The Growing Significance of BIMSTEC in India’s Foreign Policy

Image credit: Joshua Issac, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Like that of any other state, realizing the national interests and goals are the primary agenda of India’s foreign policy. In this dynamic world, India has to foster a foreign policy which incorporates the smooth conduct of regional relationships through multilateral partnerships enabling mutual cooperation and growth. Being a prominent actor in South Asia, the foreign policy of India has always been friendly to its neighbours boosting its Neighbourhood First Policy and Look East Policy. With SAARC proving to be insufficient, India is now eyeing towards BIMSTEC thereby striving to materialize its Act East Policy.

Formed in June 6, 1997 through Bangkok Declaration, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is a sub-regional organization that promotes economic development and mutual cooperation in shared interests among member states. Comprising of five states from South Asia (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka) and two countries from South East Asia (Myanmar and Thailand), the organization enables regional integration by acting as a bridge between the two regions. Though the organization was mild and slow in the initial stages, the rising potential of the organisation and its strategic relevance led to the strengthening of the organization.

BIMSTEC revitalizes India’s regional cooperation in the Bay of Bengal region along with deepening its relations with ASEAN. The invitation by the Prime Minister of India to BIMSTEC leaders for his second swearing in ceremony instead of SAARC leaders indicated the shift of India’s foreign policy towards east affirming the importance of India’s Neighbourhood First and Act East Policy in the coming years. The COVID-19 pandemic further increased the opportunity for India to collaborate with its neighbours rigorously providing a new dimension to foreign policy implementation and diplomacy.

India’s Strategic Interest in BIMSTEC

The strategic shift from SAARC to BIMSTEC happened after the recent strains in the bilateral relations between India and Pakistan making India to look for a parallel platform which would be devoid of Pakistan. The importance of maritime neighbourhood along with continental neighbours and India’s need to negate the Chinese influence further added to the shift in focus to BIMSTEC. In addition, the trade agreement like the SAARC Preferential Trade Agreement (SAAFTA) and other such initiatives of SAARC are not yet realized and there exits suspicion and disparity in the balance of power within SAARC leaving India to find an alternative in BIMSTEC. As per the 2020 report by the Ministry of External Affairs, out of the 14 priority areas of cooperation in BIMSTEC, India is the lead country in areas of counter terrorism and transnational crime, transport and communication, tourism and environment and disaster management. 

For India, the strategic significance of BIMSTEC forms the crux of its foreign policy. The Bay of Bengal is the largest bay in the world which is strategically located linking the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean and acts as a connection to the Strait of Malacca. Carrying one fourth of the global trade, it becomes the access point to India for resources including energy source like natural gas reserves and securing this economically significant region is important for India to enlarge its export market. The significance of BIMSTEC is also due to its regional integration and maritime security factors where India can also realize its ‘blue economy’ ambitions. The organisation also enables connectivity and development projects of India like the SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) initiative which strengthens the economic, maritime and security cooperation through the sharing of information, surveillance measures and increased capabilities in the Indian Ocean region. With China’s aggressive nature in various areas including the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) through strategies like debt trap, BIMSTEC helps India in countering China multilaterally. This requires economic, political, security and maritime cooperation that is enabled through this organization. 

The abode of 1.5 billion people, BIMSTEC has projects like the BIMSTEC Free Trade Agreement and the BIMSTEC Coastal Shipping Agreement to carry forward. Realizing the role of BIMSTEC to expand the country’s strategic influence, India hosted the BIMSTEC Leader’s Retreat in Goa in 2016 discussing connectivity, trade and sustainable use of resources. On March 21, 2017, the BIMSTEC National Security Chiefs‘ first meeting was held in New Delhi where the need for a maritime security cooperation was emphasized along with implying the significance of Bay of Bengal region as a common security space. In 2016, India also held the BRICS-BIMSTEC Summit in Goa to boost India’s outreach in the region.

BIMSTEC as a Connection to the East

BIMSTEC connects India’s northeast with BIMSTEC countries and act as a platform to realize India’s Neighbourhood First Policy and Act East Policy. The cooperation enables economic development in the region, removing its isolated nature and address the issues faced by the region and also provides better connectivity. India boosts the education cooperation by providing scholarships to BIMSTEC member countries and enhances the people-to-people linkages through heritage and culture. The India- Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway which is under talks to extend it further to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Corridor and the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) initiative are the focus areas of BIMSTEC. The connectivity and mutual development in the region are also enhanced through cooperation in the maritime area by connecting inland waterways providing access to landlocked states, facilitating movements of resources and also ensures the security by integrating the coastal guards of the states concerned. Furthermore, when the connectivity and trade relations with ASEAN and SAARC increase, BIMSTEC also reaps the benefits as members like Thailand and Myanmar are common members of these organizations. 

BIMSTEC: Challenges before India

Although BIMSTEC possess huge potential and opportunities, the organization bears certain challenges due to lack of resources and coordination among states with diverging national interests. The impression of BIMSTEC being an India-dominated bloc and the overlap of countries and interests in both SAARC and BIMSTEC pose as a challenge to India-BIMSTEC cooperation. Meanwhile the dependency of BIMSTEC members on China hinders the complete realization of India’s national interest. The trump card used by Nepal as its position as a buffer state between India and China, make India go lenient towards Nepal. The withdrawal of Nepal from the BIMSTEC joint military exercise in 2018 proves this implying the disparity of interest among member states in the smooth conduct of the organization. For BIMSTEC, understanding the current geopolitical scenario will also be a challenge in its way forward. The aggressiveness of China in the South China Sea and its assertive nature in Nepal along with China’s strong economic and military engagement with other South Asian nations other than India, should be understood by BIMSTEC for a smooth conduct in the coming years especially in the post -COVID era.

BIMSTEC is the only platform through which India can project and extract its interests in South Asia without a hindrance from Pakistan, also enabling India to counter the Chinese influence in its neighbourhood. To ensure the effective utilization of the potential of BIMSTEC, the organization has to prioritize the connectivity initiatives and has to open up to extend the cooperation via powers like Australia, Japan and United States. This cooperation is enhanced with assistance from multilateral platforms like Asian Development Bank where India can project its interests without compromising the interests of the other member states. However, BIMSTEC should not be viewed as a replacement to SAARC as both has different scope and functions though some of the interest and aims of the organizations coincide with each other at times. 

In the current pandemic situation, BIMSTEC becomes the platform for stronger collective action among member states and assist the member countries to efficiently distribute the COVID-19 vaccines. Though the BIMSTEC partnerships are found in areas related to health, knowledge and education, there is a possibility that the organization may reconsider about cooperation in all sectors as the whole world is still economically down to the pandemic and cooperation and mutual assistance may be more focused on areas that are directly involved in the economy enabling the BIMSTEC nations to revive its economy. At this juncture, scholars have stated that the pandemic can be used as an opportunity by India to consolidate and strengthen India’s Act East Policy and the Neighbourhood First Policy by collaborations in crisis management. The 17th meeting of BIMSTEC held on 1 April 2021 virtually in Colombo, Sri Lanka welcomed the proposal to conduct the Fifth BIMSTEC Summit in the next few months which will be paid close attention by regional states and strategic analysts as the trade relations and economy is likely to be discussed amid the pandemic. 

Induja J. S. is a Master’s student at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.