The idea of BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), an amalgamation of Thailand's Look West Policy and India's Look East Policy, now seems ready to take-off ten years after its inception. The second summit of BIMSTEC ended with a sense of optimism towards early implementation of the cooperation on the agreed priority sectors. The agenda finalized in the summit reflects that BIMSTEC is likely to prefer a functionalist strategy of developing the sector-wise cooperative structures rather envisaging a full-fledged framework of a regional organization with long term goals. Certainly, a strategy of enhancing sectoral cooperation is a welcome step and if it works properly at the implementation level, the future of the BIMSTEC region will be more promising.
Nevertheless, the tendency to view BIMSTEC only as a sub-regional framework of cooperation linking South and Southeast Asia underestimates its potential of evolving as a regional organization like SAARC. Though BIMSTEC is a bridge between South and Southeast Asia, there exists ample scope of strengthening multi-sectoral cooperation within BIMSTEC, which can facilitate its evolution as a viable regional organization. However, even the second summit of BIMSTEC failed to give any signal in this regard, as evident from the fact that no decision was taken to establish a permanent secretariat for BIMSTEC.
As far as India is concerned, BIMSTEC in comparison to SAARC offers a much more viable alternative of harnessing the regional economic complementarities through the formation of a regional bloc. In economic terms, the BIMSTEC Free Trade Agreement (BFTA) offers much than SAFTA. Apart from FTA in goods, the BFTA points out the aim of concluding an FTA in services and investment while the SAFTA lacks the provisions of FTA in goods. In addition, the establishment of BFTA is based on a negative list approach that is more promising than the positive list approach list followed by the SAFTA. Furthermore, the BFTA offers greater possibility of trade creation than SAFTA. With a combined GDP of US$750 billion the potential of trade creation under BFTA is estimated to be between US$43 and 59 billion.
Moreover, the prospect of political stability in the BIMSTEC region is brighter than the SAARC given the presence of crisis-ridden Pakistan and Afghanistan in the SAARC, and prevailing animosity between India and Pakistan, which make the realization of the SAARC goals a myth. However, the purpose of the argument is not to undermine the role of SAARC. Definitely, SAARC is driven by a different spectrum of strategic imperatives.
It is imperative on the part of India to materialize the potential of regional cooperation in its eastern frontier. There are two alternatives available before India in this regard - BIMSTEC, and China-led Kunming Initiative. Kunming Initiative is an idea to develop a growth quadrangle to promote sub regional cooperation comprising of China's Yunnan Province, India's Northeast, Myanmar and Bangladesh. However, given the increasing Sinicization of the northern Myanmar after the opening of the borders with China, India has been skeptical to the idea of Kunming Initiative. In this backdrop, the BIMSTEC provides an additional advantage to India to develop the design of a regional cooperation keeping away the Chinese influence.
However, the BIMSTEC can not evolve as a full-fledged regional cooperative framework unless and until a sense of community or region is developed in the minds of the people. Given the diverse cultural landscape of the region, the task of evolving a common sense of identity is likely to be very difficult, but some efforts in this direction can be made by reviving the historical cultural linkages, such as the Thai-Ahom ethnic linkages.
To enhance the people-to-people contact and accelerate the economic integration of the BIMSTEC, the second summit considered the rapid development of the transport infrastructure as a key issue. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has conducted a study in this regard. The role of ADB has been significant in the economic integration of another sub region of Asia, the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS). As a result of the coordination between ADB and the member countries, the GMS region has achieved an adequate level of connectivity which accelerated the process of regional economic integration. Now the total intra-regional trade in the GMS has increased almost 12 times of the 1992 level. In addition, the annul tourist arrival has doubled from 10 million in 1995 to 20 million in 2005. What happened in the GMS can also be replicated in the case of the BIMSTEC.
Given the strategic advantage of the BIMSTEC, exercises to strengthen it will likely to be continued as a priority area in the India's Look East Policy design. As evident from the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's statement that time has come for the idea of BIMSTEC. However, it is yet to be decided that in what way the idea will be shaped whether it would be limited merely as a bridge between SAARC and ASEAN or will move beyond the linkage syndrome.