Revival of BIMSTEC at the Kathmandu Summit?

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By Shruti Godbole

On August 30 and 31, Nepal will host the fourth BIMSTEC Summit in Kathmandu with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other heads of government expected to attend the summit. Founded in 1997, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) includes Bangladesh, Bhutan,India, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand, and Sri Lanka, but has often struggled to develop regional cooperation and greater connectivity between South and Southeast Asia. To discuss the initiative, Brookings India hosted a public discussion with a special address by Chutintorn Gongsakdi, Ambassador of Thailand to India. This was followed by a panel discussion featuring Constantino Xavier, Prabir De, Rajiv Bhatia and Joyeeta Bhattacharjee, moderated by Dhruva Jaishankar.

Ambassador Gongsakdi highlighted Thailand’s commitment to BIMSTEC because of a shared economic future with India and South Asia more broadly. He believes that BIMSTEC now has the potential to grow, unlike in the past, because each of the members now have greater economic potential. Amidst strategic and economic competition between rising economies, Ambassador Gongsakdi emphasised the importance of multilateral institutions such as ASEAN and BIMSTEC to propel growth and prosperity in Asia. Multilateralism presents a way of structuring relations with big powers, especially on difficult issues. He also highlighted the critical role that India, as one of the fastest growing economies, can play in driving the BIMSTEC agenda.

Multilateralism presents a way of structuring relations with big powers, especially on difficult issues.

Ambassador Gongsakdi recommended that the BIMSTEC agenda should outline five broad areas of cooperation instead of the 14 that currently exist: connectivity, trade and investment, people to people ties, counter-terrorism and security, and science and technology. Counter-terrorism and security in particular are new issues to be considered within the BIMSTEC framework. From Thailand’s point of view some of the important areas of interest are: a masterplan for BIMSTEC connectivity focusing on land and sea; BIMSTEC coastal shipping agreement connecting ports; connecting the trilateral highway with the East-West Economic Corridor; and the BIMSTEC Free Trade Agreement.

Counter-terrorism and security in particular are new issues to be considered within the BIMSTEC framework.

In the panel discussion that followed, Joyeeta Bhattacharjee discussed the complementary nature of BIMSTEC and SAARC and emphasised that the two groupings are not in competition with each other. India is undoubtedly an anchor for BIMSTEC but it remains to be seen if India will accord it the attention and privilege it requires amongst the different multilateral groupings that India is a part of. Prabir De highlighted that while there has been some progress on BIMSTEC since the framework agreement was signed in 2004, there have only been four summits in the last 21 years.

Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia stressed that the real test of a successful summit would be its continued relevance in the long term. While the signing of a free trade agreement in Kathmandu might be an impossible goal, consensus on five to six key agreements would be considerable progress. He also underscored the importance of the BIMSTEC initiative requiring support across the government spectrum and not just being driven by the Ministry of External Affairs on the Indian side. Constantino Xavier stressed that the main barrier to any improvement is the lack of funding for the BIMSTEC secretariat, which was only established in 2014 and has less than 10 people working as staff. With a meagre budget of only 200,000 USD, operational issues are hindering cooperation efforts between the BIMSTEC countries.

In conclusion, India can play a pivotal role in driving the BIMSTEC agenda. However, its leadership must be inclusive, with an important role for the smaller partners in the group. It is important to remember that BIMSTEC does not compete with other multilaterals such as ASEAN but rather enhances South Asia- ASEAN integration.

Geoffrey Flugge, a research intern at Brookings India, contributed to this report.

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