India’s Engagement with BIMSTEC: Contributions and Priorities

The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is all set to form an ‘Eminent Persons Group’.

The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is all set to form an ‘Eminent Persons Group’ to provide future direction to the regional body; an idea first agreed upon during the 15th BIMSTEC ministerial meeting held in Kathmandu, 2017. Set to hold its first meeting on January 25 next year in Dhaka, the Eminent Persons Group, finalised after the member nations select their representatives, will suggest a new blueprint for BIMSTEC.

Since its initial establishment as a regional organisation in June 1997 the BIMSTEC, a mini multilateral forum comprising of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand, suddenly finds itself revitalised, as countries in the Bay region bridging South and Southeast Asia appear determined to ensure the bloc’s relevance. In the 26 years since its establishment, the BIMSTEC grouping held its first ever Foreign Ministers meeting in Bangkok earlier this year. Indeed with the growing challenges of the Bay of Bengal region, time is of the essence to meaningfully translate the priorities of the region into action with finance, communication and capacity building transformative partnerships that the BIMSTEC provides the means for. Shifting dynamics in the international system with the rise of new powers and the withdrawal of traditional powers is redefining engagements in the Bay of Bengal region too.

Amidst a proliferation of regional organisations, regional cooperation is only successful when nations are focused on security and developmental priorities and the bloc itself is devoid of political differences. The BIMSTEC nations together represent roughly 1.5 billion, or 22%, of the world’s population, with a combined GDP close to US$2.7 trillion

Often cited as an outcome of India’s Look east and Thailand’s Look West policy, BIMSTEC was envisaged as an enabler of greater cooperation among the littoral countries of the Bay of Bengal. India is the largest BIMSTEC member state in its geographic area, economy, and population, and it is the key player in the region and its expectations from grouping is perhaps best described in recent years by Prime Minister Narendra Modi who at the occasion of the BIMSTEC summit meeting in Kathmandu said, “It is a natural platform to fulfil our key foreign policy priorities of Neighbourhood First and Act East”, as it connects not only South and Southeast Asia, but also the ecologies of the Great Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal.”

Bringing together India’s desire to both ‘Look’ and ‘Act’ East, BIMSTEC takes forward India’s civilisational, strategic, and economic interest in the Bay of Bengal region, while at the same time identifying specific areas of cooperation. With active participation from all BIMSTEC countries viz. Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand along with BIMSTEC Secretariat, fourteen priority sectors of cooperation that range from agriculture, climate change, energy, disaster management, technology, tourism, trade, have been identified.

Delhi is currently the largest contributor to the secretariat’s budget. Even at the fifth BIMSTEC Summit which was held virtually PM Modi suggested that the capacity of (the BIMSTEC) secretariat be strengthened and to that end provided an additional operational budget of 1 million USD.  Within the organisation India leads the Security Sector which comprises three sub-sectors, namely Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC), Disaster Management and Energy, as recommended by the Seventeenth BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting held virtually in 2021. The BIMSTEC Convention on Cooperation in Combating International Terrorism, Transnational Organized Crime and Illicit Drug Trafficking was entered into force in March 2021. The Tenth Meeting of the BIMSTEC Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime (JWG-CTTC) was held in New Delhi, India from 12-13 January 2023.

Aggravated security concerns have been the prime reason for the BIMSTEC to emerge from near dormancy, in recent times.  Forsaking the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and focusing on the BIMSTEC India has been able to isolate Pakistan, the epicentre of terrorism, in the context of South Asia’s regional affiliations. The process of searching for an alternative that had begun in 2014 itself, found culmination in the aftermath of the Uri terror attack, when New Delhi’s call for a boycott of the SAARC summit that was to be held in Islamabad in November 2016 found support from other South Asian nations. And since under the SAARC mechanism, Pakistan cannot unilaterally invite anyone, it has been rendered defunct for all practical purposes. Furthermore China’s expanding presence in the Bay has roused apprehensions amongst the South-Southeast Asian nations. In the face of aggravated security threats including terrorism and transnational crime, India has found common cause with the member nations of BIMSTEC. The absence of political foes and regional competition, Pakistan and China, India has fewer obstacles for achieving BIMSTEC’s mandate.

India has been investing a great deal of diplomatic energy into the regional grouping. Commentating on the BIMSTEC Foreign Ministers’ Retreat in Bangkok, Thailand, in July this year, External Affairs Minister Jaishankar emphasised that India has made significant progress in advancing its Neighbourhood First and Act East policies, with a particular focus on strengthening relations with countries in the Asia-Pacific region. For the  first time, an Indian has been appointed as the secretary general of BIMSTEC. Diplomat Indra Mani Pandey will take up the assignment shortly.

India along with Thailand, represents the two BIMSTEC nations with the highest volume of trade and are the most active in planning, negotiating, and implementing free trade agreements. In 2019, the first ever BIMSTEC Conclave of Ports with the aim of providing a platform to strengthen maritime interaction, port-led connectivity initiatives and sharing best practices among member countries, was organised by India in Visakhapatnam. In 2022 the Ports summit followed up by the declaration of a Master Plan for Transport Connectivity that would provide a framework for regional and domestic connectivity. India has already invested in the India–Myanmar–Thailand Trilateral Highway, the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project and the BIMSTEC Motor Vehicle Agreement to improve connectivity and promote trade within the region. Connectivity infrastructure in the northeast has significance also in terms of these being further linked to the projects that BIMSTEC is backing to improve cooperation and connectivity in the Bay of Bengal area. In this context West Bengal capital Kolkata has often been hailed  as a “vital bridge” for the BIMSTEC countries, as its Syama Prasad Mookerjee Port is connected to the Mongla and Chittagong ports in Bangladesh and to Sittwe in Myanmar. 

In February this year, India hosted the first meeting of the Governing Board of BIMSTEC Energy Centre (BEC) in Bengaluru. As the Host of the BIMSTEC Energy Centre, India has proposed the establishment of a BIMSTEC Energy Centre (BEC) in India, with a recommendation to consider the addition of specialised areas within the current energy scenario in BIMSTEC region,  (a) Cyber Security,  (b) Green Hydrogen (c) Energy Transition. India has also been advocating for strengthened agricultural cooperation among the countries in the BIMSTEC.

India has been pushing for continuous diplomatic engagement to overcome the challenges in achieving a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and unfinished projects hinder economic cooperation among BIMSTEC member nations. It has been highlighting the essential prioritisation of  ongoing connectivity projects like the Kaladan Multimodal Project, Asian Trilateral Highway, and BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement in order for the BIMSTEC region to unlock the permanent interests of the region, including trade, economic empowerment, infrastructure, renewable energy and food security.

There is no denying the significance of the BIMSTEC, as it resonates with overall regional concerns and trends. Despite being an old organisation, it has begun to reflect a new dynamism characterising South-Southeast Asian regionalism.

Vaishali Basu Sharma
Vaishali Basu Sharma
Vaishali Basu Sharma is an analyst of strategic and economic affairs. She has worked as a consultant with India’s National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) for nearly a decade. She is presently associated with New Delhi based think tank Policy Perspectives Foundation.