Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations



From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much

Mains level : Paper 2- Reviving BIMSTEC

More than two decades after its formation, BIMSTEC still remains a work in progress. And it has many obstacles to overcome. The article highlights challenges and progress made so far.

Background of BIMSTEC

  • The foreign ministers of BIMSTEC (the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) met virtually on April 1.
  • It was established as a grouping of four nations — India, Thailand, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka — through the Bangkok Declaration of 1997 to promote rapid economic development.
  • BIMSTEC was expanded later to include three more countries — Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan.
  • It moved at a leisurely pace during its first 20 years with only three summits held and a record of modest achievements.

Growing significance

  • BIMSTEC suddenly received special attention when India chose to treat it as a more practical instrument for regional cooperation over a faltering SAARC.
  • The BIMSTEC Leaders’ Retreat, followed by their Outreach Summit with the BRICS leaders in Goa in October 2016, drew considerable international limelight to the low-profile regional grouping.
  • At the fourth leaders’ summit in Kathmandu in 2018, a plan for institutional reform and renewal that would encompass economic and security cooperation was devised.
  • It took the important decision to craft a charter to provide BIMSTEC with a more formal and stronger foundation.
  • The shared goal now is to head towards “a Peaceful, Prosperous and Sustainable Bay of Bengal Region”.

Why the recent summit is important

  • In the recent virtual summit, the foreign ministers cleared the draft for the BIMSTEC charter.
  • They endorsed the rationalisation of sectors and sub-sectors of activity, with each member-state serving as a lead for the assigned areas of special interest.
  • The ministers also conveyed their support for the Master Plan for Transport Connectivity.
  • Preparations have been completed for the signing of three agreements:
  • 1) Mutual legal assistance in criminal matters.
  • 2) Cooperation between diplomatic academies.
  • 3) The establishment of a technology transfer facility in Colombo.

Lack of progress on trade

  • In the recent deliberation, there was no reference to the lack of progress on the trade and economic dossier.
  • A January 2018 study by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry had suggested that BIMSTEC urgently needed a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement to be a real game-changer.
  • Ideally, it should cover trade in goods, services and investment; promote regulatory harmonisation; adopt policies that develop regional value chains, and eliminate non-tariff barriers.
  • Also lacking was an effort to enthuse and engage the vibrant business communities of these seven countries.
  • Over 20 rounds of negotiations to operationalise the BIMSTEC Free Trade Area Framework Agreement, signed in 2004, are yet to bear fruit.


  • Much has been achieved in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief and security, including counterterrorism, cybersecurity, and coastal security cooperation.
  • India has led through constant focus and follow-up.
  • While national business chambers are yet to be optimally engaged with the BIMSTEC project, the academic and strategic community has shown ample enthusiasm through the BIMSTEC Network of Policy Think Tanks and other fora.


  • A strong BIMSTEC presupposes cordial and tension-free bilateral relations among all its member-states.
  • However, there has been tensions in India-Nepal, India-Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh-Myanmar ties in recent years.
  • Second, uncertainties over SAARC hovers, complicating matters. Both Kathmandu and Colombo want the SAARC summit revived, even as they cooperate within BIMSTEC, with diluted zeal.
  • Third, China’s decisive intrusion in the South-Southeast Asian space has cast dark shadows.
  • Finally, the military coup in Myanmar and the continuation of popular resistance resulting in a protracted impasse have produced a new set of challenges.

Consider the question “What are the challenges BIMSTEC faces in emerging as an alternative to the SAARC? What are its achievements?”


The grouping needs to reinvent itself, possibly even rename itself as ‘The Bay of Bengal Community’. It should consider holding regular annual summits. Only then will its leaders convince the region about their strong commitment to the new vision they have for this unique platform linking South Asia and Southeast Asia.

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