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Author: Chandril Chattopadhyay, III year of LL.B(Hons.) From Department of Law, the University of Burdwan.

The History of BIMSTEC

Human history have found the necessity for certain institutions to drive socio-political developments while ensuring economic security to the member states, meaning that it contains the essential strategies to counter the existing socio-political threats while making sure of finding new possibilities in regions that they cater to. The BIMSTEC or the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation came as a means of regional cooperation between member countries like Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand that came together in 1997 through the Bangkok Declaration, with Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan joining the initiative in 2004. These countries have agreed to look at different aspects of the socio-geopolitical needs and take responsibility of each aspect. The Transport and Communication, Environment and Disaster Management, Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime, and the Tourism sectors are headed by India.

With the ongoing uncertainties worldwide pertaining to foreign policies, the sanctions after the Ukraine- Russia crisis, the 5th BIMSTEC Summit, 2022 in Colombo can be seen to bring about a reinforced relationship developing mechanism between the member countries. The neutrality of the BIMSTEC lies in the greater impact rendering by the two biggest economies, India and Thailand and they act to buffer the geo-political domination of China in the South Asian, Indo- Pacific and Eurasian region.

This summit led to the formulation of the First Charter of BIMSTEC, BIMSTEC Master Plan for Transport Connectivity and BIMSTEC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters. The BIMSTEC Coastal Shipping Agreement and the Motor Vehicles Agreement however did not see any finalization or nodding from the member countries. Over the last few years, BIMSTEC has seen dormancy because of the border crisis with Nepal, inaction in the Myanmar coup, the detention of Sri Lankan fisherman.

BIMSTEC and Blue Economy

The most important aspect of BIMSTEC must be in finding the potential for Blue Economy (BE) in the region. There has been a failure on the part of maintaining the BE while serving the sustainability factor in the Bay of Bengal region in the absence of consolidated marine spatial policies. The public and private entities needed to come together for the development of an ecosystem for sustainable use of the natural ocean resources while facilitating interaction between conflicting commons and removing the harmful impacts on the ocean to help in the balanced utilization of the maritime assets. The Indian Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi has also promised a contribution of 1 Million USD for structuring the BIMSTEC secretariat and 3 Million USD for the BIMSTEC Centre for Weather and Climate in Noida, India which will help in mitigating several natural disasters in the BIMSTEC zone.

The policies must abide by the International Law especially with the failure in the dialogic diplomacy in the boycott of the 19th SAARC summit in Islamabad after the Uri attack. The enhanced engagement of BIMSTEC with the member countries will happen only with primary problem solving in terms of economic, political and logistical crisis. The idea put forward by Sri Lanka in their “Food Security and BIMSTEC: Lessons from Sri Lanka’s Smart Farming” deals with four primary issues pertaining to access to food, availability, stabilization and utility of resources that could be controlled to an extent by the inclusion of Private-Public Partnership model and by the use of Information and Communication Technology . This “Smart Farming” method that could be utilized by the other countries in BIMSTEC as well.

Key issues of the BIMSTEC 2022

Robin Ramachandran ( Executive Director, Asia Centre, Thailand) spoke about the necessity for the improvement of the Refugee Conditions , emphasizing on the Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar, while Nepal with its motto of ” Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepal” spoke about the necessary economic diplomacy and development, while aiming at bettering the strained relationship with India . The land locked countries like Nepal and Bhutan could be benefitted immensely with certain economic reforms or resolutions to extend the benefits of the cooperative marine policies within the framework of BIMSTEC.

Several connectivity projects like the Trilateral Highway project connecting India, Myanmar, Thailand, the South East Highway (in association with Asian Development Bank) project of Bhutan shall make enhanced attempts at creating a strong regional cooperation. The International Convention on the simplification and harmonization of Customs procedures by the World Customs Organization also called the Revised Kyoto Protocol aims at precisely maintaining transparency and predictability of Customs actions, standardization process of goods declaration, use of ICT, compliance with minimum Customs control, risk management and audit based controls, coordination with border agencies, etc. Bhutan in 2014 had acceded to the same and now has relaxed trading policies with the neighbouring countries.

In the recent years the Bay of Bengal region has been in the middle of major geopolitical changes, being at the centre of two major economic blocs, besides being an extension of the sovereign diplomacy in South Asia. It can help deal with issues like the domination of South Talpatti or Purbasha region in the India- Bangladesh border or the lesser talked about maritime boundary issue between Bangladesh and Myanmar for which Bangladesh knocked at the door of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea and won a favourable judgment in 2012 that sustained the country’s claim of an exclusive economic and territorial rights over 200 nautical miles in the Bay of Bengal besides granting a share of the outer continental shelf beyond the 200 miles and 12 mile territorial sea around St. Martin’s Island. The Tribunal of the UNCLOS is governed by the Rule of law and principally subjects the disputes to the idea of “equity” in terms of GDP growth, economic status, population and other factors of a country as against the “equidistant” system marked by boundary calculations only.

The future of BIMSTEC and the way forward

BIMSTEC could be seen to strengthen India’s foreign policies of “Act East” and “Neighbourhood First”. India could, with its efforts, act as the protective elder brother in the BIMSTEC. This could happen by means of cooperation can have the bench of the ICJ or the International Tribunals that can look at fostering a better supervisory approach in bringing together harmony in the Indo-pacific zone. The environment and the marine ecosystem development could be seen as yet another aspect that the BIMSTEC can take up and a better integration or interaction with the ASEAN and the SAARC would mean that the diplomatic ties will be strengthened and the security threat shall be in check substantially. The BIMSTEC thus must gear up from its position of latent supervisory to an active overseeing and the 2022 summit is a beginning to such a testament.


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