In his statement at the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC)’s just-concluded third summit in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh eloquently outlined all the reasons that the organisation’s member countries — Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal — are a natural grouping. He made telling points; geography, history, shared boundaries and economic potential are all in the organisation’s favour. That makes BIMSTEC’s continued failure to achieve anything of real significance all the more egregious. This summit, only the third since the body was created in 1997, hasn’t broken the pattern. The three agreements signed by India are token in nature: on culture exchanges, weather warning and the establishment of a permanent secretariat in Dhaka. And for all the rhetoric about security cooperation and the establishment of a free trade area, there have been no concrete takeaways there. Delhi must bear much of the blame for this.
BIMSTEC was created at the confluence of India’s Look East and Thailand’s Look West policies. Bangkok was eager to draw Delhi into Southeast Asia in order to balance Beijing; this has been the motivation between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ general interest in India for almost two decades now. As the most significant nation in the grouping in both geostrategic and economic terms, the failure or success of BIMSTEC were always going to be directly proportional to Dehi’s political will. And it should have been an initiative Delhi threw its full weight behind; the potential both for building trade with Southeast Asia and boosting access to energy reserves was significant. But instead, apathy and bureaucratic wrangling have left BIMSTEC dead in the water.
Consider the issue of economic integration and realising trade potential. A free trade agreement was supposed to have been agreed upon by 2006, but talks stalled at that point. Eight years later, the FTA still remains an unrealised ambition for all that the prime minister pushed strongly for it this time around. The failure to build trans-border connectivity can be traced back to the same lack of political will. The two projects mooted by Delhi — linking the mainland to the northeast through Myanmar and the northeast to Thailand, again via Myanmar, both remain pies in the sky.
Part of the problem is structural. With 14 priority sectors, the BIMSTEC agenda is simply too ambitions and wide-ranging. Some of them, like cultural exchanges, are low-hanging fruit better left for bilateral negotiations; at the moment, they do little save occupy space on the BIMSTEC agenda and create a false sense of achievement. Others, like security cooperation and counter-terrorism are politically contentious. They create stumbling blocks that hold up progress on other fronts and are, again, best left for more flexible bilateral agendas. BIMSTEC must narrow its focus considerably to economic infrastructure, free trade and energy security. Success breeds success; progress along any of these axes will make cooperation elsewhere that much easier. But for that to happen, Delhi must stop looking at BIMSTEC as a low priority engagement, secondary to bilateral understandings with the member nations. It could do worse than borrow a leaf from Beijing’s book, given the latter’s success in advancing initiatives such as the Greater Mekong Subregion economic cooperation programme.