BIMSTEC and Bangladesh-India Cooperation: Mutuality and Prospects

Since 1971, Bangladesh and India have maintained warm relations with each other. Bilateral cooperation in the economic sector, diplomatic domain, socio-cultural arena, energy, and security are widely visible since these are the priorities for both the governments. Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is one of those rostrums which helps to reconnect and think in different ways to uphold the relations. Although BIMSTEC was established more than two decades ago, it needs to implement regional development projects for its expected contribution in the Bay of Bengal region. The Bangladesh-India relationship is considered to be a critical factor for consolidating the BIMSTEC. For Bangladesh and India, it is a bridge to connect with the South East Asian states.

The Fifth BIMSTEC Summit was held in Sri Lanka under the theme of “BIMSTEC – Towards a Resilient Region, Prosperous Economies, Healthy Peoples”. The theme showcases that BIMSTEC is a platform to uphold and boost economic growth and social progress among members across 14 priority aspects. Trade and investment, technology, energy, transportation and communication, tourism, fisheries, and agriculture, were selected as priority areas of collaboration by BIMSTEC members as early as 2008. Aquaculture (both inland and coastal), hydrography, seabed mineral exploration, coastal shipping, eco-tourism, and renewable ocean energy were added to this list in 2016 as a reflection of the Blue Economy and the Mountain Economy. Climate change was added in 2008. Public health, poverty alleviation, counter-terrorism and transnational crime, environment and disaster management, people to people contact, and lastly cultural cooperation can also be stated. These are the principal area of cooperation among BIMSTEC countries.

On 30 March 2022, member states of BIMSTEC signed the BIMSTEC Charter and witnessed the signing of the BIMSTEC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters, the Memorandum of Association on the Establishment of the BIMSTEC Technology Transfer Facility, and the MoU on Mutual Cooperation between Diplomatic Academies/Training Institutions of BIMSTEC Member States. The summit was held in a hybrid fashion in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Cooperation between Bangladesh and India can further be strengthened by using the platform of BIMSTEC. And bilateral cooperation complements both their bilateral and regional integration as well as the key focus of BIMSTEC.

Why BangladeshIndia Cooperation

The importance of Bangladesh-India bilateral cooperation lies in the widening of connectivity, trade and investment cooperation, security and defense cooperation, energy security, and socio-cultural bond. Bangladesh is one of the most strategically needed friends of India given the geopolitical environment in this vicinity. Similarly, India is the most important strategic partner of Bangladesh. Trade with the Southeast Asian states, Bangladesh’s transit is more feasible and viable rather than bypassing Bangladesh. India’s Act East Policy becomes cost-effective and successful if India has warm relations with Bangladesh. The Bay of Bengal is a prominent feature for India since its northeast is landlocked. Bangladesh is the best option to negotiate with the obstacles.

The Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, presented three points at the Fifth BIMSTEC summit, urging all leaders to commit to making the process fully functioning by activating all 14 areas of collaboration. In the first point, Bangladesh’s prime minister chose to implement and operationalize all agreed-upon decisions, such as the BIMSTEC Free Trade Area, BIMSTEC centers, and entities such as the Disaster Management Centre, the Energy Centre, and the Cultural Commission, as well as connectivity projects and energy grid connectivity, in order to provide immediate tangible benefits to the people. Here lie the interests of Bangladesh since Bangladesh’s energy sector and disaster management need support to sustain itself. She advocated for expediting the completion of all other legal instruments and policy documents that were already in the works but had not yet been finalized, in order to keep the organization’s momentum moving forward. Lastly, Prime Minister recommended that the organization be empowered to engage in creative and innovative processes by increasing its partnerships and engagement with relevant entities outside of BIMSTEC in order to confront rising challenges and seize new possibilities.

An effective multilateral cooperation cannot be developed without bilateral support between Bangladesh and India. Bangladesh-India cooperation can be a game-changer in the BISMTEC. The areas of cooperation suggest that a strong and common stand between Bangladesh and India on vital issues such as free trade, security, connectivity and disaster management is the key to the success of this regional process. It would motivate other powerful members such as Thailand and Myanmar to become proactive and more committed to achieving the goals of BIMSTEC.

Domains of Bangladesh-India Cooperation for the Success of BIMSTEC

There are several areas, which would benefit BISMSTEC through Bangladesh-India bilateral cooperation and vice versa. First, Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, during the fifth BIMSTEC Summit, emphasized the importance of developing consensus solutions for rebuilding a sustainable and resilient Bay of Bengal Region by utilizing the region’s full potential. Blue Economy, coastal welfare, rule of law, illicit trades, piracy, armed robbery, maritime enforcement, maritime mixed migration are the areas to be taken care of. For extraction of huge unexplored resources in the region, member countries need bilateral partenrhsips. Bangladesh-India partnerhsip is a case in point. India being the trusted neighbor can be a better option as the issues mentioned must also have some security concerns. Second, basically, BIMSTEC addresses the non-traditional security issues. Both Bangladesh and India need one another to deal with these issues. The Rohingya crisis brings about some aspects of non-traditional threats such as human trafficking, illicit drug smuggling, money laundering, and illegal migration etc.

Third, connectivity is another significant area of cooperation relevant to BIMSTEC.The Patna to Pandu via Bangladesh voyage of food grains on the 6 March 2022 indicated the opportunity and the current state of friendship between Bangladesh and India.  The voyage describes, “The vessel starts its sail on National Waterway-1 (river Ganga) through Bhagalpur, Manihari, Sahibganj, Farakka, Tribeni, Kolkata, Haldia, Hemnagar; Indo Bangladesh Protocol (IBP) route through Khulna, Narayanganj, Sirajganj, Chilmari and National Waterway-2 through Dhubri, and Jogighopa covering a distance of 2,350 km. The vessel will take about 25 days to cover the entire voyage and is expected to reach Pandu in Guwahati by early March.” This gives another perspective of connectivity between Bangladesh and India. India has introduced a Master Plan to enhance regional integration, through envisioning multimodal connectivity projects across BIMSTEC sub-regions by air, land, and sea.

Bangladesh and India share a long border. Apart from that, India also has vulnerability with its Northeast in terms of connectivity with the sea. Bangladesh allowed India to use two of its ports. And the landlocked Northeast can be connected through the Maitri Setu over Feni river which can connect the Tripura to the Bay of Bengal. The Kaladan project is also there to make the connection between the Northeast and the Western regions of India. If Bangladesh can make India think of using Bangladesh’s ports as a refueling hub, it would boost mutual understanding. From the Bangladesh’s point of view, India’s Northeast can be a big market. The Northeast can open further economic prospects by connecting Bangladesh with the South East Asian countries. Bangladesh also needs transit through India to connect with Bhutan and Nepal.

Bangladesh and India have scope to use its growing trade cooperation for BIMSTEC. India’s exports to Bangladesh have climbed at a yearly pace of 8.46 percent over the last 25 years, from $1.04 billion in 1995 to $7.91 billion in 2020. Bangladesh has also achieved a milestone by exporting $1.01 billion to India in 2020. The Trade Negotiating Committee (TNC), Working Group on the Rules of Origin (WG-RoO) and the Working Group on the Dispute Settlement Mechanism (WG-DSM) may help the two countries to remove trade barriers.

Bangladesh is a role model to most of the South Asian countries for its achievement in fighting against terrorism. After the Gulshan’s Holey Artisan incident in 2016 both the countries emphasize countering terrorism in the region. BIMSTEC has also placed terrorism in its top priority.

Conclusion: Spill-Over Effects

A deepened Bangladesh-India relationship will have spill-over effects within the BIMSTEC. Through Bangladesh-India relations, it can be showcased that cooperation is possible and it has larger canvas. The connectivity with India will attract other regional powers to think about establishing or strengthening relations within BIMSTEC. Bangladesh-India cooperation may help approaching approach Thailand and Myanmar to create trade opportunities by implementing long pending BIMSTEC Free Trade Agreement. The current chair of BIMSTEC is Thailand, who can promote relations with Bangladesh and India.

Syed Raiyan Amir
Syed Raiyan Amir
Research Associate The Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA)