The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), which was established in 1992, celebrated its 26th anniversary on June 6. India, Thailand, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka made up the first members of the regional alliance when it was founded in 1997. The goal of BIMSTEC was to advance economic co-operation and integration between the island and littoral nations in the Bay of Bengal, as well as to unite the economies of South and Southeast Asia. Later, the membership was enlarged to include Myanmar, Nepal, and Bhutan, and the discussion’s scope was extended to include security and developmental issues. The regional alliance has undoubtedly had its successes and failures over the last 26 years, but the globe is no longer as unipolar as it was at the time the BIMSTEC was founded. Regional countries are now heavily involved in determining the direction of the world economy and tackling fresh security issues. This presents the grouping with fresh prospects and difficulties while also necessitating strong institutionalization. BIMSTEC was in a coma for a while even after it was founded. However, as the Bay of Bengal area gained economic and geopolitical importance in 2014 and SAARC’s dysfunctionality became more apparent, the South Asian BIMSTEC members started to press for economic integration and connectivity through the regional organization. The first-ever BRICS-BIMSTEC outreach leadership conference was held in Goa, India, in 2016. The fourth BIMSTEC summit took place in Kathmandu, and the fifth summit took place in Colombo, respectively. The member nations demonstrated their capacity for collaboration in numerous fields at each summit. On technological transfer, collaboration of diplomatic academies, transnational crimes, and grid connectivity, they signed memoranda of understanding. In addition, BIMSTEC members asked the Asian Development Bank for assistance with their 10-year connectivity master plan. BIMSTEC now confronts more difficulties. In significant part, problems with supply chain disruption, global economic impact, debt buildup, inflation, and energy and food instability have been made worse by the COVID-19 epidemic and the Russia-Ukraine war. These worries have been made much worse by the mounting threat of climate change. Even if issue-based minilateral cooperation are on the increase, regional partnerships are required since the majority of these concerns are transnational in nature. The BIMSTEC nations are also dealing with a number of issues that have an impact on the area. Many of the member nations are still plagued by food and energy shortages. The economy of Nepal has started to shrink. From its biggest economic and humanitarian crises since gaining independence, Sri Lanka is slowly making a comeback. Both nations continue to see currency depreciation, rising food and gasoline prices, and a lack of necessities. Bangladesh has asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a precautionary loan in order to safeguard its foreign exchange reserves. The economic and security situation in Myanmar are in turmoil. Additionally, the Rohingya problem has persisted in complicating relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Regional integration and institutionalization are more crucial than ever before in order to overcome these current difficulties and realize the larger objectives of the BIMSTEC nations in the Indo-Pacific. Thus, BIMSTEC is elevating in importance among its members’ foreign policy objectives.
Institutionalization and purpose
Invigorated by political resolve, BIMSTEC is reviving its relevance and effectiveness in the modern geopolitical environment by using strategic momentum. Bilateralism is a common and prominent practice among the nations in the Bay of Bengal area. A multilateral organization’s institutional structures must be strengthened in such a political climate for it to succeed. In order to further this goal, BIMSTEC has taken a number of actions in recent years, the most important of which was the approval of the BIMSTEC Charter during the fifth Summit Meeting on March 30, 2022. It created BIMSTEC’s institutional and legal structure, giving the regional organization a firm base upon which to build its ensuing projects.
On top of this foundation, BIMSTEC strengthened its administrative processes by approving significant papers during the 19th BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting, which was held on March 9, 2023, in Bangkok. These documents were intended to better systematize the organization’s operations. These publications contain the BIMSTEC Sectoral Mechanisms, BIMSTEC External Relations, and the Rules of Procedure for Core BIMSTEC Mechanisms (the Summit, the Ministerial Meeting, the Senior Officials’ Meeting, and the BIMSTEC Permanent Working Committee). The organization will vote to approve the Rules of Procedure during its next sixth Summit Meeting in November 2023. Aside from these, the member nations also approved the terms of reference for an Eminent Persons Group that will make recommendations to direct the grouping’s future directions, the Agreement on Maritime Transport Cooperation that will be signed at the sixth Summit, and the BIMSTEC Bangkok Vision 2030 that will also be unveiled at the Summit. BIMSTEC has also decreased the number of sectors in the range of areas of collaboration from 14 to seven. With India, a member of BIMSTEC and a participant in the ASEAN Dialogue, Thailand, a member of both organizations, has a key role to play in fostering such partnerships. Although Myanmar may have made a significant contribution to advancing the relationships, the country’s internal politics could operate as a barrier. However, the Junta has persisted in demonstrating a desire to communicate with BIMSTEC. This pledge was further supported by the Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Chairman of the State Administration Council of Myanmar, who reiterated his commitment “to achieve the aims and objectives set forth in the BIMSTEC Charter” during the celebration of BIMSTEC’s 26th foundation day.
A path ahead
The moment is right for BIMSTEC to create its place in the area as the Bay of Bengal nations’ desire and demand for a viable regional organization to handle new economic and security problems grows. This is even more important since the Indo-Pacific will increasingly become the center of gravity for global politics and economy, while the Bay of Bengal will continue to be key to the strategic outlines of the new world order. The Bay of Bengal has long served as a link between the citizens of the BIMSTEC area, as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi notes in his message on the occasion of the organization’s anniversary. The Bay is crucial for our common security, connection, and prosperity, which is why our present attempts to create a marine cooperation agreement and an agreement to enable the flow of motor vehicles throughout the area are so important.
BIMSTEC may create a dispute-resolution structure that works on the tenets of debate and consensus to avoid having national concerns impede its growth.
The recent steps by BIMSTEC to enhance institutional processes are a start in the right direction, but there is still a long, if not impossible, road ahead. Through the involvement of many stakeholders, notably local communities, BIMSTEC has to be more inclusive in its operations in order to increase the significance and relevance of these programs. Additionally, BIMSTEC may create a dispute-resolution structure that functions on the tenets of debate and consensus to avoid having national concerns impede its advancement. It would also be wise to include Indonesia as an observer state while BIMSTEC works to establish itself as a Bay of Bengal Community. The nation has the ability to improve BIMSTEC’s businesses if need to do so since it shares the same geographical region and is a significant ASEAN member. There is a direction and a push for BIMSTEC to realize its destiny in the Bay of Bengal, and in order to do this, greater discussion, quick choices, and efficient delivery are urgently required. domains that are thorough. Even while this makes BIMSTEC’s goals more attainable, the organization’s tight budget of only US$ 200,000 continues to be a source of constant worry. Although plans had been made to establish a BIMSTEC Development Fund to facilitate the design and execution of projects and programs under the many areas of cooperation, this has not yet happened. Funding must be sufficient for BIMSTEC to be genuinely successful.
incorporating the finest multilateralism practices
In addition to its own initiatives, BIMSTEC must learn from its peers’ best practices.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a multilateral success story in the Global South, is located geographically near to BIMSTEC. Given the overlap in membership between the two organizations and the similarities in many of the issues they deal with, BIMSTEC may use the ASEAN model of multilateralism as a model for its own multilateralism. In actuality, this might also start future collaborations between the two organizations. A delegation from the BIMSTEC Secretariat recently met with the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia, as part of this initiative, “to learn about ASEAN’s mechanisms and best practices and explore potential future collaboration between BIMSTEC and ASEAN.” However, BIMSTEC must keep in mind that although ASEAN was established as a security organization, it was really more of an economic alliance.