That the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) has been unable to come up with a governing charter in over two decades of its existence is no coincidence. The member countries—initially Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand, which were later joined by Bhutan and Nepal—seemingly wanted to build a vibrant economic bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia, two of the fastest growing regions in the world. But for most of its existence BIMSTEC was badly neglected.
Then there was SAARC. As things stand, SAARC is the least integrated region in the world, with inter-country trade within SAARC accounting for less than six percent of the total foreign trade of the eight-member states. The concept of South Asian Free Trade Area, though much discussed, could never be implemented, as India and Pakistan continued to lock horns over even seemingly inconsequential issues. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at some point seems to have concluded that it is futile to expect a more connected South Asia via SAARC, so long as Pakistan is a part of it.
And so the moribund BIMSTEC was revived in 2014, the year it held its third heads-of-state summit, and the year its secretariat was finally established in Dhaka. If SAARC could not unite South Asia, perhaps a forum like BIMSTEC, minus Pakistan, and minus SAARC’s ‘unanimous decision’ provision, was better placed to enhance regional trade and connectivity. But this is a gamble.
As the fourth BIMSTEC summit ends in Kathmandu, the seven-member states have agreed to enhance trade through land and water ways, to collectively fight terrorism, to draft the long-delayed charter, to establish a regional fund and to boost customs cooperation. The charter, when ready, will add clarity about BIMSTEC’s purpose. More than that, if the forum can for instance facilitate the extension of India-Myanmar-Thailand highway all the way to Nepal, it could herald a sea of change in Nepal’s development. But will the security-minded India be ready to open up its territories for such an undertaking? What will greater anti-terrorism cooperation entail? And what happens to SAARC now? Even though India is uncommitted, other countries in South Asia still set great store by SAARC. The fourth summit brought some clarity on BIMSTEC and on regional cooperation. But perhaps not enough.
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