BIMSTEC summit likely to adopt charter, roadmap for connectivity
The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is set to adopt a charter and a roadmap for connectivity at the summit to be hosted by Sri Lanka on March 30, marking the continuing pivot away from Saarc.
The BIMSTEC charter, which will give greater cohesion to the group that includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand, is expected to be signed during the summit, which will be held virtually. The BIMSTEC master plan for transport connectivity is also expected to be adopted at the meet, people familiar with the matter said.
Senior officials of BIMSTEC countries will meet in-person in Colombo on March 28, while the foreign ministers of all member states, except Myanmar, will meet on March 29. Myanmar’s foreign minister will participate virtually. The summit on March 30 will be a completely virtual affair, largely because of concerns among member states about the situation in Myanmar following last year’s military coup.
The summit is being held virtually because some member states, including India, were reluctant to share a platform with Myanmar’s junta, which has shown no signs of moving the country back towards democracy. Sri Lanka was keen on hosting an in-person summit but the idea was jettisoned because of this issue, the people said.
Bangladesh and Thailand have been among the member states pushing for the adoption of the BIMSTEC charter to give greater focus to the work of the group established in June 1997 as BIST-EC (Bangladesh-India-Sri Lanka-Thailand Economic Cooperation). Bangladesh foreign minister AK Abdul Momen recently said the charter will help BIMSTEC become a dynamic and productive regional organisation through meaningful cooperation between the members.
The people cited above said it was not as if the charter would lead to an overnight transformation of the group, but acknowledged that the adoption of rules, a framework and long-term goals is expected to streamline the operations of BIMSTEC and allow the organisation to finally deliver on its potential.
“So far, it has been a hotchpotch of things but a charter can help galvanise better cooperation. This is a grouping with no major problems among the members and there is potential in areas such as fisheries and tourism,” one of the people cited above said.
The BIMSTEC master plan for transport connectivity is a vision for implementing multimodal connectivity projects for greater regional integration. It will seek to combine shipping routes with road transport for the movement of people and cargo.
For India, the focus on BIMSTEC also marks the move away from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), which has largely become moribund because of differences between New Delhi and Islamabad. Saarc functions completely on the basis of consensus and has not been able to meet since 2016, when India decided against attending a summit in Islamabad over terrorism-related concerns following an attack in Uri that was blamed on Pakistan-based terrorists.
With work on several key initiatives under Saarc stymied because of the breakdown of the relationship with Pakistan, India began focusing on other regional groupings such as BIMSTEC and Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). This focus has sharpened the Taliban assumed power in Afghanistan, another member of Saarc, last year.
Sameer Patil, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), said the engagement with BIMSTEC reflects India’s diversification from Saarc. “India has realised it is in its interest to do greater engagement with countries on its eastern flank rather than the west. This is a belief reinforced by the plateauing of its relations with Pakistan and the declining security situation in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover,” he said.
“Even though Myanmar has slid back from democracy, India realises it is worth taking a calculated risk to engage with the region while simultaneously keeping away from public engagement with the junta,” he added.