Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations



From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA)

Mains level : Paper 2- Opportunities and challenges for BIMSTEC


After 25 years, BIMSTEC can do much better as a grouping, addressing shortcomings in trade and connectivity.


  • BIST-EC in 1997: The 1997 Bangkok Declaration led to creation of the grouping of Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand with the acronym, BIST-EC.
  • BIMSTEC: Three countries-Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar joined BIST-EC later to make it the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).
  • At the grouping’s birth, the world was different; it was stamped by America’s ‘unipolar moment’.
  • India and Thailand joined hands to start an experiment of infusing a part of South Asia with the economic and institutional dynamism that defined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
  • But BIMSTEC found the burdens of South Asia too heavy to carry, and so it grew slowly.
  • The grouping has succeeded in rejuvenating itself.
  • Instrument of regional cooperation and integration: Since its Kathmandu summit in 2018, it is viewed as an instrument of regional cooperation and integration, not just of sub-regional cooperation.

New opportunities in the changed geopolitical context

  • In the third decade of the 21st century, the strategic contestation between the United States and China defines the region’s geopolitics and geo-economics, creating new tensions and opportunities.
  • Deepening linkage between South Asia and Southeast Asia: In this Indo-Pacific century, the Bay of Bengal Community (BOBC) has the potential to play a pivotal role, deepening linkages between South Asia and Southeast Asia.
  • Collaboration with IPEF: It should accelerate the region’s economic development by collaborating with the newly minted Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF).
  • New synergy should be created between BIMSTEC and the IPEF.
  • While all member-states are equal, three have a special responsibility: Bangladesh as the host of the BIMSTEC Secretariat; Thailand as the representative of Southeast Asia; and India as the largest state in South Asia.

Key achievements of BIMSTEC

  • Charter: It has crafted a new Charter for itself, spelling out the grouping’s vision, functions of its constituent parts, and has secured a legal personality.
  • Sectors of cooperation reduced to 7:  It has prioritised the sectors of cooperation, reducing them from the unwieldy 14 to the more manageable seven, with each member-state serving as the lead country for the assigned sector.
  • Strengthened Secretariat: It has, finally, taken measures to strengthen the Secretariat.
  • Combating terrorism: The grouping has also registered progress in combating terrorism, forging security cooperation, and creating mechanisms and practices for the better management of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
  • Held regular summits: Unlike the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, post-2014, BIMSTEC has continued to hold its summits and meetings of Foreign Ministers.
  • Unlike the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) which held only one summit since its establishment in 1997, BIMSTEC has succeeded in holding five summits so far; it has now resolved to hold regular summits once in two years.
  • Sectoral cooperation: Institutions such as an Energy Centre and the Centre on Weather and Climate are in place to push sectoral cooperation forward.


  • No progress on FTA yet: A major failure relates to the continuing inability to produce a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (FTA) 18 years after the signing of the Framework Agreement.
  • Lack of connectivity: The other disappointment is connectivity — in infrastructure (roads, railways, air, river, and coastal shipping links), energy, the digital and financial domain, and institutions that bring people closer together for trade, tourism and cultural exchanges.
  • Only limited progress has been achieved so far, despite the adoption of the Master Plan for Connectivity supported by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
  • Much of the connectivity established recently is the outcome of bilateral initiatives taken by India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan to strengthen transport links.
  • No progress on Blue Economy: The grouping has talked about the Blue Economy but is yet to begin any work on it.
  • Business chambers and corporate leaders are yet to be engaged fully with the activities of BIMSTEC.


If BIMSTEC is truly committed to its stated goals, it must recreate the spirit of working in unison.

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