The seemingly moribund Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) began Thursday, August 30, in Kathmandu. The two-day summit’s theme is “Towards a Peaceful, Prosperous and Sustainable Bay of Bengal region.”
India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka Myanmar and Thailand are members of BIMSTEC, which was formed in 1997, but have met infrequently. This is only the fourth summit since its inception – suggesting the low priority attached by member countries to this regional compact. The first meet was held in Thailand in 1997, the second one in India in 2008, the third in Myanmar in 2014 and now the fourth in Nepal in 2018, where the leaders from the above-mentioned nations are present.

During the BRICS summit at Goa in 2016, India hosted an Outreach Summit for BIMSTEC countries on its sidelines. Presence of BRICS leaders lent a new profile to the regional group. So far, due to lack of comprehensive approach, resources and absence of coordination among its member nation-states, the organisation has little to show in 20 years of its existence. Of late, this sub-grouping has gained importance in India’s foreign policy establishment as it presents an option to sidestep Pakistan in regional groups unlike in SAARC. The Shanghai Cooperation changed the existing matrix of ties in the region, India did not want to share the forum with Pakistan and accused Pakistan of creating hurdles in adopting resolutions on counter-terrorism and connectivity projects within the region. Prime Minister Narendra Modi on many occasions has maintained that India needs to have both “Act East” and “Neighbourhood First” policies as a fulcrum of its foreign policy. Moreover, the two Southeast countries, Thailand and Myanmar are important for India’s connectivity projects.

As Hardnews had reported in 2007, in an article written by a former official in the Ministry of Finance, Satyajit Mohanty:

The Indo-ASEAN, BIMSTEC and Indo-Thailand FTAs will also be operational soon, thereby demonstrating the importance India is laying on regional trade and economic arrangements particularly with ASEAN countries in our foreign economic policy.With South Korea and Japan in particular, India needs to explore options of ‘defence diplomacy’ like joint naval exercises so that the same can stand in good stead against piracy and terrorist attacks on the vital Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs) such as the Malacca Straits. The naval capabilities of these countries are recognised in the region. Japan had deployed naval warships including Aegis anti-missile equipped destroyer into the Indian Ocean in support of the US-led global war on terrorism. Further, India, Japan and South Korea, with fairly long democratic traditions, can put in place a ‘democratic troika’ that can both act as a model for capacity-building as well as a pressure group for other non-democratic countries to follow democratic norms. India can act as a hub for South Korean and Japanese investments and be a part of the Japanese and South Korean Regional Production Networks (RPNs). Manmohan Singh has already indicated India’s desire to attract investment from East Asian neighbours rather than look west. India is already exploring bilateral FTAs with these countries and should also promote tourism and the services sector in the east.With rise in East Asian regionalism and India’s political and economic clout on a growth curve, it is in the mutual interest of both India and its East Asian neighbours to shed the historical baggage and ideological intonations and promote better relationships through concrete steps in the larger interests of Asian political and economic security.
This Kathmandu Declaration adopted by the member nation heads and government heads said, “… the fight against terrorism should target not only terrorists, terror organizations and networks but also identify and hold accountable States and non-State entities that encourage, support or finance terrorism, provide sanctuaries to terrorists and terror groups and falsely extol their virtues.”
Prime Minister Modi in his speech at the plenary session on Thursday said, “None of us among the member nations can say we have not faced terrorism and terror-related networks. There are issues of drug trafficking and transnational crimes. We are ready to host a frame-work conference on drug menace.”
Apart from India, the other member countries too find it as an important platform as it would help them in meeting their national as well as regional aspirations. BIMSTEC’s importance has grown from an Indian standpoint due to enlarging Chinese influence in the region. BIMSTEC also gives an opportunity to India to convey to its regional partners that it can assume a leadership role in developing multilateral and multi-sectoral partnerships as long as it is not saddled with Pakistan.
But at present, it would be too early to start commenting on BIMSTEC’s concrete deliverables and viability as it is still in a nascent stage as far as the interaction of regional groupings goes.

BIMSTECBRICSPakistanPrime Minister ModiShanghai Cooperation

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