Focus on BIMSTEC and the Bay of Bengal

By Dr. Constantino Xavier
25 August 2018
Focus on BIMSTEC and the Bay of Bengal
Flashback -  Last year's Parami Roundtable discussion on Myanmar and BIMSTEC in Yangon, 1 September, 2017. Photo: Thura/Mizzima

While Myanmar has traditionally focused its multilateral efforts on ASEAN, it is also the member of a lesser known regional organization, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). Created in 1997, in Bangkok, and with Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand as its other member-states, BIMSTEC’s mandate is back in the limelight these days because it focuses on the Bay of Bengal, the strategic heart of the Indo-Pacific.

No country has greater stakes in BIMSTEC than Myanmar, whose geography embodies the missing link between South and Southeast Asia and also shares borders with both India and China. As the fourth BIMSTEC summit is scheduled for the end of this month, in Kathmandu, its leaders must make use of this occasion to revive it. Unless the organization is endowed with resources to realize regional integration on the ground, we will be left with just a few more visionary speeches and declarations of intent. BIMSTEC’s success is crucial because the region will not prosper without strong multilateral mechanisms that harness its economic potential, address transnational challenges, and manage geostrategic pressures.

First, while the Bay of Bengal hosts one-fourth of the world’s population and several high-growth economies, its intra-regional trade barely exceeds 5 percent, compared to thirty percent within ASEAN. India’s land-based trade with Myanmar, for example, still amounts to its total trade with Nicaragua, in Central America. And visa restrictions make it ironically easier for a European, Chinese or American to visit BIMSTEC countries than for people from within the region to travel across its borders.

Second, the Bay also faces significant non-traditional security challenges that can only be addressed cooperatively, including cross-border criminal and insurgent organizations, increasing refugee populations, and a degrading ecosystem. Natural calamities, including some of the world’s deadliest cyclones, have taken the lives of almost half a million people in BIMSTEC states in the last twenty years alone. None of these issues can be tackled in isolation by any individual country.

Finally, several geostrategic connectivity agendas are now converging and competing in the Bay of Bengal region, including China’s Belt and Road Initiative, India’s Act East policy, the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, or ASEAN’s new Western focus. Instead of competing against each other and playing off India, China, Japan or the United States, which risks militarization and destabilization, the Bay of Bengal states will benefit more from working together and develop their own regional governance outlook, norms and institutions.

As I show in my recent study “Bridging the Bay of Bengal: Toward a Stronger BIMSTEC,” with its multilateral mandate, BIMSTEC is the ideal platform to address these challenges, but it will only succeed if its seven member-states take concrete steps to strengthen the organization.

First, they must express political commitment by holding summits and ministerial meetings more regularly – if leaders don’t meet frequently at the highest level, officials can’t be expected to follow up and do their part of the work.

Second, the BIMSTEC Secretariat must be empowered with greater autonomy, as well as more human, technical and financial resources to drive the organization’s agenda. With just one Secretary General and three directors located in Dhaka, compared to ASEAN’s staff of more than one hundred, this is one of the world’s weakest regional organizations. 

Third, member-states must conclude a free trade agreement (FTA), however limited in scope. Negotiations for a BIMSTEC FTA have been dragging on for more than fifteen years, and economic growth is bound to stagnate in the region unless borders cease to be barriers to the free flow of goods, capital and labor.

Fourth, BIMSTEC must focus on priority areas, reducing the excessive number of fourteen different working groups, from tourism to climate change. Instead, it must prioritize the development of cross-border infrastructure and the blue water economy. Particular attention must be paid to multi-modal projects and inland waterways that link the Bay of Bengal coastal ports to the South and Southeast Asian landlocked hinterlands.

Despite its increasing geostrategic centrality, the Bay of Bengal remains one of the world’s least integrated regions today, with abysmal levels of connectivity and formidable barriers to cooperation. No longer constrained by its exclusive focus on Southeast Asia and limited diplomatic resources, Nay Pyi Taw now has the chance to concentrate on BIMSTEC and revive the Myanmar’s historic connections across the Bay of Bengal, especially with Sri Lanka, Eastern India, or Bangladesh.

Dr. Constantino Xavier is Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, Brookings India, New Delhi. [email protected]