Recently, it has been 25 years since the signing of the Bangkok Declaration which launched a modest regional grouping of countries including Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand with the acronym, BIST-EC.

Three counties (Nepal, Bhutan, and Myanmar) joined it later to make it the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).

Key achievements of the Regional Grouping:

  • It has prioritised the sectors of cooperation, reducing them from the unwieldy fourteen to the more manageable seven,  with each member-state serving as the lead country for the assigned sector.
  • It has taken measures to strengthen the Secretariat, although some members are yet to extend adequate personnel support to it.
  • The grouping has also registered progress in combating terrorism, forging security cooperation, and creating mechanisms and practices for better management of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Challenges ahead:

  • Continuing inability to produce a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement ( FTA ) 18 years after the signing of the Framework Agreement.
  • Only limited progress has been achieved so far in terms of connectivity, despite the adoption of the Master Plan for Connectivity supported by the Asian Development Bank ( ADB ).
  • The movement toward establishing the BIMSTEC Development Fund is minimal.

What is BIMSTEC?

In an effort to integrate the region, the grouping was formed in 1997, originally with Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and later Nepal, Myanmar, and Bhutan also joined it. BIMSTEC, which now includes 5 countries from South Asia and two from ASEAN  is a bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia. It includes all the major countries of South Asia, except  Maldives, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. It's first summit was held in Thailand while Sri Lanka is currently chairing the grouping.

Why does the region matter?

Over one-fifth of the world's population live in the seven countries around it, and they have a combined GDP close to $2.7 trillion.  The Bay also has vast untapped natural resources. One-fourth of the world's traded goods cross the Bay every year.

Why is BIMSTEC important for India?

As the region's largest economy,  India has a lot to stake. BIMSTEC connects not only South and Southeast Asia,  but also the ecologies of the Great Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal. For India, it is a natural platform to fulfill our key foreign policy priorities of 'Neighbourhood First' and 'Act East'. For India, one key reason for engagement is the vast potential that is unlocked with stronger connectivity.  Almost 300 million people or roughly one-quarter of  India's population, live in the four coastal states adjacent to the Bay of Bengal ( Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal ). From the strategic perspective, the Bay of Bengal, a funnel to the Malacca straits, has emerged as a key theatre for an increasingly assertive China in maintaining its access route to the Indian Ocean.  As China mounts assertive activities in the Bay of Bengal region,  with increased submarine movement and ship visits in the Indian Ocean, it is in India's interest to consolidate its internal engagement among the domestic countries.

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