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As Saarc falters, India promotes Bimstec

| SRIDHAR KUMARASWAMI
Published : Oct 8, 2016, 7:04 am IST
Updated : Oct 8, 2016, 7:04 am IST

With the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) faltering badly due to Pakistan’s support to cross-border terrorism, India seems to be giving prominence to another regional grouping

With the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) faltering badly due to Pakistan’s support to cross-border terrorism, India seems to be giving prominence to another regional grouping — the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) so far considered “dormant” by many.

The Bistec comprises India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

Out of the seven countries, five including India are members of Saarc while Myanmar and Thailand are members of south-east Asian grouping Asean. Top ministry of external affairs (MEA) officials said on Friday that the Bimstec had a “lot of commonalities” and that “there were no (serious contentious) issues” in the grouping.

The Indian government decided in April this year — three months after the Pathankot terror attack — that Bimstec would be the regional grouping invited for an outreach summit with Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) at Goa on October 16.

After the Brics Summit that day, Brics will have a summit with top Bimstec leaders, including Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh and Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena. MEA officials, however, said India was fully committed to Saarc and Bimstec should not be seen to be “duplicating” it.

They also pointed out the decision to invite Bimstec is taken way back in April much before the current border tension. The Brics Summit host country has the prerogative of inviting a regional grouping for an outreach summit with Brics and India had chosen Bimstec to which it is giving a “lot of importance”.

With Saarc countries like Sri Lanka openly talking of other options, perhaps there is a growing feeling in New Delhi that it is time to look at other options too while remaining committed to the idea of Saarc. The only Saarc nations that are not part of Bimstec — apart from Pakistan — are Afghanistan and the Maldives.

India has a robust and close bilateral relationship with Afghanistan and is also stepping up ties with tiny Maldives.

According to the Government, “the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) brings together 1.5 billion people – 21 percent of the world population, and a combined GDP of over US$ 2.5 trillion. It was originally called BIST-EC (Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand - Economic Cooperation) and was formed at a meeting in June 1997 in Bangkok. Myanmar was admitted in December 1997 and the organisation was renamed as BIMST-EC. The grouping expanded when Nepal and Bhutan were admitted in February 2004. The grouping’s name was changed to BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) at Bangkok in July 2004”.