New Delhi: Last weekend, India hosted the heads of state and governments of a regional grouping that brings together most countries in South Asia and some in Southeast Asia in an outreach session with the leaders of the five leading emerging economies or Brics in Goa.
Brics stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
The South Asia-Southeast Asia grouping is known by its rather unwieldy name of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation or by the acronym Bimstec. It comprises Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand, and brings together 1.5 billion people or 21% of the world population and a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of over $2.5 trillion.
Eyebrows were raised as to why India invited Bimstec leaders and not those of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation or Saarc, specially as India has spent more political capital and effort to make Saarc work than on Bimstec.
But it’s clear that Bimstec more naturally lends itself to regional integration—physical connectivity as well as economic cooperation—than Saarc which is dominated by India and Pakistan and hamstrung by tensions between the two. Therefore, Bimstec seems an attractive alternative to Saarc.
For India, making Bimstec work is important as for years, it has blamed Pakistan for holding back Saarc. As the biggest member of Bimstec, it’s up to India to take all members with it and show tangible results.
In terms of connectivity, Bimstec has at last three major projects that, when finished, could transform the movement of goods and vehicles through the countries in the grouping.
One is the Kaladan Multimodal project that seeks to link India and Myanmar. The project envisages connecting Kolkata to Sittwe port in Myanmar, and then Mizoram by river and road. India and Myanmar had signed a framework agreement in 2008 for the implementation of this project. It’s yet to be finished.
Another is the Asian Trilateral Highway connecting India and Thailand through Myanmar. The highway will run from Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar and represents a significant step in establishing connectivity between India and Southeast Asian countries. The project is expected to be completed this year.
Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) have signed a pact for the movement of goods and vehicles among them. The pact, which was signed last year, is awaiting internal clearances of some members. Trial runs of trucks between Bangladesh and India have begun.
Bimstec also lends itself to sub-regional economic cooperation—something proposed by India and other member countries of Saarc. The grouping has not progressed much in terms of economic cooperation or physical connectivity since the mid-1980s when it was formed.
So, under Bimstec, economic cooperation between Sri Lanka and India’s southern states could take off if all sides sign off on it.
Similarly, BBIN could prove itself as a regional economic sub-grouping, given the willingness of all the countries in the grouping to cooperate.