BIMSTEC was founded based on the combination of the “Look East” policy of India and the “Look West” policy of Thailand and founded in 1997. It showed considerable progress during its initial years. The aim is the establishment of a “bridge of connection” between the regional organizations named SAARC and ASEAN, observable through their overlapping memberships in BIMSTEC. Although its contemporary performance is lacking compared to the other more well-known regional organizations, BIMSTEC has nonetheless shown remarkable stability and progression and has contributed to regional peace and development through the merging of two culturally different regions— East Asia and Southeast Asia. The organization was founded by four of its current member states– Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. It was initially termed as Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand Economic Cooperation (BIST-EC) It was primarily based on a report prepared by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) in 1997. The report was made due to the request of these four founding states in promoting a regional arrangement among themselves. At the first meeting at the ministerial level in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1997, Myanmar participated as an observer and became a member soon afterward. The title of this regional grouping was then changed into Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand Economic Cooperation (BIMST-EC). With the membership of Nepal and Sri Lanka, its acronym was kept the same, but its name was changed to the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).
The primary focus of BIMSTEC is economic development. It has various sectors dedicated to handling its many economic initiatives. BIMSTEC is a regional organization made up of an “economic region” with its member states. Thus, its initiatives are geared more towards economic projects and projects related to sustainable development. As both India and Thailand aspire to become regional powers in their own regions, they have chosen to focus on economic growth to further this agenda. Local development is also supported by the member states of BIMSTEC and this has led to continued cohesion within the organization.
Contribution: BIMSTEC is supposedly seen by India as an alternative outlet for pursuing its interests in the face of obstacles faced in the prominent organization SAARC, due to opposition in various project proposals, in the form of vetoes from Pakistan– a state that has repeatedly thwarted progress with regard to various initiatives towards regional development in SAARC. The member states of BIMSTEC have unanimously agreed upon a plan for a “Free Trade Pact” by 2017 and in addition to that, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand have committed to liberalizing trade by 2012. This free trade pact is one of the key achievements of the organization, as it has greatly accelerated trade among the member states, and has contributed to a substantial GDP growth among the parties.
Drawbacks: BIMSTEC is not without its drawbacks. Illegal migration from Bangladesh to India, Rohingya refugee issues between Bangladesh and Myanmar, Bangladesh’s deficits in trade with India, the issue between Bangladesh and India regarding Bangladesh’s accusation of India’s arming or rebels of Shanti Bahini in its Chittagong Hill Tracts region, contentions between India and Nepal due to Nepal’s overdependence on India and the resulting “inferiority complex”, the issue between Thailand and Myanmar regarding Myanmar’s accusation of Thailand’s supporting the two rebel ethnic groups named “Karen National Union” and “Shan State Army”, and Thailand’s dissatisfaction regarding Myanmar’s troops stationing near the border areas, etc., all work to prevent full cooperation in BIMSTEC’s latest ventures (Kundu, 2014).
With a clear economic focus that the BIMSTEC started off with, its prospects are very promising for a fast and stable economic growth. If it can maintain its focus on its 14 sectors (stated in their website https://bimstec.org/), then it will certainly be smooth sailing towards the sustainable development goals for its member states.
Recommended reading list
Batra, A. (2010). Asian Economic Integration and Sub-regionalism: A Case Study of the BIMSTEC. International Studies, 1-25.
Kaul, M. M. (2006). Regional Groupings: An Overview of BIMSTEC and MGC. South Asian Survey, 313.
Kundu, S. (2014). BIMSTEC at 17: An Assessment. India Quarterly, 207-224.