BIMSTEC: A Fact File

Posted on April 25, 2010 in Biz and Eco

Sampa Kundu:

BIMSTEC is bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi -Sectoral Technical Economic Cooperation. It has seven members; namely Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan. BIMSTEC was formed in June, 1997 with four members- Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Later, in November 1997, Myanmar was included as a member and in 2003 both Nepal and Bhutan were granted membership in the forum. Primary objectives of BIMSTEC are to create an enabling environment for rapid economic development, accelerate social progress in the sub-region, promote active collaboration and mutual assistance on matters of common interest, provide assistance to each other in the form of training and research facilities, cooperate more effectively in joint efforts that are supportive of, and complementary to national development plans of member states, maintain close and beneficial cooperation with existing international and regional organizations, and cooperate in projects that can be dealt with most productively on a sub-regional basis and which make best use of available synergies (source: bimstec.org).

BIMSTEC was initiated by Thailand as a part of its Look West Policy through which the country wanted to build up a trustworthy and cooperative relationship with its neighbours located in its western side, particularly with south Asia and Africa. The idea of such a forum was welcomed by India. India’s interest in BIMSTEC should be understood in the contexts of Look East Policy, the failure of SAARC, the Myanmar factor and Northeast India. Firstly, in 1991, India launched its Look East Policy and since its inception, one of the primary objectives of India’s foreign policy was to further relationship with its eastern neighbours, i.e. the countries in Southeast Asia. BIMSTEC provided India with the opportunity to maintain a good rapport with at least two Southeast Asian countries- Thailand and Myanmar. Secondly, the decade of 1990s saw a rapid growth in regional institutionalism and formation of trading blocs across the world. But, unfortunately India was not involved in any one of these regional mechanisms. It left India with a feeling of isolation. India strongly felt that its power of negotiation with the big major powers in the world would depend on its involvement in some influential regional arrangements. India’s own regional arrangement, SAARC proved to be a failure by that time. SAARC could not strengthen intra-SAARC regional trade. Moreover, Indo-Pak rivalry was not letting SAARC to reach a consensus on any important issue. Thus, India felt that it should be involved in some kind of regional instrument. It was the time when Southeast Asia was emerging very swiftly- both economically and strategically. Thus, India decided to make friends in Southeast Asia through which it would be benefitted- both economically and strategically. In this given situation, BIMSTEC was seen as a linkage between south Asia and Southeast Asia and India secured its position in the forum as one of its founding member. Thirdly, India’s Northeast is the meeting point of South Asia and Southeast Asia. In fact, four Northeastern states, Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh have unfenced borders with Myanmar, which is the entry point to Southeast Asia. Therefore, to make the northeastern region a true gateway towards Southeast Asia through Myanmar became important for India. Hence, India embarked on several transport and connectivity projects to link Myanmar and the rest of Southeast Asia with India via northeast India. BIMSTEC covered this issue of transport and communication under its ambit and Myanmar’s involvement in BIMSTEC helped India to enhance the connectivity. Fourthly, India’s northeast is overwhelmed by insurgency, cross border migration, arms smuggling, drug trafficking and so on. And Myanmar is assumed to be involved with all these problems- therefore, India was seeking for a platform where both India and Myanmar can express their concerns over the mentioned issues and try to settle the disputes. BIMSTEC was this platform.

These were the reasons why India was interested on BIMSTEC. Till date, BIMSTEC had two Summits- the first one was held in Thailand in 2004 and the second Summit was organized in New Delhi in 2008. It has identified fourteen priority areas where all the member countries would cooperate with each other; these areas are as follows-

Ø Trade and Investment

Ø Transport and Communication

Ø Energy

Ø Tourism

Ø Technology

Ø Fisheries

Ø Agriculture

Ø Public Health

Ø Poverty Alleviation

Ø Counter Terrorism and trans-National Crime

Ø Protection of Bio- Diversities/Environment and Natural Disaster Management

Ø Culture

Ø People-to-people contact

Ø Climate Change

Each sector has a respective leading country with coordinating country responsible for the sub sectors. India is responsible for Transport and Communication, Tourism, Counter Terrorism and trans-National Crime, Protection of Bio- Diversities/Environment and Natural Disaster Management.

BIMSTEC countries have signed a Framework Agreement on Free Trade Area (BIMSTEC FTA) which aims to create a free trade area within BIMSTEC region by 2017 as a whole. In December, 2009, Foreign Ministers of all the member countries have signed the Convention on Cooperation in Combating International Terrorism, Trans-National Organised Crime and Illicit Drug Trafficking.

An international seminar on BIMSTEC and its implications for Northeast was held very recently in Shillong, Meghalaya (9-10 April, 2010). In the seminar, the importance of BIMSTEC was reiterated by the speakers and participants. It was confirmed that the Trilateral Highway Project between India, Myanmar and Thailand is under construction. Efforts are also taken to improve infrastructure, at the second India — Myanmar border trade point at Phi-Zowkhathar in Mizoram sector by upgrading the Rhi-Tidim and Rhi- Falam road segments in Myanmar. Besides road links, efforts of developing rail link from Jiribham in Manipur to Hanoi in Vietnam passing through Myanmar is also under way. Digital connectivity is another area where work is being carried on particularly through optical fibre cable link between Moreh in Manipur and Mandalay in Myanmar (source: istockanalyst.com).

Briefly this is a fact file on BIMSTEC. BIMSTEC is one of the youngest regional sub-groupings in the region and it has potentials to clear many dark clouds from the regional sky. It has emerged in 1997 and this is 2010, hence, the governments of the member countries should not forget their promises and expectations of the people.

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