Panaji: With the India-Pakistan row blocking any significant progress in the Saarc (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) grouping of South Asian countries, India may be looking at Bimstec (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) to push regional integration.
By convention, a Bimstec outreach is planned at the 8th BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) Summit in Goa beginning 15 October. By tradition, leaders of regional grouping of countries adjoining the host nation are invited, providing India an opportunity to engage them.
India opted for Bimstec countries instead of Saarc grouping, eliminating Pakistan.
Bimstec comprises countries in the Bay of Bengal such as Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand as well as the landlocked Bhutan and Nepal. Bimstec has all members of the Saarc countries except Afghanistan, Maldives and Pakistan.
Myanmar will be represented by democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
Saarc member countries have increasingly shown frustration with Pakistan’s refusal to implement Saarc agreements. Pakistan refused to sign three key agreements at the Kathmandu Saarc summit in 2014 for establishing connectivity through land, rail and power grid. India signed a motor vehicles agreement within a sub-regional grouping of Saarc named Bbin (Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal) after Pakistan refused to join.
Regional integration would happen “through Saarc or outside it,” Modi had warned at the Kathmandu summit, if the grouping failed to agree on the pacts.
“We see Bimstec as an important vector to our Act East policy. Next year, we celebrate 20 years of establishment of this organization. That is a very auspicious time to rejuvenate and reinvigorate itself,” Preeti Saran, secretary (east) in the ministry of external affairs told reporters last week.
“What is very positive about this grouping is there are a lot of commonalities among the member countries and there are no issues among them. Each of them enjoys excellent bilateral relationship. It’s a very positive agenda,” she added. However, Amar Sinha, secretary (economic relations) rejected the argument that India was choosing Bimstec over Saarc owing to its deteriorating relationship with Pakistan. “The decision was taken in April, way before the Uri attacks. These are separate organizations with different roles and I don’t think one is substitute for the other.”
Ram Upendra Das, professor at the Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS) said India should push for an ambitious and comprehensive trade agreement with Bimstec countries making it a stepping stone for other Saarc nations to integrate with the South East Asian economies.
The initiative to establish the Bangladesh-India-Sri Lanka-Thailand Economic Cooperation (Bistec) was undertaken by Thailand in 1994 to explore economic cooperation on a sub-regional basis involving contiguous countries in South-east and South Asia around the Bay of Bengal. Myanmar was admitted in December 1997 and the initiative was renamed Bimstec.