Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

[op-ed snap] India needs to walk the talk on Bimstec


Mains Paper 2: IR | Bilateral, regional & global groupings & agreements involving India &/or affecting India’s interests

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: BIMSTEC, SAARC

Mains level: The bleak possibility of revival of SAARC and how BIMSTEC can fill the void created by the unofficial ending of SAARC


India’s focus on BIMSTEC

  1. As the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) is unlikely to make a comeback, India’s efforts to promote regional cooperation will continue to focus on the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec)
  2. But unless leaders from the seven Bimstec member-states use this week’s summit in Kathmandu to strengthen the organization’s capacity and set clear priorities, we will be left with just a few more speeches and declarations of intent

Why does India need to do more?

  1. India has a special responsibility to prove that it sees Bimstec as more than a rebound relationship to Saarc
  2. In October 2016, just after the cancellation of Saarc summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi convened a Brics-Bimstec outreach summit in Goa and then promised to revive Bimstec as India’s priority organization to promote regional cooperation
  3. While Modi spoke in Goa, India had still not placed its director to the Bimstec secretariat in Dhaka, more than two years after its establishment
  4. Also indicating India’s lack of interest, the ministry of external affairs’ (MEA’s) estimated budget for Bimstec that year was just ₹12 lakh

Expectations from BIMSTEC

  1. Bimstec is now supposed to perform at the level of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations or the European Union
  2. Bimstec is mandated to deepen regional cooperation through nothing less than 14 working groups, covering everything under the Bay of Bengal sun, including a free trade agreement, poverty alleviation, tourism, energy and climate change, and even counterterrorism and disaster management

Increasing BIMSTEC’s efficiency

  • Nothing will progress unless the Bimstec secretariat is significantly empowered
  1. With a paltry budget of $0.2 million and a total staff of less than 10 people, including the secretary general and three directors, the secretariat will need significantly more human and financial resources to implement its bold mandate
  2. Member-states will also have to delegate autonomy to the secretariat to hire technical experts, set the multilateral agenda, and serve as the driving force between summits and ministerial meetings
  • India will need to take on an informal Bimstec leadership role and let its practical commitments lead by example
  1. Officials from Thailand, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka have repeatedly expressed their willingness to focus on Bimstec, provided India walks the talk and takes the first step
  2. This requires taking on an asymmetric burden, ensuring that India is always represented at the highest level and also willing to walk the extra mile, whether by keeping the momentum diplomatically or committing financial and human resources to strengthen Bimstec
  • Bimstec will have to prioritize economic connectivity, which is the prerequisite for regional integration in any other domain
  1. While the Bimstec free trade agreement has stalled once again, India has instead focused on security issues, including by hosting the first meeting of the Bimstec national security chiefs
  2. With its limited resources, Bimstec’s success continues to primarily hinge on removing the formidable physical and regulatory obstacles to the free flow of goods, capital, services and people between its member-states

Way Forward

  1. Geostrategic imperatives, security dialogues, or counterterrorism cooperation initiatives are no substitute for Bimstec’s primary mandate to increase regional connectivity and revive the Bay of Bengal community
  2. Bimstec will continue to underperform in each and every regard unless member-states commit significant resources to strengthen the organization
  3. Bimstec can be the natural platform for India to simultaneously implement its regional connectivity, Neighbourhood First and Act East policies
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