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BIMSTEC imperative for India’s regional ambitions

Hindustan Times
Prof. Syed Munir Khasru
July 3, 2024


Agartala, Oct 30 (ANI): People gather as the Akhaura-Agartala rail link enters the Indo-Bangladesh border during its trial run, at Nischintapur, in Agartala on Monday. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will jointly inaugurate the cross-border railway project on November 01.

In its existence of over two decades, its significance has been overshadowed by other regional blocs, with the most prominent being the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has become moribund due to the souring of India-Pakistan ties. There has been a renewal of attention on the BIMSTEC in recent years as India seeks to strengthen its strategic partnerships and counterbalance the influence of other major regional powers, particularly China and its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The BIMSTEC charter was signed and adopted during the 5th BIMSTEC Summit held in virtual format in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on March 30 this year, paving the way for partnerships and admission of new members and observers. Key areas of cooperation include economic development, trade, investment, technology transfer, connectivity, and people-to-people exchanges. One of the key advantages of BIMSTEC is its strategic location, spanning the Indian Ocean and the Southeast Asian regions. This positioning offers India a unique opportunity to bridge the gap between South Asia and Southeast Asia, fostering greater economic integration and enhancing regional connectivity.

India can play a pivotal role in shaping the region’s economic and infrastructural development agenda, which is crucial given the region’s infrastructure gap estimated at $1.7 trillion per year. aligns with India’s broader foreign policy objectives, including the Act East Policy, emphasising the importance of promoting a rules-based international order, strengthening regional cooperation, and ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific region. By actively engaging with BIMSTEC, India can fortify its position as a responsible regional power, committed to fostering peace, stability, and prosperity in its immediate neighbourhood.

One of the critical areas where BIMSTEC can yield tangible benefits is in the realm of trade and investment. BIMSTEC members collectively represent a market of over 1.8 billion people, approximately 22% of the global population, and a combined Gross Domestic Product estimated at $4.5 trillion. By enhancing economic cooperation and removing barriers to trade and investment, India can tap into this vast economic potential, creating new business opportunities and fostering inclusive growth across the region. Currently, intra-BIMSTEC trade accounts for only around 6% of the total trade among member countries, highlighting the untapped potential for deeper economic integration.

BIMSTEC provides a platform for addressing shared challenges, such as climate change, natural disasters, and transnational security threats. Collective action and cooperation in these areas can not only strengthen regional resilience but also reinforce India’s position as a responsible global stakeholder committed to sustainable development and regional stability. This is crucial given the region’s vulnerability to the climate crisis, with rising sea levels and extreme weather events posing significant risks to coastal communities and economies.

BIMSTEC’s member States collectively possess a diverse array of natural resources, skilled labour, and manufacturing capabilities that can be leveraged to create robust regional value chains. By fostering deeper economic integration, harmonising regulatory frameworks, and investing in regional infrastructure projects, India can tap into the complementary strengths of its neighbours to establish efficient and cost-effective supply chains. This could involve sourcing raw materials and intermediate goods from resource-rich countries like Myanmar, leveraging low-cost labour in nations like Nepal and Bhutan for labour-intensive manufacturing processes, and utilising India’s technological prowess and logistical capabilities to add value to global value chains. By fostering regional economic interdependence, India can gain a competitive edge in attracting foreign investment for the region, integrating into global production networks, and playing a pivotal node in the intricate web of global value chains.

There is a need for greater political will and commitment from all members. Historically, progress within BIMSTEC has been hampered by internal political dynamics, divergent priorities, and a lack of sustained engagement. India, as the largest economy and a major regional player, must lead in driving the organisation’s agenda and fostering a shared vision for regional integration. Secondly, BIMSTEC must prioritise tangible projects and initiatives that deliver measurable benefits. This could include enhancing physical connectivity by developing regional infrastructure projects like the BIMSTEC Transport Connectivity Master Plan, fostering greater people-to-people exchanges through initiatives like the BIMSTEC network of policy think tanks, and collaborating on tourism, agriculture, and renewable energy. Currently, only a handful of BIMSTEC projects, like the BIMSTEC Grid Interconnection and the BIMSTEC Motor Vehicle Agreement, have made notable progress. Thirdly, India must approach BIMSTEC as a complementary initiative to its other regional and global engagements, such as Quad, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), and the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI), and leverage BIMSTEC’s unique strengths and partnerships to further its broader strategic objectives in the Indo-Pacific.

Success depends on astute diplomacy, tangible results, and solidifying India’s regional leadership. It is an opportunity to pursue mutually beneficial partnerships, sustainable development, and a prosperous Indo-Pacific vision. With an effectively functioning BIMSTEC, India can create an interconnected, secure neighbourhood while counterbalancing other major regional powers.

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