BIMSTEC is not an alternative to SAARC

BIMSTEC is not an alternative to SAARC

Given SAARC’s ongoing dysfunction, many have considered BIMSTEC a potential alternative. New Delhi continues to view both as separate entities with no overlaps

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Last Updated : 15 June 2024, 05:24 IST

Last month, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) Charter officially came into force following its ratification by Nepal's Parliament in April. With the charter now adopted, numerous opportunities arise for member states to collaborate across various industries and sectors. Additionally, the charter facilitates the admission of new members, and the appointment of observers to BIMSTEC, fostering greater regional cohesion between South Asia and Southeast Asia.

In contrast, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), another significant regional organisation, has faced challenges. SAARC, consisting of South Asian countries, has not held a summit since 2014. The 2016 summit, scheduled to be hosted in Pakistan, was cancelled after India declined to participate. This impasse has hindered the organisation's activities and effectiveness.

Given SAARC’s ongoing dysfunction, many have considered BIMSTEC a potential alternative. The adoption of BIMSTEC’s charter has further fuelled these hopes. However, it is important to recognise that the two groupings serve distinct purposes, and BIMSTEC cannot replace SAARC. Additionally, New Delhi's actions suggest that despite its limited expectations for SAARC's future, it continues to view both as separate entities with no overlaps.

There are fundamental differences between the two organisations. The primary distinction lies in the regions they cover. SAARC focuses on South Asia, while BIMSTEC includes countries from the Bay of Bengal region. Consequently, South Asian countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan are not members of BIMSTEC. For BIMSTEC to serve as an alternative to SAARC, it would need to include these countries, which is not feasible due to geographical and geopolitical reasons. Therefore, while BIMSTEC offers opportunities for regional cooperation, it cannot fulfil the specific objectives of SAARC.

In March, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar highlighted that SAARC’s survival is at risk due to Islamabad’s ongoing support for cross-border terrorism. This lack of trust among member states makes its revival process nearly impossible.

Recent developments offer a more nuanced view. The Secretary General of SAARC visited New Delhi from May 11 to May 15, engaging in several high-level meetings with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). Following the visit, the MEA issued a press release stating, “India considers SAARC as an important regional association for cooperation in South Asia and has been taking several efforts and initiatives to bring the peoples of South Asia closer to each other.” This visit and the language of the press release indicate that New Delhi remains committed to SAARC, and does not foresee its role diminishing.

Therefore, it can be inferred that New Delhi is open to the revival of SAARC, provided a trusting relationship with Islamabad can be established. With Jaishankar assuming office for a second term, he has emphasised that addressing the issue of cross-border terrorism with Pakistan will be a priority for his office.

India’s hopeful stance towards SAARC indicates that, from an Indian viewpoint, BIMSTEC is considered a distinct entity. This perspective is further elucidated by a reply given in the Rajya Sabha in 2020. When asked if BIMSTEC could replace SAARC, V Muraleedharan, then Minister of State for External Affairs, replied, “BIMSTEC and SAARC are two separate regional organisations of which India is a member.” This response showcases India's recognition of the unique roles of each regional organisation.

Having noted that BIMSTEC is not an alternative to SAARC but operates under a separate mandate, it is crucial to focus on the next steps to ensure the organisation's successful future following the adoption of its charter. Key next steps include finalising the BIMSTEC Free Trade Agreement (FTA), negotiations for which had begun in 2004 as this shall be crucial for improved trade between South Asia and Southeast Asia. Additionally, identifying and inviting observer countries interested in joining BIMSTEC could further enhance its legitimacy and enable greater participation from Southeast Asian nations.

For India, it is essential to avoid the mistakes made with SAARC, where it was perceived as a dominant force within the group. New Delhi must ensure that its South Asian partners within BIMSTEC feel included and valued. This approach will prevent the re-emergence of the 'big brother' complex and foster trust among member states.

(Arkoprabho Hazra is a manager, Aakhya India. X: @ArkoprabhoH)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.


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