Questioning the need for the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) when a larger body with more or the less same membership exists is not relevant. But what is relevant is the usefulness, if any, of BIMSTEC beyond an occasional photo-op for the leaders of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lana and the two South East Asian nations, Myanmar and Thailand, in salubrious settings. Kathmandu hosted the fourth summit last week, though the body was formed in 1997 and such meetings were supposed to be an annual affair. Sri Lanka is the new chairman of BIMSTEC and would host the next summit.
The objective was to harness regional energies and cooperation in a globalised world for giving a meaningful platform to the littoral and adjoining States of the Bay of Bengal. With the rise of China the task of advancing such cooperation has at once become necessary and difficult, with the host of the summit itself swayed by the superior lure of the Chinese economic and military power. Most BIMSTEC members have signed on President Xi’s Belt and Road project, with India the lone hold-out despite pressure from the Chinese to join. The lure of infrastructure expenditure on the project has clearly spurred the smaller nations to become a party to the Belt and Road Initiative, but India has reason to read between the lines and see a sinister design.
However, India has to offer its own alternative to the nations in the region keen to profit from the Chinese project, despite the real threat of indebtedness and of a constriction of sovereignty as is already visible in the case of Pakistan. At one level, BIMSTEC is a better platform for India’s Act East thrust since the malevolent influence of Pakistan as seen in the case of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation does not hang over it. However, as the undeclared leader of BIMSTEC, India has to energize the body with a meaningful project which can engage the member-States and enhance the country’s influence and prestige. Of that, unfortunately, there is no sign as yet. Maybe without a sound treasury influencing friends and neighbours is not easy. China began spreading its wings only after it fortified its cheque-book. India is not there, at least not as yet.