Inviting the BIMSTEC member states for the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, offers an excellent platform for regional integration in the absence of a stalled SAARC.
India can take the lead in strengthening cooperation in areas like countering terrorism, dealing with traditional and non-traditional security threats, and increasing maritime domain awareness by strengthening capabilities of the littoral states in BIMSTEC through the navy and coast guards.
Sharing his views with Financial Express Online, Anil Wadhwa, former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs says, “BIMSTEC brings together some key countries for India in the region – Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal are all countries with whom India has extensive economic linkages and programmes.”
According to him in an effort to boost Intra-BIMSTEC trade, steps can be taken to build connectivity in all forms- physical connectivity through land, sea and air, digital connectivity and people to people connectivity.
Cooperation with the BIMSTEC countries will help in developing the Indian north east and connecting it with the rest of the region. India as a major contributor to the organization is paying more attention to the reinvigoration of BIMSTEC which has emerged as a new engine for regional cooperation, the former secretary opines.
What is the importance of BIMSTEC grouping?
It is a regional grouping comprising India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal. And together it accounts for 22 percent of the global population, and with a GDP of $2.8 trillion. The grouping was initially set up by Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand in 1997, and it was later that Myanmar, followed by Bhutan and Nepal in 2004.
Five members are from South Asia and the other two are from South-East Asia, ASEAN countries and form a natural land and sea link between South Asia and South-East Asia.
It fits with Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Neighbourhood First policy’ and the priority that the government has given to the North Eastern region. India has land connectivity with Myanmar and there is land connectivity with Thailand through Myanmar as well as through the Bay of Bengal.
And in the last few years there has been sustained effort to ensure that the North Eastern region of India gets connected with the neighbouring countries to the east. This connectivity will help in facilitating trade and development as well help in attracting foreign investment. And this connectivity will help in enhancing trade with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region too.
“It establishes SAARC countries network of cooperation excluding Pakistan and brings in the eastern neighbours of India which includes Myanmar and Thailand,” says Prof Ajay Dubey, JNU.
Since SAARC is not taking off due to India-Pakistan tension, BIMSTEC initiative is being promoted as an alternative, he adds.
At the end of BIMSTEC Summit in 2018, in the Kathmandu Declaration, the grouping decided to explore the possibility of establishing an inter-governmental expert group to develop a plan of action for a collective response to protect and preserve environment.
The member countries sought closer cooperation in disaster management through sharing of information, including early warning system, adoption of preventive measures, rehabilitation and capacity building. And to improve preparedness and coordination for responding to natural disasters in the Bay of Bengal Region.
As reported earlier, last year the member countries sought an early conclusion of a Free Trade Agreement. Though the framework agreement inked in 2004 is there, the countries are keen that there should be an early conclusion of the FTA agreement.
There have been efforts to ensure there are regular meetings of the grouping. In 2016, along with the BRICS summit which was hosted in Goa, there was an outreach summit with BIMSTEC leaders too. This was followed by the 4th BIMSTEC summit in Kathmandu in September 2018, where the focus was on fight against terrorism, connectivity through land and sea, blue economy, and enhancing trade and investments.
Given the geostrategic location of India’s North Eastern region (NER), further boost to connectivity, greater trade and people’s movement has been the focus when the leaders of the region visit India.