As the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) is unlikely to make a comeback, the election of Imran Khan in Pakistan notwithstanding, India’s efforts to promote regional cooperation will continue to focus on the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec). But unless leaders from the seven Bimstec member-states use this week’s summit in Kathmandu to strengthen the organization’s capacity and set clear priorities, we will be left with just a few more speeches and declarations of intent.
India has a special responsibility to prove it sees Bimstec as more than a rebound relationship to Saarc. In October 2016, just after the cancellation of Saarc summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi convened a Brics-Bimstec outreach summit in Goa, and then promised to revive Bimstec as India’s priority organization to promote regional cooperation. He emphasized that the Bay of Bengal countries had “shared aspirations for growth, development, commerce and technology”, and that Bimstec was the natural platform for India to simultaneously implement its regional connectivity, Neighbourhood First and Act East policies.
While Modi spoke in Goa, India had still not placed its director to the Bimstec secretariat in Dhaka, more than two years after its establishment. Both Bangladesh and Bhutan had deputed their officials. Also indicating India’s lack of interest, the ministry of external affairs’ (MEA’s) estimated budget for Bimstec that year was just ₹12 lakh.
India’s commitment to Bimstec, then popularly touted as a “Saarc minus one” alternative, subsequently improved, but only marginally. It took another eight months after Modi’s Goa speech for the MEA to finally find an official from the Indian Defence Accounts Service to depute to the secretariat, and its 2016-17 budget for Bimstec increased to ₹4.5 crore. But while conducting research for my report “Bridging the Bay of Bengal: Toward a Stronger BIMSTEC”, I found a deeply neglected organization, with a chronically understaffed and underfunded secretariat that is unable to respond to the high, and often unrealistic, Indian expectations.
Suddenly in the limelight after being neglected for a decade, Bimstec is now supposed to perform at the level of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations or the European Union when it has a fraction of the resources of Saarc. Bimstec is mandated to deepen regional cooperation through nothing less than 14 working groups, covering everything under the Bay of Bengal sun, including a free trade agreement, poverty alleviation, tourism, energy and climate change, and even counterterrorism and disaster management.
Bimstec will continue to underperform in each and every regard unless member-states commit significant resources to strengthen the organization and India, in particular, takes the initiative to perform with more than words on three fronts.
First, nothing will progress unless the Bimstec secretariat is significantly empowered. Regions often lead to multilateral organizations, but strong organizations can also make or revive regions. With a paltry budget of $0.2 million and a total staff of less than 10 people, including the secretary general and three directors, the secretariat will need significantly more human and financial resources to implement its bold mandate. Member-states will also have to delegate autonomy to the secretariat to hire technical experts, set the multilateral agenda, and serve as the driving force between summits and ministerial meetings. If leaders fail to meet at the highest level, as during last year’s 20th anniversary, they can’t expect officials to perform magical implementation.
Second, India will need to take on an informal Bimstec leadership role and let its practical commitments lead by example. Officials from Thailand, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka have repeatedly expressed their willingness to focus on Bimstec, provided India walks the talk and takes the first step. With China breathing down their necks, several of these smaller states are welcoming greater Indian initiative across the region, even if only to tactically increase their own bargaining power with Beijing.
Unlike in the past, where multilateral initiatives like Saarc were used to balance India’s subcontinental predominance, the ball of regional cooperation is now in New Delhi’s court. This requires taking on an asymmetric burden, ensuring that India is always represented at the highest level and also willing to walk the extra mile, whether by keeping the momentum diplomatically or committing financial and human resources to strengthen Bimstec. Showing up on time and following up on commitments is often half the success of a multilateral organization.
Finally, Bimstec will have to prioritize economic connectivity, which is the prerequisite for regional integration in any other domain. Not surprisingly, while the Bimstec free trade agreement has stalled once again, India has instead focused on security issues, including by hosting the first meeting of the Bimstec national security chiefs. However, with its limited resources, Bimstec’s success continues to primarily hinge on removing the formidable physical and regulatory obstacles to the free flow of goods, capital, services and people between its member-states. Geostrategic imperatives, security dialogues, or counterterrorism cooperation initiatives are no substitute for Bimstec’s primary mandate to increase regional connectivity and revive the Bay of Bengal community.
Constantino Xavier is fellow, foreign policy studies, at Brookings India, New Delhi.
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