“Towards a Resilient Region, Prosperous Economies, Healthy People”, the theme of the fifth Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) Summit hosted by Sri Lanka in Colombo in a hybrid format on March 30, 2022, sums up not only the philosophical trust of this regional grouping by highlighting the very purpose of formation of this forum twenty-five years ago but is also a reflection of the world as it is. The references to both the existing global challenges brought by the pandemic and the unravelling crisis in Ukraine were echoed by both the Indian Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi and the External Affairs Minister (EAM) Dr. S Jaishankar, while addressing the Summit[i] and the Ministerial Meeting respectively.[ii]
Despite the theme indicating a somewhat pessimistic outlook, this regional forum has set an ambitious course for itself with an eye on the future. As such BIMSTEC aims to broaden the scope for economic ties between the member states in a systematic manner. Resultantly, in its Silver Jubilee year, BIMSTEC has overhauled its Charter with the intent to become a vehicle for realising the true potential of this regional forum. Of the original fourteen sectors of engagement, the revised Charter will have seven pillars with each of its members being assigned the role of the lead state. (Refer Table 1).
The Silver Jubilee of BIMSTEC
This regional forum, based on the mutually shared geographic space of the Bay of Bengal littorals came into being as BIST-EC (Bangladesh-India-Sri Lanka-Thailand Economic Cooperation) on June 6, 1997, in Bangkok, Thailand. With the inclusion of Myanmar later in that year, this regional grouping was renamed BIMST-EC; with the ‘M’ in the acronym referring to its newest member. However, when this forum was further expanded to include the two landlocked states of Bhutan and Nepal, for whom the Bay of Bengal is their principle and proximate maritime gateway, in 2004, the regional forum underwent another change in its nomenclature. Instead of reflecting the members of this forum, the regional grouping’s name was designed to reflect its purpose. It was in this backdrop that the current name- Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) was adopted during its first Summit in 2004 that was held again in Bangkok.[iii]
The process of evolution of BIMSTEC was not only limited to the expanding nature of its membership but also to the areas of cooperation. From six areas for cooperation in 1997 (trade, technology, energy, transport, tourism, and fisheries), the regional forum had expanded to cover other avenues of cooperation like agriculture, public health, poverty alleviation, counter-terrorism, environment, culture, people-to-people contact, and climate change by the turn of 2008. In the Third Summit in 2018, the forum had put in place an institutional mechanism in form of a permanent Secretariat in Dhaka, Bangladesh. By the time of the Fourth Summit that was held in Kathmandu, Nepal in 2018, the regional forum recognised the need for rationalising the avenues of cooperation and, as such, agreed to revise its Charter. In the current Summit, the forum adopted a new Charter.
Some of the other notable outcomes during the 2022 Summit have been regularising interaction at the highest level. To this end, it has been agreed upon that the Head of Government Summit, as observed by PM Modi in his remarks, will be held every alternative year and the Ministerial Meeting at the level of the Foreign Ministers would be held every year. At the same time, the current Summit also agreed to set in motion an annual Consultative Mechanism of the BIMSTEC National Security Advisors Forum.
Table I: BIMSTEC’s Sectors (Sub-Sector) wise of Cooperation and Lead nation
Trade, Investment and Development
Environment & Climate Change
Sub-sectors: Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime, Disaster Management, Energy
Agriculture and Food Security
Sub-sectors: Agriculture, Fisheries & Livestock
Sub-sectors: Culture, Tourism, People-to-People Contact (forums of think tanks, media etc.)
Science, Technology & Innovation
Sub-sectors: Technology, Health, Human Resource Development
Setting eyes on the Future
Though the key outcome at the outset has been rationalising the sectors of cooperation into only seven avenues of engagement, which may seem to be a downgrade from the previous mandate of this regional forum, the newly adopted Charter to the contrary is a shot in the arm. By constituting the points of engagement to only seven sectors, BIMSTEC has given to itself the task of extensive cooperation within these verticals. For one, the new Charter is a reflection of the avenues in which this regional forum wishes to direct its efforts. Secondly, this revised Charter does not shun away previous areas of cooperation but has subsumed them within identified seven verticals. This in turn would not only add greater focus to this regional forum but would also steadily facilitate greater integration among the seven-member states. As the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh Dr. A. K. Abdul Momen observed, the new Charter “will place the organisation’s activities on a more structured and a rule-based platform”.[iv]
Owing to the revised Charter the need to augment the operational budget of the Secretariat in Dhaka was also identified. To meet this additional expenditure, PM Modi in his address had announced that India will extend an additionally US $ 1 million for the smooth functioning of the forum Secretariat.[v] This financial commitment at the outset may look to be a small sum of money. However, it is to be noted that this commitment is only with respect to enhancing the ‘existing capacity’ of the Secretariat in addition to India’s annual contribution.[vi]
The other outcomes of the Summit include the BIMSTEC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters; BIMSTEC Memorandum of Understanding on Mutual Cooperation in the field of Diplomatic Training; and the Memorandum of Association on Establishment of BIMSTEC Technology Transfer Facility. Apart from these, the Summit also came out with BIMSTEC's Master Plan for Transport Connectivity in association with the Asian Development Bank (ADB). The master plan that ADB has prepared for BIMSTEC has been in the making for the past decade. Despite this hiatus, this roadmap is significant for more than one reason.
The Master Plan for Transport Connectivity (Thailand is the lead nation on Connectivity) is not only limited to issues of enhancing existing connectivity networks but has also identified five areas like land, marine, energy, digital, and people for greater scope for engagement.[vii] The avenues of cooperation include both backend and frontend aspects associated with connectivity projects. Some of the issues that would be of interest are in “framing appropriate policy and regulatory framework, including the implementation of through-transport agreements, and access agreements for coastal shipping services between and among member states; development of a sustainable financing framework for infrastructure projects; addressing the impact society, environmental, and other concerns; and to development of adequate human resources and associated capacities”.[viii]
The Summit also recognised the need to work towards an early conclusion of some of the avenues of cooperation that could foster greater exchanges among the member states as identified in the past Summits. These include an early conclusion of the Free Trade Agreement, setting up of the Disaster Management Centre, and Cultural Commission and undertaking projects like Connectivity Projects and Energy Grid Connectivity.[ix] This thus has broadened the meaning of the word connectivity from a narrow understanding of physical networks to a larger canvas that will result in “better integration, better trade, and better people-to-people relations”.[x]
It is in a similar vein that the importance of the other sectors of cooperation is to be seen. In terms of Science, Technology (S&T), and Innovation, wherein Sri Lanka is the lead nation, the focus also includes issues like health and human resources development (HRD). The specific mention of health and HRD, in the post-pandemic world, is of significance as the past two years have brought, and continues to bring to the forefront the importance of both these sub-sectors for the advancement and resilience of a state and its society during challenging times. However, the sector that can be seen as reorienting BIMSTEC is in the ‘Security’ vertical, where India is the lead nation.
Security, for long, has been understood to be either ‘traditional security concerns’ from belligerence between states or in form of ‘non-traditional concerns’ like terrorism and trans-national crime. However, BIMSTEC on its part has cast a wider connotation to this term to include Disaster Management and Energy as sub-sectors. By moving away from its narrow traditional understanding, BIMSTEC has also highlighted the issues that are of concern to its members- one addressing the energy deficiency among its member states and to address the humanitarian cost imposed by natural disasters that plagues this region at regular intervals.
Additionally, energy in the modern world has become the principle factor that not only drives the economic progress of a state but also that of its society. Energy, at another level is also the crucial ingredient in addressing the one challenge that confronts the world as a whole- climate change and global warming. Thus associating ‘energy’ with ‘security’ does not only take the shape of addressing concerns that confronts human progress in the short-term but the wellbeing of humanity in the long-term.
By broadening the scope for security cooperation, BIMSTEC has reiterated its commitment to greater regional integration with an eye for mutual development and progress. This, when taken with India’s SAGAR initiative (Security and Growth for All in the Region) in the Indian Ocean Region, can be seen in the context of setting an alternative narrative in the domain of inter-state relations and regional cooperation based on mutually beneficial partnership in absence of external hostility. It is in this context that the reference by both the Indian PM and his EAM, at the Fifth BIMSTEC Summit, on the ongoing conflict in Europe should be seen. For India, it can be said that security is not synonymous with aggressive posturing or an instrument of hostile diplomacy, but a tool for ‘maintaining international peace, stability’[xi] and for promoting co-prosperity.
BIMSTEC: Looking Ahead
The focus of the Summit has been only on regional cooperation and identifying avenues for greater cooperation. Despite this forum’s apolitical stance, political sentiments and associated international attention has been an uninvited camp follower. Even with months to go for the Summit, there had been a specific call for this forum to reconsider the participation of its fellow member- Myanmar, owing to the military coup in that country in February 2021 and the following political violence.
BIMSTEC, on its part, acted in the spirit of its charter. Unlike the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) which had placed conditionality on Myanmar’s participation in its engagements, BIMSTEC’s approach was more accommodating. By opting for a hybrid mode of interaction, this regional forum was able to ensure that participation of Myanmar’s delegation, led by its Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, was via video conference at the Ministerial Meeting, even while some of his counterparts attended in person. At Heads of Government engagement, however, all of the participants opted for a virtual engagement.
This move by BIMSTEC may not have earned the approval of the moral guardians of the world but should be seen as a silent statement by the Bay of Bengal regional grouping. The first point of note is that BIMSTEC is not a political arrangement but a technical forum formed around specific geographic contours. Second and more importantly is that this regional forum will be guided by its charter, founding principles and regional considerations and will not be swayed by the need to assuage the political sensibilities of various sections of the international community.
Going beyond this political posturing, the Summit concluded with three-point vision for its next summit. The thematic approach for the next Summit which would be hosted by Thailand in 2024 is to be under the banner of “Prosperous, Resilient and Robust, and Open BIMSTEC”[xii] or to be known by its acronym- PRO BIMSTEC. As echoed during the 2022 Summit, the sentiment of the member states of this regional grouping is not only reflected in the theme of its next Summit- PRO BIMSTEC but also could be a rallying point that would guide the future points of engagement for BIMSTEC and its partners.
*Dr. Sripathi Narayanan is a research fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: Views are personal.
[i] English Translation of Remarks by Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi at the 5th BIMSTEC Summit, Minister of External Affairs of India, March 30, 2022, https://mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/35090/Remarks_by_Prime_Minister_Shri_Narendra_Modi_at_the_5th_BIMSTEC_Summit, accessed on March 31, 2022.
[ii] Statement by External Affairs Minister, Dr. S. Jaishankar at the BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, March 29, 2022, https://mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/35088/Statement_by_External_Affairs_Minister_Dr_S_Jaishankar_at_the_BIMSTEC_Ministerial_Meeting, accessed on March 30, 2022.
[iii] History, BIMSTEC Secretariat, https://bimstec.org/?page_id=4863#:~:text=Search-,History,-The%20Bay%20of, accessed on March 30, 2022.
[iv] AKM Moinuddin, “Dhaka calls for joint efforts to build smarter BIMSTEC”, United News of Bangladesh, March 29, 2022, https://unb.com.bd/category/bangladesh/dhaka-calls-for-joint-efforts-to-build-smarter-bimstec/90117, accessed on April 4, 2022.
[v] English Translation of Remarks by Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi at the 5th BIMSTEC Summit, Minister of External Affairs of India, March 30, 2022, https://mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/35090/Remarks_by_Prime_Minister_Shri_Narendra_Modi_at_the_5th_BIMSTEC_Summit, accessed on March 31, 2022.
[vi] The budgetary estimate or Demands for Grant for the financial year 2022-23 of India’s contribution towards BIMSTEC is about ₹ 17crores.
Detailed Demands for Grants 2022-23, Minister of External Affairs, Government of India, March 23, 2022,
http://22.214.171.124/MEA/DDG/#, accessed on March 31, 2022.
[vii] “Thailand strives to promote 5 areas of connectivity and 3 visions under BIMSTEC”, Royal Thai Government, https://www.thaigov.go.th/news/contents/details/53110, accessed on April 6, 2022.
[viii] Building Seamless Transport Connectivity in the Bay of Bengal Region, Development Asia, April 12, 2021, https://development.asia/insight/building-seamless-transport-connectivity-bay-bengal-region, accessed on April 1, 2022.
[ix] 'Need common strategies to rebuild a resilient Bay of Bengal region', Daily Star, March 30, 2022, https://www.thedailystar.net/news/asia/south-asia/news/need-common-strategies-rebuild-resilient-bay-bengal-region-2993896, accessed on April 4, 2022.
[x] English Translation of Remarks by Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi at the 5th BIMSTEC Summit, Minister of External Affairs of India, March 30, 2022, https://mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/35090/Remarks_by_Prime_Minister_Shri_Narendra_Modi_at_the_5th_BIMSTEC_Summit, accessed on March 31, 2022.
[xi] Statement by External Affairs Minister, Dr. S. Jaishankar at the BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, March 29, 2022, https://mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/35088/Statement_by_External_Affairs_Minister_Dr_S_Jaishankar_at_the_BIMSTEC_Ministerial_Meeting, accessed on March 30, 2022.
[xii] “Thailand strives to promote 5 areas of connectivity and 3 visions under BIMSTEC”, Royal Thai Government, https://www.thaigov.go.th/news/contents/details/53110, accessed on April 6, 2022.