The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is a regional forum comprising seven member states lying in the littoral and adjacent areas of the Bay of Bengal. BIMSTEC came into being on June 6, 1997, through the Bangkok Declaration. Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand are its member countries.
Primarily, the economic bloc was shaped with four member states with the acronym "BIST-EC" (Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation). Following the inclusion of Myanmar on December 22, 1997, during a special ministerial meeting in Bangkok, the group was renamed "BIMST-EC" (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation). Finally, with the participation of Nepal and Bhutan in 2004, the name was changed to "Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation".
The overall objective of launching this alliance is to harness shared and accelerated growth through mutual cooperation in different areas of common interests by the way of vindicating the blitz of globalisation as well as exploiting regional resources and geographic advantages.
As set in the Bangkok Declaration of 1997, the core objective of BIMSTEC is to create an enabling environment for rapid economic development through identification and implementation of specific cooperation projects in trade, investment, industry, technology, human resource development, tourism, agriculture, energy, infrastructure and transportation.
According to the draft charter of BIMSTEC, Bangladesh will be the lead country for trade and investment; Bhutan for environment and climate change; India for security including counter-terrorism, transnational crime and energy; Myanmar for agriculture and food security; Nepal for people-to-people contact including culture and tourism; Sri Lanka for science, technology and innovation; and Thailand for connectivity. Experts view that the Bay of Bengal being the key transit route between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean makes BIMSTEC gradually more relevant in shaping the geopolitical and geostrategic discourse in the region and beyond. BIMSTEC has been evolving constantly to transform itself into an efficient platform of regional cooperation and integration in the Bay of Bengal region.
Progress so far
Let me highlight some of the significant initiatives BIMSTEC has taken over the years to turn itself into a regional forum in a true sense. It has concluded some landmark agreements like Framework Agreement on BIMSTEC Free Trade Area in 2004; BIMSTEC Convention on Cooperation in Combating International Terrorism, Transnational Organised Crime and Illicit Drug Trafficking in 2009, and Memorandum of Understanding to establish BIMSTEC Grid Interconnection in 2018.
In 2014, BIMSTEC established its permanent secretariat in Dhaka, which gave a formal structure to this regional forum. Four specialised centres, namely BIMSTEC Centre for Weather and Climate (India), BIMSTEC Cultural Industries Observatory (Bhutan), BIMSTEC Energy Centre (India), and BIMSTEC Technology Transfer Facility (Sri Lanka), are at various stages of operation. As a founding member and the host country of BIMSTEC Secretariat, Bangladesh has an important role to play in advancing BIMSTEC process to achieve its desired goals.
BIMSTEC is found increasingly aligning its activities with the efforts of its member states to meet the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Fourth BIMSTEC Summit held in Nepal's Kathmandu on August 30-31, 2018, reiterated its commitment to the eradication of poverty in the member countries by 2030 corresponding to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
The fourth summit also called for gearing up efforts of all sectors to contribute to the over-arching goal of poverty alleviation. BIMSTEC is in the process of establishing closer collaboration with the UN system, the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank to attain this target by 2030.
Historically, the Bay of Bengal used to be a centre for global maritime trade, and a hub of commercial and cultural exchange. Blessed by this sort of advantages, BIMSTEC is striving to restore the historical connectivity in order to promote trade and investment, tourism, people-to-people contact and cultural exchange to contribute to the sustainable development of this region.
Unfortunately, BIMSTEC is yet to overcome limitations of its nascent stage as the member countries have deliberately failed to strategise an institutional mechanism in expediting the procedure of cooperation over the last 23 years. The seven member countries of the BIMSTEC could not adopt a charter since its inception.
The impulse of influential member country India to promote the BIMSTEC as an alternative to the SAARC could hinder the overall progress of this regional forum. Nonetheless, lack of institutional mechanism, lack of power of the BIMSTEC secretariat, bilateral issues between Bangladesh and Myanmar particularly on the repatriation issue of Rohingya refugees, and the influence of China in the region in the context of rivalry between India and China are hampering the BIMSTEC process.
It will be difficult to make regional organisations effective if the member countries remain bogged down into geopolitical interests. Two next-door neighbours of Bangladesh usually take rigid positions on some cross-border issues, such as India on trans-boundary water and Myanmar on migration.
The BIMSTEC member countries are expected to work on preparing a Rules of Procedure for its regular operations. For instance, Bangladesh is making every effort in a professional fashion to harness regional and global power to end in amicable solution to this emerging crisis despite the position of China and India on the side of Myanmar on the Rohingya issue. We have noticed both countries have huge strategic and economic interests in Myanmar. Even Russia seems compassionate to Myanmar on this issue.
How can BIMSTEC harness regional growth?
In a positive way, the hindered BIMSTEC FTA negotiations have resumed after a gap of three years on behalf of Bangladesh. So as to enrich the visibility of BIMSTEC, the Secretariat is now keen to develop partnership with the Foreign Ministry of Bangladesh to hold seminars and roundtables on specific issues covering diverse areas of intervention BIMSTEC has to shoulder.
BIMSTEC distinguishes that a well-established transport network is a precondition for gaining the benefits of a free trade area, including the promotion of trade and investment, as well as progress in other areas of cooperation. Most member countries have taken initiatives towards implementation of the 167 projects involving a cost of around $50 billion that were identified by the ADB-assisted BIMSTEC Transport Infrastructure and Logistics Study (BTILS) of 2014 in order to address the missing links to establish greater physical and economic connectivity between South and South East Asia.
Cooperation in the field of public health is the demand of time on account of the Covid-19 pandemic. Even though traditional medicines are important in building immunity, the BIMSTEC countries need to broaden its horizon by enhancing healthcare infrastructure, operationalising innovative technology, research and innovation, and importing medical know-how to counter infections, such as Covid-19, which are not conventional diseases and cannot be treated with traditional medication.
We know, Thailand is the lead country in the public health area of cooperation within BIMSTEC and is doing an extraordinary job in handling this global pandemic. The John Hopkins University ranked Thailand as Asia's most prepared country in dealing with an epidemic. BIMSTEC must count on Thailand to help its member countries in combating this pandemic.
The way forward
Undeniably, the time for BIMSTEC has come to play a greater role in promoting peace, prosperity and sustainable development in the Bay of Bengal region.
For making BIMSTEC effective in a true sense, the proposal of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina for restructuring the existing 14 areas of cooperation under three main priority clusters, namely sustainable development, security and stability, and people-to-people contact, is the demand of time.
The proposed reforms will bring synergy, focus and speed in the BIMSTEC process. Member states must reaffirm their firm conviction to intensify collective efforts in realising the objective and purposes of BIMSTEC through working together for the betterment of the people of the region. Last but not least, with renewed political commitment of the member countries, we hope BIMSTEC will overcome hurdles and turn itself into a viable regional forum.
The author is Associate Professor of the Department of Government and Politics at Jahangirnagar University in Bangladesh