between nations. In her paper “BIMSTEC: Finding a Coordinated Approach to Climate Change,” Runa Sarkar urges for a coordinated approach to climate-change mitigation and effective disaster management. In “Climate Change in the BIMSTEC Region: Responding to Rising Sea Levels,” Anamitra Anurag Danda examines some of the vulnerabilities caused in the region due to the rise in sea levels. K.M. Parivelan in “Climate Change, Disaster Management and BIMSTEC,” indicates that climate change and natural disasters are cross-cutting issues that must be addressed in a holistic and integrated manner. Section 5, “Analysing Human Capital’ deals with human capital, and the ways to strengthen it in the Bay littorals. In his paper, “Reimagining BIMSTEC’s Health Futures,” Oommen C. Kurian makes a comparative analysis of the human-capital situation of the BIMSTEC region, with a focus on the health component, while in “Education as a Pivot in India’s Cooperation with BIMSTEC Countries,” Vivek Mishra and Suranjan Das outline the different facets of educational cooperation between India and other BIMSTEC nations. Both Amena Mohsin and Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury deal with gender in their papers: Mohsin’s paper “Gender Issues in BIMSTEC” reviews the broad issues within BIMSTEC, while Chaudhary focuses on the vulnerabilities related to organised international crimes such as women trafficking, in “Trafficking of Women, Precarity, and BIMSTEC.” Pinak R. Chakravarty, in “COVID-19 and the Changing Geopolitical Order: Challenges to BIMSTEC,” deals with the impact of COVID-19 on social capital.
Section 6 is entitled “Enhancing Trade.” This section focuses on commercial connectivity amongst the member states and raises the following key questions: What hinders trade linkages from developing, despite the availability of abundant opportunities? Can the movements of investments across economies be accentuated through structural economic measures? Are the political, strategic and security concerns so overbearing that they erode the growth of trade and investment linkages across the region? In “Enhancing Trade in the BIMSTEC Region,” Damaru Ballabha Paudel discusses the challenges and opportunities of BIMSTEC FTA and BIMSTEC Customs Cooperation Agreement, in the context of intraregional trade volume. Suthiphand Chirathivat, in “Rethinking Enhanced Trade within BIMSTEC: An ASEAN Perspective,” examines the various facets of economic connectivity between BIMSTEC and ASEAN. In “Trade and Investment in BIMSTEC: Challenges and Opportunities,” Nilanjan Ghosh argues that trade and investment within the BIMSTEC bloc are critical in enabling regionalism and regional development.
Section 7, “The Indo-Pacific,” addresses the following key questions: In what ways can BIMSTEC enter into collaborative ventures with other regional/subregional organisations to further integrate the Indo-Pacific? What are the multiple avenues in which BIMSTEC members can increase or initiate cooperation for impact that goes beyond the Bay? In a situation where many non-littoral powers are now major stakeholders in the Bay, what is the possibility of extending the Bay in the broader context of the Indo-Pacific? Looking beyond the institutional dimension of BIMSTEC, C. Raja Mohan, in “The Bay of Bengal in the Emerging Indo-Pacific,” discusses the growing strategic significance of the Bay against the backdrop of the new and increasingly contested geography of the IndoPacific. In “BIMSTEC’s Future within the Geostrategic Narrative of the ‘Indo-Pacific’,” Gareth Price discusses the challenges to BIMSTEC in the context of the fast-changing international milieu in the Indo-Pacific. In their joint paper “BIMSTEC Plus: Towards a Bay of Bengal Community,” Sohini Bose and Sohini Nayak explore the idea of “BIMSTEC Plus” and granting Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore the status of observers within the BIMSTEC. Christian Wagner, in “BIMSTEC: Regionalism, Connectivity, and Geopolitics,” outlines the prospects and challenges of BIMSTEC in the changing geopolitical landscape, with increasing tension between China and the United States.
The final section of the volume, “Voices from Media,” examines the role of media and its assessment of BIMSTEC. What is its perception of BIMSTEC as a new strategic framework in the region? What role can the media play in bringing BIMSTEC closer to the people? Which sectors of BIMSTEC have received the most media attention from the media? In this section, leading media practitioners address these and other questions, attempting to find possible answers: Bertil Lintner in “BIMSTEC and the Role of Media,” Haroon Habib in “Developing a Role for the Media in BIMSTEC,” Subir Bhaumik in “Encouraging Media Development and Cooperation in the BIMSTEC Region,” Tshering Dorji in “Finding Solutions to BIMSTEC Region’s Challenges: How the Media Can Help,” and Chandni Jayatilleke in “Resurrecting BIMSTEC through the Media.”
Reimagining BIMSTEC: Strengthening Regional Solidarity across the Bay of Bengal provides a comprehensive view of the significance of BIMSTEC as a trans-national organisation as well as the opportunities and challenges presented by the changing geopolitical, geoeconomic and geostrategic landscape, where the politics of resource consternation dominates the logic of cross-border cooperation. This monograph may be used for reference and will serve as a useful resource for academic institutions, think tanks, and government and non-government agencies in the area of foreign-policy formulation. Indeed, connectivity is now one of the dominating agenda of development cooperation in the Bay of Bengal region, and this volume will be of value to current literature.
1 Ashley Tellis, “Covid-19 Knocks on American Hegemony,” The National Bureau of Asian Research, May 04, 2020, https://carnegieendowment. org/2020/05/04/covid-19-knocks-on-american-hegemony-pub-81719.
2 Mie Oba, “Further Development of Asian Regionalism: Institutional Hedging in an Uncertain Era,” Journal of Contemporary East Asian Studies, https:// doi.org/10.1080/24761028.2019.1688905.
3 Mark Beeson, “Why has leadership in the Asia Pacific proved to be so elusive?” Chin. Polit. Sci. Rev., doi 10.1007/s41111-017-0074-y.
4 See, Ernst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957).
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Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury is Senior Fellow with ORF’s Neighbourhood Initiative. She is the Editor, ORF Bangla. She specialises in regional and sub-regional cooperation in ...Read More +
Professor in Political Science, Calcutta University (Retired 2008). Formerly Dean, Faculty of Arts, Calcutta University; Visiting Fellow in Political Science and Associate, Committee on South ...Read More +