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BIMSTEC searches for a bigger role in the Indo-Pacific

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After a two-year COVID-19 induced delay, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) concluded its fifth summit on 30 March 2022. The grouping — comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand — has gained renewed interest in recent years. Changing geopolitical realities make the strategic geography of the Bay of Bengal crucial to the wider concept of the Indo-Pacific.

The summit saw the signing of the BIMSTEC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters, a Memorandum of Association on the Establishment of BIMSTEC Technology Transfer Facility and a Memorandum of Understanding on Mutual Cooperation in the Field of Diplomatic Training. BIMSTEC also adopted the Master Plan for Transport Connectivity that offers a framework to enhance regional and domestic connectivity in the Bay of Bengal. The plan lists 264 projects requiring an investment of US$126 billion between 2018 and 2028.

The summit marks an important milestone for the grouping. BIMSTEC now has a charter which affords it a ‘legal personality’ and is formally recognised as an inter-governmental organisation. To further strengthen formal institutionalisation, New Delhi sought to rejuvenate the BIMSTEC secretariat by pledging US$1 million towards its operational budget. BIMSTEC has maintained a permanent secretariat in Dhaka since 2014, but the secretariat had remained underfunded and lacked agency.

BIMSTEC member countries approved a complete reorganisation of the grouping’s priority areas to a seven pillar focus, with each member state assigned to a pillar. This ensures a streamlined approach to implementation of projects and makes it easier for the grouping to take stock of progress and deliver on time. Despite having several connectivity projects in the pipeline, such as the India–Myanmar–Thailand Trilateral Highway and the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project, slow movement on the ground and missed deadlines largely rendered the grouping ineffective until now.

The question that foreshadowed the summit was Myanmar’s representation following the February 2021 military takeover of the country. The United States reportedly issued a diplomatic note of protest over Myanmar’s participation at the summit. But Colombo and New Delhi justified their decision not to exclude Myanmar on the grounds that success of cooperation activities requires all member states to be present and Myanmar is an integral part of the Bay of Bengal community.

Myanmar had representation at the summit, albeit at the foreign minister level, but the other member states had their respective leaders in attendance. The summit marks Myanmar’s first participation at a multilateral forum after ASEAN excluded junta leader Ming Aung Hlaing from its 2021 summit.

BIMSTEC not excluding Myanmar from its summit is not surprising. If South Asian countries have learnt anything from their experience with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, it is not to interfere in domestic politics of member countries or try to outcast any member within the grouping. Still, so long as the junta remains in power, Myanmar’s participation within BIMSTEC poses a challenge to the grouping’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific. The BIMSTEC secretariat must tactfully manage Myanmar’s participation so as to not send the wrong message about overlooking a military takeover of a democratically elected government in the region.

Connectivity remains a priority on the BIMSTEC agenda. The Bay of Bengal is one of the least integrated regions in the world despite being home to nearly 23 per cent of the world’s population. The provision of seamless inter-connectivity transport links would allow for cross-border trade facilitation and integrate the Bay of Bengal into the wider Indo-Pacific.

As Thailand takes over the BIMSTEC chairmanship from Sri Lanka under the slogan of ‘Prosperous, Resilient and Robust, Open BIMSTEC’, Thailand is also designated the new leader of the connectivity pillar. A Thailand-initiated scheme to ‘Connect the Connectivities’ aims to link BIMSTEC members through a network of ports running from Thailand, Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka and paves the way for exploring synergies with the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC) 2025.

In 2021, the Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs of Thailand, proposed ‘3Cs’ for the future of sub-regional cooperation: complementarities between the development agendas of sub-regional frameworks and ASEAN’s key initiatives, connectivity through synchronising the development of sub-regional economic corridors with the MPAC 2025 and coordination between ASEAN and sub-regional frameworks as well as cooperation with external partners and private sector. Given its geographical location spanning both the Mekong and the Bay of Bengal sub-regions, Thailand is well-poised to strengthen inter-regional connectivity between South and Southeast Asia.

Regional integration and cooperation have become pertinent at a time when events in Europe raise concerns about the stability of the international order. As BIMSTEC leaders deliberate on establishing basic institutional structure and mechanisms of the grouping to better facilitate regional integration, a free trade agreement (FTA) should be pursued with urgency. Trade among BIMSTEC members accounts for US$40 billion, though its potential was estimated at US$250 billion. BIMSTEC should consolidate its charter and Master Plan for Transport Connectivity to boost intra-BIMSTEC trade, which barely exceeds 5 per cent.

With negotiations for a BIMSTEC FTA dragging on for the last 18 years, New Delhi might push for a speedy conclusion, especially as India remains out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). India’s involvement in RCEP would have substantiated BIMSTEC economic integration. As it stands, the grouping now has a charter that gives it a new orientation and a re-energised secretariat. BIMSTEC should build on this momentum and reassure the region that it is on track to realise a Bay of Bengal community.

Nazia Hussain is a Senior Analyst in the Centre for Multilateralism Studies at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.