The Bay of Bengal is one of the world’s least integrated regions, with abysmal levels of trade, connectivity, and cooperation. The deep divide between India and other countries around the bay hinders their efforts to increase their economic and strategic interdependence.

Constantino Xavier
Constantino Xavier was a fellow at Carnegie India, based in New Delhi. His research focus is on India’s foreign policy, with emphasis on relations with its neighboring countries and South Asian regional security.
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The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), a regional multilateral organization founded in 1997, offers a well-positioned platform to help address these challenges. But BIMSTEC’s mission to deepen regionalism will stand a better chance of succeeding if its members (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand) make the organization a priority, endow it with adequate resources, and enact reforms to strength its capabilities.

New Momentum for Multilateralism

As BIMSTEC marks its twentieth anniversary, a confluence of factors has created an opportunity for the organization to help make the bay region more integrated.

  • In a more interdependent world, states around the Bay of Bengal are realizing that their national economic and security interests are increasingly tied to the ability to cooperate across borders through regional institutions.
  • Responding to the inroads China has made in the region, India is placing an unprecedented emphasis on strengthening regional connectivity and links with Southeast Asia.
  • Small BIMSTEC countries see regional multilateralism as a potential check on the rising capabilities of China, India, and major external powers.

Strengthening BIMSTEC to Advance Regional Integration

India and other BIMSTEC member states should:

  • Instill in the organization a normative vision for a cooperative, multilateral regional order that is based on existing rules and principles of liberalism, not on unilateralism.
  • Empower the BIMSTEC secretariat with greater human and financial resources to proactively drive the organization’s agenda. The organization and its staff cannot do so unless members agree to grant greater autonomy and delegate responsibilities.
  • Continue to prioritize sustained physical connectivity and high-quality infrastructure, so as to help facilitate greater regional flows of goods, services, and people. Particular attention must be paid to multi-modal projects that link coastal ports to the hinterland, including landlocked Bhutan, northeastern India, and Nepal.
  • Expand India’s role as an informal leader. New Delhi must back up its words by bolstering its investment in the organization without affecting the interests of other members.
  • Open BIMSTEC to cooperation with extraregional powers committed to inclusive regionalism, including Australia, the European Union, Japan, and the United States, as well as multilateral institutions like the Asian Development Bank.


As the largest bay in the world, the Bay of Bengal is of pivotal importance to the countries bordering it. More broadly, demographic, economic, and security developments in the region have crucial implications for Asia and the global order. While exact definitions vary, the bay’s scope is generally defined as a “triangular basin” stretching west to east between Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Malaysia. One-fourth of the world’s populations live in the seven countries around it, and half a billion people live directly on its coastal rim.1

The highly populated Bay of Bengal carries a lot of economic promise. With a combined gross domestic product (GDP) close to $2.7 trillion and despite an adverse global financial environment, all seven countries were able to sustain average annual rates of economic growth between 3.4 and 7.5 percent from 2012 to 2016.2 The bay is also rich in untapped natural resources, with some of the world’s largest reserves of gas and other seabed minerals, as well as, it is increasingly believed, oil.3 The nutrient input from the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers ensures that the bay’s waters contain extraordinarily large fishing stocks.4

The Bay of Bengal region would benefit greatly from efforts to recapture the interconnectivity of the past.

Linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the Bay of Bengal occupies a central position in relation to global economic flows in a way that few other regions do. One-fourth of the world’s traded goods cross the Bay of Bengal every year.5 As a strategic funnel to the Malacca Straits, the region has grown in strategic importance. For China, the bay is critical to preserving its access route to the Indian Ocean, and for India, it is a crucial avenue for projecting its new naval capabilities.

Yet, despite its status as a key maritime hub in global terms and all its economic promise, the Bay of Bengal’s potential is hamstrung by a lack of close internal economic integration among the countries that call the region home. In terms of economics, connectivity, mobility, and geostrategy, countries adjacent to the Bay of Bengal are less integrated today than they were fifty years ago. Despite its rising economic potential and geostrategic centrality, the region therefore remains largely on the sidelines of key global developments. As historian Sunil Amrith has noted, “the absence of BIMSTEC from the public consciousness is a problem.” This reflects a “challenge of the imagination,” given that, at least until the mid-twentieth century, the bay used to be highly integrated.6 The Bay of Bengal region would benefit greatly from efforts to recapture the interconnectivity of the past.

Beginning in the 1950s, as the Bay of Bengal’s newly independent countries embraced divergent alliance systems, used political borders to erect barriers, and pursued different political and socioeconomic models, the region’s sense of community almost completely eroded. The different paths pursued by India and Thailand since then, for example, resulted in the parallel emergence of South and Southeast Asia as distinct regions, splitting and replacing the Bay of Bengal. In economic terms, India focused on autarky and protectionism, rejecting the logic of interdependence in and around the subcontinent, while Thailand embraced liberal market reforms and regional integration with its neighbors to the south and east. More importantly, while New Delhi chose a nonaligned path and insulated its immediate periphery from Cold War competition, Bangkok chose to ally with the United States and develop under the protective umbrella of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), instituted in 1955.

BIMSTEC is well positioned to make sizable contributions toward advancing regional connectivity, though a series of organizational and substantive reforms would help increase its effectiveness.

This process of economic and geostrategic disintegration is all the more surprising given that such divergence accelerated just as most other regions of the world were becoming more interdependent and connected. The Sri Lankan state minister of foreign affairs, Vasantha Senanayake, alluded to this process when he remarked in 2017 that “we have been somewhat slow and complacent to keep pace with the trend of regionalism.”7 Few people today think of the Bay of Bengal as a region compared to South or Southeast Asia. As scholar V. Suryanarayan has noted, many Indians and people from other countries in the region have instead adopted a geographically introverted outlook that segments the Bay of Bengal into South and Southeast Asia:

Few people in India are conscious of the fact that the [Indonesian] island of Pu Breush, located in the North West of Sumatra, is only 92 nautical miles away from [India’s] Indira Point, which is less than the distance between Chennai and Tirupati. Similarly, Phuket in Thailand is only 273 nautical miles away from Indira Point, which is less than the distance between Chennai and Madurai.8

A variety of transnational threats that disrupt regional stability compound the challenge of making the Bay of Bengal integrated again—these problems could conceivably worsen as the region integrates more. The bay region hosts a diverse range of complex nontraditional security threats, including the trafficking of narcotics, weapons, and people; the illegal exploitation of natural resources; refugee flows; rebel insurgencies and terrorist groups; or natural disasters. Any attempt to foster greater connectivity in the bay must take these problems into account.

To reintegrate the bay and leverage its potential, India and the six other aforementioned Bay of Bengal states ought to focus on joint action through common institutions to address these interconnected opportunities and challenges. Thankfully, a growing regional consensus among these countries on the potential collective rewards of such connectivity appears to be generating positive momentum in this direction. One particular institution that will play an outsized role in advancing regional integration is the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). As a venue that boasts all seven Bay of Bengal countries as members, BIMSTEC is well positioned to make sizable contributions toward advancing regional connectivity, though a series of organizational and substantive reforms would help increase its effectiveness.

BIMSTEC to the Rescue?

The organization originally known as BIST-EC (Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand Economic Cooperation) was founded over twenty years ago in June 1997.9 At that time, its four members signed a framework agreement that expressed a desire to “establish a firm foundation for common action to promote subregional cooperation in the areas of trade, investment, technological exchange and other interrelated areas in a spirit of equality and partnership and thereby contribute towards peace, progress and prosperity in their common region.”10 Later that year, Myanmar joined as well. In 2004, the organization was renamed BIMSTEC when two more states joined (Bhutan and Nepal) for a total of seven members. (See table 1 for a timeline of major events in BIMSTEC’s history.)

Table 1. BIMSTEC’s Major Milestones
June 1997 Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand-Economic Cooperation (BIST-EC) founded in Bangkok.
December 1997 Organization renamed BIMST-EC after Myanmar admitted as full member.
July 2004 First summit held in Bangkok. Bhutan and Nepal became members, for a total of seven. BIMSTEC Free Trade Area (FTA) framework agreement adopted. First meeting of the Trade Negotiating Committee (TNC) held.
November 2008 Second summit held in New Delhi.
December 2009 Twelfth Ministerial Meeting endorsed BIMSTEC Transport Infrastructure and Logistics Study, prepared by the Asian Development Bank to promote regional connectivity. Climate change adopted as fourteenth area of cooperation.
February 2010 RIS hosted first meeting of the BIMSTEC Network of Think Tanks in New Delhi.
January 2011 Memorandum of association passed for the establishment of a BIMSTEC energy center.
March 2014 Third summit held in Naypyitaw. Sri Lankan ambassador Sumith Nakandala appointed first secretary general.
September 2014 Secretariat officially inaugurated in Dhaka.
September 2015 Twentieth TNC meeting, after four-year gap, held in Thailand. Negotiations on an FTA faced obstacles and remained stalled.
October 2016 First BIMSTEC leaders’ retreat took place in Goa, followed by a BRICS-BIMSTEC outreach summit, the first of its kind.
March 2017 First meeting of BIMSTEC national security chiefs held in New Delhi.
Early 2018 Fourth summit to be held in Kathmandu after several delays.

BIMSTEC emerged as a major advocate for regional cooperation around the Bay of Bengal, seeking to overcome the long-standing divide between South and Southeast Asia. At its heart, the organization seeks to promote economic and other forms of connectivity to revive the bay’s past levels of integration and mutual interdependence. Former BIMSTEC secretary general Sumith Nakandala has emphasized that “we are not reinventing the wheel” but just “rediscovering the common heritage around the Bay of Bengal.”11 (See table 2 for basic economic and political profiles of BIMSTEC’s member states.)

Table 2. Development and GDP Indicators for BIMSTEC Members
Per Capita (PPP in 2016)
Average Annual GDP Growth (2012–2016) 2016 UNDP Human Development Index Rank (out of 188) 2017 World Bank Ease of Doing Business Rank (out of 190) Trade as a Percent of GDP
2016 World Bank Logistics Performance Index Rank (out of 160)
Bangladesh $3,587 6.5% 139 177 38.0% 87
Bhutan $8,918 5.5% 132 75 82.8% 135
India $6,583 6.9% 131 100 39.8% 35
Myanmar $5,732 7.3% 145 171 45.5% 113
Nepal $2,483 3.7% 144 105 48.9% 124
Sri Lanka $12,337 5.3% 73 111 50.5% N/A
Thailand $16,946 3.4% 87 26 123.1% 45
Sources: UN Development Program, World Bank

BIMSTEC can be credited with some achievements, though its ambitions have sometimes outpaced its accomplishments. Only three summits have been held so far. In 2014, the organization was finally endowed with a permanent secretariat, located in Dhaka. Some of the most significant challenges BIMSTEC faces are how to expand its fiscal and staffing capacities and how to strategically advance regional connectivity in the vast number of areas (fourteen working groups) it has been mandated to address with its current limited financial and human resources.

As it seeks to address these challenges, BIMSTEC now faces a critical opportunity to overcome a period of relative stagnation and revive the initial enthusiasm that drove it in the early 2000s. As Indian analyst C. Raja Mohan has noted, “the moment for turning the Bay of Bengal into a zone of regional cooperation may finally be with us.”12 It was an encouraging sign that BIMSTEC enjoyed a great deal of visibility in 2017 and was more active than it had been in the recent past.

With new leadership in place, BIMSTEC member states—particularly India—have voiced a renewed commitment to holding the regular, high-level meetings that are a necessary, though perhaps not sufficient, condition for making BIMSTEC an effective institution. In 2017, the organization’s ministerial and senior officials’ meetings were held for the first time since 2014. A new secretary general was appointed in August 2017. After being postponed several times, BIMSTEC’s fourth summit is scheduled to take place in February 2018.

This renewed momentum can be traced back to the BIMSTEC leaders’ retreat, convened by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Goa in late 2016. One former Indian official characterized this as “a de facto summit meeting.”13 In the outcome document, the seven member states pledged “to work collectively towards making BIMSTEC stronger, more effective, and result oriented,” and emphasized that their “geographical contiguity, abundant natural and human resources, rich historical linkages and shared cultural heritage provide BIMSTEC the ideal platform to promote peace, stability and prosperity in our region.”14 Then secretary general Sumith Nakandala underlined the pivotal role of this retreat in reviving the organization, arguing that it “gave BIMSTEC a clear mandate” in the run up to its twentieth anniversary in 2017.15 Judging by the summit and ministerial statements, the organization’s mandate does not seem to have significantly changed since its foundation, with a continued focus on economic cooperation and connectivity.

A Case of Converging Interests

These signs of support for regional connectivity seem to reflect a growing sense among member states that a stronger BIMSTEC that is better able to promote integration would advance their respective national interests. This political momentum is driven by each government’s conviction—in one form or another—that a more connected region will help their respective countries prosper and fulfill other important national goals. For instance, the organization offers Bangladesh an ideal platform to position itself as more than just a small state in the Bay of Bengal. In 2014, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina stated, “I reiterate our government’s total commitment to the BIMSTEC. It has the potential to move us all to our common goals.”16 Dhaka has been pushing New Delhi to move beyond bilateralism and to “work closely in furthering relevant regional/sub-regional cooperation processes;” empowering BIMSTEC would appear to be a step in this direction.17

Other BIMSTEC members have also conveyed their interest in greater regional integration. For Sri Lanka, BIMSTEC represents an opportunity to realize its long-held ambition to connect with Southeast Asia and serve as the subcontinent’s hub for the wider Indian Ocean and Pacific regions. As former Sri Lankan finance minister Ravi Karunanayake has expressed, “we [Sri Lanka] want to be to India what Hong Kong is to China.” Colombo continues to look to Singapore as a model hub for interregional connectivity.18 

These signs of support for regional connectivity seem to reflect a growing sense among member states that a stronger BIMSTEC that is better able to promote integration would advance their respective national interests.

For Nepal and Bhutan, in turn, BIMSTEC stands to further their respective aspirations to reconnect with the Bay of Bengal region in order to escape their landlocked geographic positions. Sandwiched between India and China, Kathmandu and Thimphu realize that their prospects for economic growth would likely increase dramatically if they prove able to create a stronger maritime link between their Himalayan hinterlands and what Nepalese entrepreneur Sujeev Shakya calls “East South Asia.”19 It is “natural for Nepal to aspire to grow together with the region,” as the country’s prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, emphasized in 2017.20 Finally, for Myanmar and Thailand, BIMSTEC complements their respective Look West policies, as they seek to leverage their geographic proximity to South Asia. Connecting more deeply with India across the Bay of Bengal also would allow them to access a rising consumer market and, at the same time, balance Beijing and develop an alternative to China’s massive inroads into Southeast Asia.

As the region’s largest economy by far, India’s interest in BIMSTEC is particularly notable. By taking the initiative to revive BIMSTEC in 2016, India signaled its commitment to move the locus of regional cooperation eastward, toward the Bay of Bengal. In his statement on the organization’s twentieth anniversary, in June 2017, Modi underlined this geostrategic shift:

BIMSTEC not only connects South and South-East Asia, but also the ecologies of the Great Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal. With shared values, histories, ways of life, and destinies that are interlinked, BIMSTEC represents a common space for peace and development. For India, it is a natural platform to fulfill our key foreign policy priorities of “Neighborhood First” and “Act East.”21

It is worth asking what has driven such sudden Indian interest in BIMSTEC as a “natural platform” for its external priorities, when the organization has been in existence for twenty years already?

After all, India’s interest in BIMSTEC has not always been evident. Former Indian ambassador Rajiv Bhatia once suggested that BIMSTEC was at risk of being little more than a “rebound relationship” whenever New Delhi fails to pursue regional integration via the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the default body for subcontinental cooperation since the mid-1980s.22 As recently as 2015, Indian experts were skeptical about this eastern shift in favor of BIMSTEC. Former foreign secretary Krishnan Srinivasan predicted that “it is unlikely for BIMSTEC to move forward.”23

Unlike in the past, New Delhi appears to be clearly committed to the organization over the long term.

But efforts to pursue integration in ways that include Pakistan through SAARC have largely flopped. In recent years, Islamabad has not demonstrated a willingness to cooperate on connectivity projects, leading New Delhi to announce in January 2018 that important SAARC initiatives are being “held back due to [a] lack of response and/or [the] obstructionist approach of Pakistan.”24 While India-Pakistan tensions had stalled the organization’s endeavors before, this was the first time that an Indian government has developed an alternative vision for regional cooperation and integration that bypasses SAARC in favor of alternative institutions. This reflects India’s new economic interests and geostrategic ambition to break out of its periphery and connect with neighboring regions that previously had been neglected, especially the Bay of Bengal as a link to Southeast Asia.25 As noted by analyst K. Yhome, BIMSTEC plays an important role in this new neighborhood policy because, unlike SAARC’s subcontinental focus and except for the difficult western front, it is “the only forum that brings together India’s strategic peripheries (South, East and North) under one single grouping.”26

While the jury is still out on whether India will be able to translate its vocal interest into tangible political and material investments in BIMSTEC, there is now a clear realization in New Delhi that the “lack of importance given to BIMSTEC has seriously affected our economic and strategic agenda,” in the words of former ambassador Seshadri Chari.27 Modi’s expansive understanding of BIMSTEC as a “natural platform” for India’s foreign policy indicates that, unlike in the past, New Delhi appears to be clearly committed to the organization over the long term.

This commitment is driven by two key factors. The first is the potential economic rewards of greater regional connectivity. Almost 300 million people, or roughly one-quarter of India’s total population, now live in the four coastal states adjacent to the Bay of Bengal (Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal). In turn, for the approximately 45 million people living in India’s landlocked northeastern states, reestablishing the long-lost connectivity with the Bay of Bengal would critically enhance their region’s development and welfare prospects.28

For both India’s eastern coastal states and the northeastern region in particular, and for the Indian economy in general, growth and development are seen to hinge on the degree of connectivity with Southeast Asian markets. By fostering transnational connectivity around the region—in particular with Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Thailand—Indian policymakers expect that the country’s exports will pick up, that more investments will flow in, and that regional integration will serve as a positive springboard for greater global economic interdependence. In the words of two former Indian officials, BIMSTEC therefore represents “the only real bridge” or a “unique link” between South and Southeast Asia.29

The second driver relates to Asia’s rapidly changing geostrategic context and India’s need to look at the Bay of Bengal as a key theater in which to contain an increasingly capable and assertive China.30 Beijing is currently making a massive push to fund infrastructure projects and foster connectivity throughout South, Central, and Southeast Asia through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims to increase China’s north-to-south access routes to the Indian Ocean, especially via Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka. In response, New Delhi now seeks to develop alternative east-to-west connectivity plans between South and Southeast Asia across the Bay of Bengal.31 Prior initiatives to connect South Asia to China, such as the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor, have been put on hold. Consequently, BIMSTEC has assumed an even greater importance as a central vehicle for projecting India’s intent and capabilities in the Bay of Bengal region.

Other geopolitical developments have reinforced the necessity of this strategic choice for India. New Delhi’s geopolitical focus has naturally moved eastward, given that Pakistan is blocking any regional connectivity plans to India’s western flank, Europe remains plagued by continued economic stagnation, and the Middle East faces chronic turmoil. As a result, India is prioritizing integration with the Indo-Pacific region and stronger partnerships with a variety of Asian powers, including Australia, Japan, Singapore, and Vietnam.

Parallel Paths to Regional Connectivity

While these dual economic and geostrategic drivers are indicative of a continued Indian commitment to BIMSTEC, the organization represents only one of several parallel features of India’s new approach to the Bay of Bengal region. While India’s commitment to BIMSTEC is not merely a rebound relationship after the SAARC failure, it will not be an exclusive relationship. In the words of a senior Indian official dealing with regional cooperation initiatives, New Delhi’s focus on BIMSTEC is part of a “three-in-one strategy.” The organization allows India to pursue three core policies: Neighborhood First, which gives primacy to the country’s immediate periphery; Act East, which aims to connect India with Southeast Asia; and an economic development policy for India’s northeastern states designed to link them to the Bay of Bengal region via Bangladesh and Myanmar.32

This reflects a deeper shift in India’s strategy for regional integration, which emphasizes flexibility and the willingness to move simultaneously on various fronts rather than an exclusive dependence on SAARC. New Delhi’s decision, in 2016, to cancel its participation in the nineteenth SAARC summit—scheduled to be held in Islamabad and postponed since then—was not a one-time, off-the-cuff decision. Two years earlier, barely six months after being elected to office, Modi signaled his intent to depart from India’s traditional approach to regional cooperation. Speaking at the eighteenth SAARC summit in Kathmandu in November 2014, he emphasized that “there is a new awakening in South Asia; a new recognition of inter-linked destinies; and a new belief in shared opportunities.” He stated that these opportunities must be realized “through SAARC or outside it” and “among us all or some of us.”33 Such clear warnings, directed both at SAARC and Pakistan, reflected a risk-embracing willingness to pursue new paths toward the same goal of regional connectivity.34

India’s current interest in BIMSTEC as an avenue to greater integration in the Bay of Bengal is taking place on at least five policy levels. First, domestically, India’s focus on the Bay of Bengal region overlaps with its specific aforementioned developmental goals for its eastern and northeastern states. These goals have inspired ambitious projects like Sagarmala and Bharatmala, which seek to develop port and road infrastructure, respectively, to internationalize India’s hinterland economy via maritime and cross-border hubs on the eastern coast and with Bangladesh and Myanmar. India’s support for the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) East Coast Economic Corridor and its multimodal regional corridor from Kolkata to Kanyakumari reflects the domestic dimension of this new Bay of Bengal strategy.35

Second, New Delhi’s emphasis on the Bay of Bengal is also being pursued through reinvigorated bilateral relationships with the neighbors. With Bangladesh, this included historic agreements in 2015 to finalize the land boundary and establish direct shipping routes, both of which pave the way to reinstitute connectivity levels from more than fifty years ago. Modi also became the first Indian prime minister to pay exclusive bilateral visits to Nepal (since 1997) and to Sri Lanka (since 1987). Moreover, by choosing Bhutan as his first foreign destination, in 2014, he emphasized the eastern front of India’s regional periphery. Three years after coming to power, Modi completed his bilateral outreach to all BIMSTEC countries with his visit to Myanmar in September 2017. No Indian prime minister has dedicated so much attention to the immediate neighborhood since at least Rajiv Gandhi back in the 1980s.

Third, India’s reorientation toward the Bay of Bengal has also been pursued through regional organizations. But even at this level, BIMSTEC is only one of many tracks. SAARC is in suspension but may be called back into service if Islamabad is willing to promote regionalism. New Delhi has also been pushing for a wider mandate of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) to strengthen maritime governance in the Bay of Bengal.36 Besides the partnership between India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2017, India has also fostered interregional links with Southeast Asia through initiatives like the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) and the Cambodia-Myanmar-Laos-Vietnam grouping (CMLV).

Fourth, India’s path toward regional connectivity now also goes through subregional and mini-lateral initiatives with other BIMSTEC members, including the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) formalized in 2013 as a quadrilateral joint working group. Far from being a new creation focused merely on isolating Pakistan, this á la carte policy of regionalism dates back to 1997, when New Delhi, Dhaka, Kathmandu, and Thimphu created the South Asia Growth Quadrangle initiative to spur economic development in the subcontinent.

New Delhi’s interest in BIMSTEC will overlap with and complement similar efforts to bridge the Bay of Bengal.

The idea of flexible and sector-oriented partnerships was revived after 2010 by India and Bangladesh. They committed to “harness advantages of regional and sub-regional cooperation in power, water resources, transport and other forms of connectivity.”37 This subregional parallel track to SAARC has flourished since then into the embryonic intergovernmental BBIN initiative, together with Nepal and Bhutan. A series of joint working groups then occurred, focusing on how to cooperatively manage and leverage cross-border transport, energy, and water resources.38 In 2014, as Indian attempts to boost connectivity through SAARC faltered due to Pakistan, this track naturally gained a new impulse.39

Fifth, India’s new impetus on the Bay of Bengal is also channeled through a new posture toward external actors, seeking partnerships with countries and organizations from outside the region. Unlike in the past, New Delhi is now willing to join hands with extraregional actors to stem Chinese influence in the Bay of Bengal. This includes a variety of joint naval exercises held in the region, including with the United States, and also a new interest in cooperating with Australia.40 On this front, Japan has been perhaps the most prominent player, based on Modi and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “Vision 2025” plan to “seek synergy . . . by closely coordinating, bilaterally and with other partners, for better regional integration and improved connectivity,” especially in the Bay of Bengal region.41 India has also enthusiastically endorsed the ADB’s South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) operational program for 2016–2025, focused on improving connectivity between the subcontinent and Southeast Asia.42

As these various initiatives make clear, India has voiced a firm commitment to promoting regional integration with its neighbors, and its support for BIMSTEC must be understood in that context. Rather than an exclusive avenue, New Delhi’s interest in BIMSTEC will overlap with and complement similar efforts to bridge the Bay of Bengal. At the same time, India’s aspirations for BIMSTEC will require significant investments in the organization, particularly in efforts to strengthen its financial and organizational capabilities and to focus on areas where BIMSTEC has a comparative advantage over other organizations and initiatives with limited mandates.

How to Institutionally Strengthen BIMSTEC

The confluence of BIMSTEC members’ respective national interests in support of connectivity and their willingness to invest more in BIMSTEC has created an opportunity to empower the organization to help revitalize the Bay of Bengal as a region and as a community. Commenting on BIMSTEC’s track record and “missed opportunities” since its founding in 1997, the foreign minister of Bangladesh, Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali, recently noted that “it is time to look back, reflect and review our past performances; renew our commitment and reframe our strategy for the journey ahead.”43 In the words of former Indian ambassador Rajiv Bhatia, this is crucial because BIMSTEC has been “innovative but under-performing.”44 Meanwhile, for former ambassador Preeti Saran, one of India’s top senior officials dealing with the Bay of Bengal region, BIMSTEC’s twentieth anniversary highlights the “need for fresh ideas” to achieve the common objective of “rejuvenating” the organization.45

To maximize BIMSTEC’s effectiveness, one area of focus should be taking steps to address its lingering organizational weaknesses, including a weak consensus about how to pursue its institutional connectivity mandate; an overtaxed and underfunded bureaucratic arm; an inconsistent joint commitment among members to holding frequent, high-level meetings; and uncertainty about how to engage with other institutional actors that support the cause of connectivity.

Advance and Expand on Institutional Norms

The postcolonial fixation with sovereignty that once prevailed among the now-independent states that border the Bay of Bengal now lays buried beneath the bay. Relinquishing a past of isolationism and autarky, these states are increasingly seeking to pursue their national interests through greater regional cooperation, connectivity, and interdependence. Commenting on the need to “decode, evaluate and address the [regional] challenges and seize the opportunities that are being unleashed,” the foreign minister of Bangladesh emphasized at a 2017 BIMSTEC ministerial meeting that “we cannot do this alone,” and that “there is no alternative to the imperative of regional cooperation.”46

However, while no alternative to regional coordination may exist, there may be many competing views among BIMSTEC members about how to pursue it, and these diverse views reflect varying levels of commitment to multilateralism. BIMSTEC will not succeed unless it holds a normative conversation about what substantive type of regional architecture is most appropriate for the Bay of Bengal. Samir Saran, vice president of the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, has outlined one compelling potential normative vision for BIMSTEC:

Can we create a normative framework both on the economic realm, security realm and political realm together? Can all of us agree to this that anyone who wants to participate in the Bay of Bengal community must agree to the principles of deliberative dispute resolution mechanisms? . . . Can we create such norms to safeguard this Bay of Bengal community?47

Due to its multilateral nature, BIMSTEC is a natural platform through which to press its member states to develop the best practices and institutions required to ensure that the Bay of Bengal is governed cooperatively under the rule of law. BIMSTEC should focus on articulating how such liberal and inclusive normative standards inform its organizational mandate in four particular domains.

First, BIMSTEC should concentrate on advancing a constructive approach to connectivity. In contrast to criticisms leveled at the China-led infrastructure investments underwritten by the BRI, New Delhi has stated its intention to take the lead in defining alternative standards for implementing connectivity projects “based on universally recognized international norms, good governance, rule of law, openness, transparency and equality.”48 Sri Lanka, for one, has expressed concerns about the BRI.49 BIMSTEC must help to translate a commitment to high standards into cooperative action by developing common criteria that emphasize socioeconomic inclusiveness, financial responsibility, and environmental sustainability.

BIMSTEC will not succeed unless it holds a normative conversation about what substantive type of regional architecture is most appropriate for the Bay of Bengal.

Second, BIMSTEC should strive to help keep the waters of the Bay of Bengal open, free, and peaceful, by seeking to show how to manage them as a regional commons. The Sri Lankan prime minister’s proposal for an “Indian Ocean Order” with “accepted rules and agreements” should be implemented in the bay.50 To do so, BIMSTEC must encourage its member states to embrace maritime multilateralism. It could contribute to regional mechanisms for the peaceful settlement of disputes, for example on borders and fisheries, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). It could develop codes of conduct that preserve freedom of navigation and apply existing law of the seas regionally. In addition, BIMSTEC could stem the region’s creeping militarization by instituting, for instance, a Bay of Bengal Zone of Peace that seeks to limit any bellicose behavior of extraregional powers.

BIMSTEC also should be prepared to weigh in on political matters. While BIMSTEC’s formal emphasis may be on technical and economic cooperation, every regional organization is fundamentally political in nature, as the experience with SAARC and Indo-Pakistani conflicts shows over the last few decades. The Bay of Bengal region is affected by a variety of cross-border disputes. As the refugee crisis between Myanmar and Bangladesh showed in 2017, bilateral issues can quickly escalate to stall cooperation through regional institutions.51 Accordingly, BIMSTEC must be prepared to help address bilateral tensions, for example, by serving as a forum for informal discussions or by investing in the development of formal mediation and resolution mechanisms tailored to the region’s specific needs and problems. This would also potentially decrease dependence on external and global organizations, including the United Nations, whose involvement has often been resisted by the governments of India, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka.52

Finally, BIMSTEC should aim to develop an internal dialogue on the role of democracy in promoting economic development, security, and stability among its member states. If Thailand holds elections in 2018 as planned, all members may then be run by democratically elected governments, which would transform BIMSTEC into one of Asia’s rare clubs of democratic countries. Such a regional dialogue could center on upholding the rule of law and strengthening electoral, parliamentary, and other pluralist institutions.

Strengthen the Secretariat

In addition to unity of purpose, international organizations require strong functional leadership. An international organization does not necessarily need a secretariat, but a strong secretariat can make an organization. It took seventeen years for BIMSTEC’s secretariat to finally be established in 2014 in Dhaka, but its role has never been specifically defined.53 For more than ten years before it was established, officials would meet in Bangkok, at gatherings hosted by the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs.54

Since its creation, the secretariat has faced a variety of obstacles that hinder its effectiveness, including budgetary and staffing limitations. Saman Kelegama, one of Sri Lanka’s most ardent supporters of the organization, called for a “strong Secretariat . . . empowered to play a more proactive role in driving the BIMSTEC agenda.”55 Former Bangladeshi diplomat Tariq Karim, in turn, refers to the secretariat as a “fundamental weakness” with a mandate that is “unclear” and inadequately “cloned” from the SAARC model.56 From the viewpoint of a senior Bhutanese official, the coordinating body has limited relevance because it remains “purely member-driven.”57

BIMSTEC member states can pursue five ways to overcome these obstacles and strengthen the secretariat’s capabilities so it can take on a greater role in driving the organization’s agenda. First, member states should allocate greater autonomy to the secretariat. As Prabir De, a researcher at a think tank in New Delhi, has noted, for the secretariat to become the organization’s “driver, captain and pilot,” member states’ bureaucracies must be willing to accord sufficient agency and expertise for it to implement new initiatives. For example, to implement any significant policy initiative, the secretariat must first obtain consensual support from the joint secretaries or director generals overseeing BIMSTEC affairs in all seven member states, which in some cases can take several months.58 On the procedural front, both the choice of the secretary general and chairman should rotate alphabetically as currently stipulated at regular intervals without interruptions, so as to increase predictability and continuity while reducing the uncertainty of transitions. To date, the length of the rotating chairmanship has been extraordinary irregular, ranging between one and five years.

If member states are serious about strengthening the secretariat, they must endow it with greater financial assets by increasing the size of their respective contributions.

Second, BIMSTEC members should also further empower the secretary general. Reputation and status are key characteristics that allow a secretary general to push the organization forward through direct and personal links with leaders across the region. According the position a higher diplomatic stature—for example, by granting the position in the future to individuals with a cabinet or secretary rank—would help ensure future secretary generals have more “gravitas” to engage member states’ bureaucracies at a higher level.59 A political alternative would be to choose a former high-level leader (head of government or state), who could be assisted by a deputy with a bureaucratic background.

Third, BIMSTEC members should boost the funding they provide for the secretariat’s budget. Currently estimated at around $200,000, the secretariat’s annual budget is inadequate when compared to the organization’s vast mandate and the fourteen different sectors under its purview in one of the world’s most populated regions.60 Being “severely underfunded,” in the words of one BIMSTEC official, the secretariat uses its funds almost exclusively for salaries and other institutional costs, leaving hardly any resources to invest in outreach and agenda-setting initiatives.61 Increasing staff compensation, in particular, would be a critical means of attracting more officers from member states to join the organization on deputation. Even after a recent pay scale revision, the salaries of BIMSTEC’s secretary general and directors are still less than two-thirds of those of their SAARC counterparts, even though Dhaka’s cost of living is much higher than that of Kathmandu.62 If member states are serious about strengthening the secretariat, they must endow it with greater financial assets by increasing the size of their respective contributions.

Fourth, the staff size of the BIMSTEC secretariat should be increased. However prominent and hardworking the secretary general may be, the secretariat cannot be a one-person show. It must be urgently expanded. Since 2014, BIMSTEC has been run by a staff of fewer than ten people, including two directors (until a third director joined in 2017).63 In comparison, the SAARC secretariat’s staff is approximately fifty-strong, including eight directors, and the ASEAN secretariat has around 100 staff members, including four deputies and eighteen directors and coordinators.64 Without adequate human resources, the secretariat will not be able to take on any significant initiatives and will continue struggling to complete even the most basic administrative and financial tasks. The BIMSTEC Working Group, which convenes all member states’ ambassadors and heads of mission residing in Dhaka, should also continue to hold monthly meetings to support the secretariat.

Fifth, the secretariat should be empowered to recruit research and policy experts and should be given the authority and resources to hire consultants from various technical domains, including energy, trade, and transportation. Depending on their seniority and possible roles as directors or advisers, such policy experts could also serve as ambassadors and champions for various regional integration causes. One way to consolidate their contributions could be to form an internal think tank, similar to the expert research institutes attached to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the ADB.

Optimize Organizational Functioning

Beyond strengthening the secretariat’s human and financial resources, there are ways that BIMSTEC’s internal processes can be streamlined to give new life to the organization. While the idea has been floated regularly to establish a formal BIMSTEC charter—as a blueprint to articulate an organizational vision and define its mandate—there are other more immediate steps that can be taken.

BIMSTEC’s internal processes can be streamlined to give new life to the organization.

First, BIMSTEC should hold meetings more frequently. Reflecting an early naivety, BIMSTEC planned to hold summits every two years, ministerial meetings every year, and meetings for senior officials twice a year.65 In reality, however, only three summits have taken place in twenty years, and this included a six-year interregnum from 2008 to 2014. Similarly, no ministerial meeting was held between 2014 and 2017. Rather than meeting twice annually, the senior officials’ meeting was postponed seven times between 2014 and 2017, when it finally took place again. To avoid a scheduling backlog and prevent the secretariat from becoming a “glorified scheduler” tasked chiefly with convening meetings, member states must prioritize holding meetings more regularly.66

Second, BIMSTEC members should commit to consistently sending representatives of an appropriate rank to the meetings that are held, which they have not always done. Senior official meetings, for example, have often included joint secretaries or director generals, who lack the autonomy to make relevant decisions. Meetings involving senior officials should, in principle, only be held if all member states are willing to send secretary-level officers.

Third, BIMSTEC ought to diversify the designated locations of its meetings. Until early 2017, India, Myanmar, and Thailand had hosted twelve senior official meetings (four each), whereas Nepal and Sri Lanka had held just one each, and Bhutan had not held any.67 Furthermore, rather than being hosted exclusively by member states, ministerial, senior official, and other working group meetings could also take place at the secretariat headquarters in Dhaka.

Fourth, each BIMSTEC member should clearly designate appropriate government counterparts to liaise with BIMSTEC officials. To facilitate communication and speed up initiatives, member states should direct their foreign ministries to create specific BIMSTEC cells or empower existing ones with more human and financial resources. In many cases, BIMSTEC affairs are managed by a director general or joint secretary, but such duties are often neglected because they fall under divisions or departments focused more broadly on regional cooperation, with portfolios that include SAARC (in the cases of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal) or multilateral and economic affairs (in the cases of Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand). As the first BIMSTEC secretary general noted, such “national [BIMSTEC] focal points must be more than mere letter boxes.”68

Fifth, beyond its periodic foreign minister meetings, BIMSTEC would benefit from reviving the sectorial ministerial conferences it used to hold in the 2000s on matters like energy (New Delhi 2005, Bangkok 2010), tourism (Kolkata 2005), culture (Paro 2006), and poverty alleviation (Dhaka 2008). Such special meetings allow for focused discussions with high-level political representatives that tend to lead to a top-down approach, rather than the slower bureaucratic bottom-up route.

Define and Expand India’s Informal Leadership Role

Aside from efforts to sharpen BIMSTEC’s institutional mission and capabilities, there are some who think that India could play a more prominent role in the organization, even informally. Even multilateral organizations need a measure of state-led leadership, whether internal or external. The European Union (EU) would not likely have developed without the Franco-German initiative, nor would ASEAN have progressed without the United States’ external security guarantees toward the Philippines and Thailand. For BIMSTEC to flourish, India (as the region’s most powerful country) will have to step up, invest resources, and sustain interest in the Bay of Bengal’s leading institution. In the candid words of former BIMSTEC secretary general Sumith Nakandala, “BIMSTEC needs a leader.”69

New Delhi has not shied away from embracing such responsibility and has often taken the driver’s seat in some ways—for example, by hosting the 2016 BRICS-BIMSTEC outreach summit. India also served as a key facilitator during the backstage negotiations about the location of the new secretariat (Bangladesh) and the nationality of the first secretary general (Sri Lankan), which were announced in 2011.70

However, India’s actions often have fallen short of the expectations of policymakers and analysts. For example, for three long years between 2014 and 2017, New Delhi failed to appoint a representative director to the secretariat, leaving the position vacant and hindering the organization’s effectiveness until Pankaj Hazarika assumed the position in June 2017. To assume and deliver on an informal leadership position within BIMSTEC, India will have to focus on four fronts.

First, India must respect the sensitivities of small states—leading should not be confused with dominating. To strengthen BIMSTEC’s multilateral and cooperative nature, New Delhi will have to walk a thin line between control and passivity. Playing a driving role will require diplomatic skill and the willingness to delegate by letting smaller states, especially Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, take the lead on both symbolic and substantive issues. Former Indian ambassador Rajiv Bhatia thus cautions that India’s leadership must be “exerted with a mix of sensitivity, generosity, astuteness and determination.”71

For BIMSTEC to flourish, India (as the region’s most powerful country) will have to step up, invest resources, and sustain interest in the Bay of Bengal’s leading institution.

Second, as the region’s predominant actor, India should accord smaller member states asymmetric advantages, especially on trade issues, even if doing so hurts the interests of certain domestic constituencies. For smaller countries like Bangladesh or Bhutan, BIMSTEC and other multilateral initiatives in the Bay of Bengal region are attractive because they increase their bargaining power and mitigate India’s overbearing capabilities in a bilateral setting. Modi seems to have embraced this strategic altruism.72 As senior Indian official Preeti Saran has emphasized, “India is aware of the fact that it is the largest country in the region and it is prepared to take on asymmetric commitments in BIMSTEC.”73

Third, on a related note, India must be prepared to invest more resources in BIMSTEC. The effectiveness of New Delhi’s leadership will hinge on its ability to match words with deeds and, more importantly, inject hard capital into the organization. India already finances the largest share of the secretariat’s budget (approximately 32 percent).74 Its budgetary allocation for the organization and related activities has expanded exponentially from 1.2 million rupees (roughly $18,000) in 2015–2016 to 60 million rupees in 2017–2018 (roughly $938,000), but this is still far less than what New Delhi allocated to the Commonwealth (100 million rupees, or $1.5 million) or to SAARC (120 million rupees, or $1.9 million).75 Speedier disbursement of these funds would also help enhance the organization’s functioning and visibility.

Fourth, New Delhi ought to take the initiative when appropriate. India’s greatest contribution to BIMSTEC will come from its ability to lead by example. It can do so by advancing cooperation in the four working groups it chairs: Transport and Communication, Tourism, Environment and Disaster Management, and Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime. In 2017, for example, New Delhi took the lead by drafting and circulating texts for agreements on motor vehicle and coastal shipping connectivity.76 Such diplomatic initiative is a vital means of signaling commitment, sustaining the organization’s positive momentum, and driving cooperation.

Reach Beyond the Region

As BIMSTEC returns to the global limelight, it may face increasing pressures to expand its membership and external partnerships. To prevent members and other potential outside partners from working at cross-purposes, BIMSTEC will have to devise flexible ways to interact with other organizations and actors operating across the Bay of Bengal region.

The first challenge is defining the scope of the Bay of Bengal region and BIMSTEC’s membership. The organization currently delineates the bay region rather narrowly based on its current membership. But geographically speaking, the bay should be conceived of in broader terms because, as historian Sunil Amrith underlines, “from the perspective of political and cultural history, to write of the Bay of Bengal without considering the Malay Peninsula would be meaningless.”77 Accordingly, Sri Lanka’s prime minister refers to Indonesia and Malaysia as “Bay of Bengal nations.”78

The issue becomes even more complex given the rising informal interest of extraregional states in joining or working more closely with BIMSTEC, including Australia, China, Japan, South Korea, and even the EU.79 For the time being, however, expansion of BIMSTEC membership or any other type of affiliation has actually remained frozen since Nepal and Bhutan joined in 2004, and BIMSTEC has indicated no plans to change this. Explaining this stance, an Indian official notes that it is important to “first focus on [internal] consolidation before expansion.”80

The second challenge pertains to how BIMSTEC can interact more effectively with other multilateral organizations, especially those already active in and around the Bay of Bengal region. Prashant Agrawal, India’s joint secretary who dealt with the organization until 2017, has noted that while “BIMSTEC stands on its own,” at the same time “we should synergize and not work at cross-purposes” with SAARC or any other regional organization.81

Initially, BIMSTEC was enthusiastic about reaching out to other international institutions.82 The ADB, in particular, repeatedly tried to engage BIMSTEC, forwarding a collaboration project in 2005.83 However, after these efforts finally led to the BIMSTEC Transport Infrastructure and Logistics Study (BTILS), one official familiar with the process recalls that India was not willing to support the ADB’s follow-up proposal to set up an implementation and monitoring unit embedded within the BIMSTEC secretariat.84 Such reluctance about external involvement seems to have been overcome, as demonstrated by New Delhi’s recent offer to host a “regional hub” for the ADB’s operations in South Asia.85

On the challenges of both expansion and coordination with other organizations, BIMSTEC should consider revisiting some aspects of its current stance on expansion in four specific ways. First, BIMSTEC should consider offering an observer status. This possibility was discussed in 1998, and the second senior officials meeting forwarded this very recommendation, along with draft criteria, to the subsequent ministerial meeting.86 In 2002, before joining as a full member, Nepal attended a senior officials meeting as an observer.87 Based on this precedent, BIMSTEC should develop clear criteria for an observer status for other countries and international organizations. In the words of two former Indian diplomats, this would make it easier to “get other countries or other institutions involved in specific projects” and allow BIMSTEC to connect with “natural partners” beyond the region, such as Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.88

Second, BIMSTEC should seek to involve other regional institutions in some of its key initiatives, especially relating to connectivity. Building on the 2017 BRICS outreach summit, BIMSTEC must develop more regular channels of communication with various counterparts active in the Bay of Bengal region. This includes leveraging strategic partnerships with ASEAN and similar connectivity efforts by the ADB (particularly the SASEC), the World Bank and its regional country offices, the United Nations’ Bangkok-based Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, and the MGC and CMLV initiatives. On the maritime front, BIMSTEC would benefit from consultations, coordination, and cooperation with the IORA. While, in principle, BIMSTEC should also consider engaging with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the BCIM, and even the BRI, India’s increasing reluctance to work through such China-driven initiatives are likely to stall any such efforts by other member states.

Third, BIMSTEC should seek to revive subregional mechanisms. It must avoid the risk of requiring unanimity among all member states to make any significant decisions—an approach that has undermined SAARC repeatedly. Instead, members should develop mechanisms that allow for tailored and clustered trilateral and quadrilateral cooperation among a few member states in certain instances. In 1997, BIMSTEC was clearly targeted at fostering subregional cooperation, with a founding declaration that emphasized its mandate as “an additionality to and not [meant to] be a substitute for bilateral, regional or multilateral cooperation.”89 Twenty years later, while the organization has at least partially succeeded in carving out a distinct regional character, its subregional identity should be recaptured. Rather than an obstacle, if appropriately institutionalized, multispeed, multifaceted cooperation through BIMSTEC may actually lead to positive spillovers across different sectors.

Fourth, BIMSTEC would do well to keep China out. Beijing poses a particular challenge, as it has informally expressed interest in obtaining observer status within BIMSTEC and in rendering specific project support.90 While bringing China into BIMSTEC could lead to immediate financial dividends, it would also likely weaken the organization in the long term, given Beijing’s history of adopting divide-and-rule practices toward other regional organizations like ASEAN and the EU.91 According to one Indian official, in 2017, China tried to pressure Nepal to “go slow” on BIMSTEC and, instead, push for a revival of SAARC, which includes Pakistan and to which China is an observer.92 Given these concerns, at least in the short run, it would be advisable to insulate BIMSTEC from any geopolitical competition and protect its multilateral corridors from Chinese diplomatic interference. This could be achieved by establishing clear criteria for membership, including geographic continuity to the Bay of Bengal. If the organization decides to institute an observer status, Beijing could then be invited along with other extraregional powers and multilateral institutions to develop a more formal, albeit limited, relationship.

Deepening Sector-Specific Cooperation

Apart from efforts to sharpen BIMSTEC’s mandate and strengthen its capabilities, India and other member states should also strive to shore up BIMSTEC’s efforts in particular areas, including physical connectivity, trade promotion, and people-to-people exchanges.

Enhance Physical Connectivity

Plans to expand regional integration in the Bay of Bengal will remain a pipe dream unless BIMSTEC members ensure that the hard infrastructure is in place to accelerate the flow of vehicles, vessels, people, and goods across borders. Connectivity will emerge as BIMSTEC’s key challenge for the next few years, and all member states should make this area their utmost priority. No other areas are as important as developing the foundational infrastructure to foster regional ties. As senior Indian official Preeti Saran noted in comparison to trade, “if BIMSTEC were to have land and maritime connectivities as a grouping, that would go a much longer way rather than just keep struggling with [a free trade agreement].”93

The appalling current state of affairs is apparent in two areas especially. First, in continental terms, the India-Myanmar border remains one of Asia’s least open. Until 2015, when a second border point was installed, archaic barter trade prevailed even at what was then the single border point with a full-fledged customs station in Moreh. Land-based trade between the two neighbors remains abysmal at just $71 million (3.5 percent of the bilateral trade).94 As recently as 2015, even antagonistic states such as North Korea and South Korea traded more with each other than India and Myanmar have.95 Second, on the maritime front, BIMSTEC countries do rather poorly in the World Bank’s Logistic Performance Index. On quality and timeliness of port infrastructure, for example, BIMSTEC countries score a collective average rank of ninety, considerably worse than ASEAN members’ average rank of sixty-nine.96

With borders often acting as barriers in the Bay of Bengal, BIMSTEC faces the challenge of encouraging member states to reorient their infrastructure development plans to privilege mutually beneficial connectivity by land, sea, and air. In 2017, Thailand took the initiative by forwarding a draft concept paper for a BIMSTEC Master Plan for Connectivity, and the organization should seek to further such attempts in at least four ways.

First, BIMSTEC should push members to implement existing infrastructure projects that it has already designated as priorities. BIMSTEC launched the seeds of connectivity in the region after it endorsed the BTILS in 2009. It must now revive its recommendations and ensure member states implement them. Out of the 166 infrastructure projects the BTILS identified, sixty-five were given priority—more than half (thirty-three) of which are either in Bangladesh or India. This includes thirty-five projects for road connectivity, twelve projects for railways, and nine each for air and maritime connectivity.97

Connectivity will emerge as BIMSTEC’s key challenge for the next few years, and all member states should make this area their utmost priority.

Second, BIMSTEC should seek other ways to facilitate the free flow of vehicles, vessels, energy, and information throughout the region, so as to deepen integration beyond hard infrastructure projects. As promised in the 2017 ministerial meeting, BIMSTEC must expedite the adoption of the Framework Agreement on Transit, Transshipment and Movement of Vehicular Traffic and the Coastal Shipping Agreement.98 In addition, after the establishment of a BIMSTEC Energy Center, the organization must sign and build on the memorandum of understanding for the establishment of a BIMSTEC Grid Interconnection, which would be an important confidence-building measure for electricity-deficient states such as Bangladesh and Myanmar. Finally, building on the new JIPMER-BIMSTEC Telemedicine Network and the experience of the South Asia Satellite launched earlier this year by India, the organization should also develop resources for a BIMSTEC satellite to share medical, educational, and climate information.

Third, BIMSTEC should devote particular attention to an oft-neglected aspect of regional connectivity: linking the mountain and maritime economies adjacent to the Bay of Bengal. The organization’s members should focus on multimodal connectivity projects that link the Himalayan regions in Bhutan, India, and Nepal to the coastal areas of the Bay of Bengal. Besides geostrategic advantages, such ties would give export-intensive industries in the landlocked highlands a maritime outlet. The development of inland waterways, especially through Bangladesh, will be essential for increasing such alternative transportation connectivity. India’s attempts to offer Nepal privileged coastal access through Visakhapatnam, in Andhra Pradesh, marks a positive step in this direction.99

Fourth, BIMSTEC should consider creating a forum for the border regions of member states. The success of cross-border connectivity projects in the Bay of Bengal region is dependent on member states’ capacity to rope in their border regions, states, and provinces as key stakeholders. BIMSTEC could host a regular dialogue with chief ministers and other leaders from all border regions in its member states to share best practices on increasing transnational cooperation and connectivity.

Encourage Trade

BIMSTEC can take a leading role in facilitating smoother trade flows of goods and services, as well as investments, across some of the world’s most formidable geographic and protectionist barriers. Such efforts will start from a low baseline. Between 2002 and 2014, the share of intraregional trade among BIMSTEC member states rose from 3.6 to just 4.3 percent.100 This remains significantly lower than comparable figures in any other regional trade bloc, including 7 percent among SAARC members, 16 percent among South American Common Market (Mercosur) countries, and 29 percent among ASEAN states.101 Similarly, BIMSTEC’s 3.4 percent share in the world’s total foreign direct investment stock is less than half of ASEAN’s.102 For India, in particular, the BIMSTEC economies continue to represent a negligible fraction of its total trade balance, worth 7 percent of its total exports ($22 billion) and 2 percent of its imports ($9 billion).103

Though driven from the outset by an economic agenda, BIMSTEC has struggled for twenty years to advance integration. Beginning with a 2004 framework agreement for a BIMSTEC FTA, enthusiastic attempts to liberalize trade across the region have failed to make any significant impact. Twenty rounds of talks by BIMSTEC’s Trade Negotiation Committee have been held since then; the last one, in late 2015, ended in stark disagreement and the process stalled.104

In 2016, as part of its renewed focus on BIMSTEC, the Indian government voiced support for reviving negotiations on the FTA among BIMSTEC members. But there seems to be little hope for any major breakthrough in the short term.105 It is worth considering, then, what other dimensions of economic cooperation can be pursued instead of, or in parallel to, trade talks. In that spirit, Sri Lankan analyst Saman Kelegama has noted:

BIMSTEC should not have high hopes on an FTA coming into operation. Indications are that it will drag on for a long time. In this situation, more emphasis should be given to trade facilitation via liberal transit, business-friendly customs, transport corridors, etc. Such a process will partly address some of the non-tariff barriers in the region and catalyze trade.106

While the issue of physical connectivity has taken center stage instead of trade, there are parallel ways for BIMSTEC to push the trade and economic agendas forward in the meantime. First, BIMSTEC members can consider settling for a limited FTA. Given a variety of obstacles facing trade talks, a limited trade deal is currently better than no deal at all. As Sri Lanka’s state minister for foreign affairs, Vasantha Senanayake, has pointed out, “the relevance of BIMSTEC may truly be envisioned only after the proposed FTA comes to fruition.”107 Former BIMSTEC secretary general Sumith Nakandala concurs: “Let’s do the bad deal [and] then revisit it later [because the] FTA is a necessary first step.”108 More than a face-saving exercise, a curtailed FTA would in all likelihood bring at least some benefits to the organization’s least-developed economies, especially Bangladesh and Nepal.109 As Prabir De has noted, such an agreement could help maintain BIMSTEC’s institutional “momentum” and keep the “engine” of integration running for another few years.110

BIMSTEC can take a leading role in facilitating smoother trade flows of goods and services, as well as investments, across some of the world’s most formidable geographic and protectionist barriers.

Second, BIMSTEC can seek to target nontariff trade barriers. However bold it may be, a BIMSTEC FTA will only prove beneficial if nontariff barriers are brought down among the organization’s member states as well. Prabir De has emphasized that these less tangible obstacles are the “actual culprits” impeding integration. He has urged that in parallel to tariff negotiations, BIMSTEC should sequentially focus on facilitating the (1) mutual recognition of national standards, (2) harmonization and development of common standards, and (3) identification and targeted exploration of existing value chains across the region.111

Third, when possible, BIMSTEC should seek to enlist the help of external stakeholders. Regional economic cooperation is more likely to thrive if BIMSTEC can engage with private actors to advocate for and reap the benefits of greater integration. The organization should adopt the Indian-founded Consumer Unity and Trust Society’s recommendation for an annual BIMSTEC economic summit with representatives from the region’s top trade and investment houses. The BIMSTEC Chamber of Commerce and Industry should be revived to take this idea forward, and BIMSTEC members should seek to create an intergovernmental Bay of Bengal investment fund to support seed money for innovative regional entrepreneurship projects.

Fourth, BIMSTEC should consider declaring the bay a blue economic zone. The general idea is that a blue economy seeks to “promote economic growth, social inclusion, and the preservation or improvement of livelihoods while at the same time ensuring environmental sustainability of the oceans and coastal areas.”112 Accordingly, BIMSTEC should build on Bangladesh’s initiative to develop a Bay of Bengal blue economy partnership.113 A first step could be to develop a variety of codes of conduct for resource exploration that could eventually become binding on all private actors operating in member states. The UN’s Bay of Bengal Large Marine Ecosystem Project, set up in 2008 with several regional partners, offers an interesting model that could be replicated.

Identify Secondary Priority Areas

To increase the effectiveness of cooperation, BIMSTEC will have to resist the temptation to do too much at the same time and instead focus on consolidating its limited resources on a few priority sectors. Such progress is contingent on many of aforementioned organizational reforms. After being founded with just six working groups, BIMSTEC added seven new areas for cooperation in 2005 and another one in 2008. Its fourteen current sectors include issues ranging from climate change to tourism, with different lead countries and further subgroups.114 Officials from different countries have pointed to BIMSTEC’s broad portfolio as one of the organization’s principle weaknesses, hindering efforts to deepen focused cooperation in key areas. At the 2014 summit, Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid suggested that BIMSTEC focus on just five areas: connectivity, economic cooperation, energy, security, and people-to-people exchanges.115

Beyond just reducing the number of sectors, BIMSTEC should employ the right criteria to identify what specific areas are ripe for further collaborative efforts. The most important condition in this regard is a realistic assessment of how feasible it is to ensure the participation and involvement of member states, rather than letting ambitious agendas divert the organization’s limited resources. Tangible success in one area, however small, tends to reduce reluctance and increase incentives for member states to collaborate again in other areas. By focusing on a few priority areas and sequencing them, cooperative behavior could progressively spill over into new areas, deepening regional integration. For former Bangladeshi diplomat Tariq Karim, BIMSTEC should therefore “focus on can-do sectors first” and “leave others for later.”116 There are various ways to achieve this. Each member’s rotating chairmanship could, for example, focus on one specific area that each country could then continue to lead after its chairmanship ends, or the organization could revive attempts to have dedicated annual themes.117 Beyond such formal initiatives, four specific areas have potential to serve as priorities for cooperation.

First, BIMSTEC offers the ideal platform for member states to devise an internal code of conduct and best practices to regulate fisheries and protect the Bay of Bengal from overfishing, given that this significant challenge to the bay’s ecosystem is chiefly a problem among BIMSTEC members.118 In recent years, Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar have adopted domestic measures, including seasonal bans, to protect their marine resources.119 However, foreign fishing trawlers regularly violate these regulations, leading to detention and complex repatriation processes that often escalate and affect bilateral relationships.120 BIMSTEC should facilitate a dialogue aimed at implementing multilateral mechanisms that regulate sustainable fishing in the Bay of Bengal and, in case of conflict, offer mediation and support efforts aimed at resolution.

It is essential for BIMSTEC to foster peopleto- people links that can help revive a sense of common belonging in the Bay of Bengal.

Second, BIMSTEC should help its members coordinate their national efforts to monitor the environment. Faced with the disruptive impact of climate change and natural disasters, the Bay of Bengal countries would benefit from pooling their scientific and technological resources to mitigate the effects of climate change. According to one 2015 study, Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar in particular were profoundly affected by extreme weather events between 1994 and 2013.121 These environmental challenges are not restricted to coastal states but also affect the wider Himalayan region, connected through the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) River Basin. Stretching across 1.7 million square kilometers, the GBM is the third-largest freshwater outlet into the world’s oceans and is home to 630 million people in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal.122 BIMSTEC should prioritize efforts to set up regional mechanisms that allow member states to coordinate, cooperate, and share their national resources to monitor and forecast a variety of natural phenomena, including monsoons, winds, tides, riverine flows, and pollution levels.

Third, BIMSTEC should promote the Bay of Bengal region as an integrated tourism area. Speaking at the Colombo International Maritime Conference, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe noted that “the Bay of Bengal has the potential to be the [world’s] biggest [tourist] destination, even rivalling the Caribbean.”123 Following ASEAN’s example in Southeast Asia, BIMSTEC members should launch joint campaigns to promote the entire region, emphasizing its shared heritage and many man-made and natural wonders. By facilitating a dialogue on best practices and strategic plans to develop tourism across borders, BIMSTEC could indirectly create the conditions for greater regional connectivity and mobility. Given the Bay of Bengal’s cultural and religious links, there is particular potential to increase intraregional tourist flows by facilitating visa-free travel. For example, defying the logic of geographic proximity, currently the number of Indians visiting the United States (1.2 million) is almost as many as the number of those visiting the other six BIMSTEC countries combined (1.6 million).124 The 2017 announcement of a BIMSTEC Tourism Fund and Network of Tour Operators is a step in the right direction.

Rekindle People-to-People Ties

Given the Bay of Bengal’s abysmal levels of intraregional connectivity in recent decades, it is essential for BIMSTEC to foster people-to-people links that can help revive a sense of common belonging in the Bay of Bengal. Former BIMSTEC secretary general Sumith Nakandala has thus stated that the organization’s main mission is “to re-enable the environment of cooperation and community in the Bay of Bengal.”125 This requires an investment into less tangible forms of connectivity that increase flows of knowledge among scholars, experts, and various other key audiences in different BIMSTEC countries. High-quality research and mutual exposure to counterparts in other member states can accelerate the rediscovery of a common narrative in which the Bay of Bengal is a distinct community with its own historical, cultural, and geostrategic character. Former Thai ambassador Kobsak Chutikul underlines that “when we imagine a bridge spanning the Bay of Bengal it is not only physical infrastructure—a two-lane highway for trucks—but also a bridge of the mind, a bridge for imagination.”126 To foster such exchanges through expanded people-to-people ties, BIMSTEC must focus on three fronts:

First, BIMSTEC ought to aim to bolster its brand. Despite celebrating its twentieth anniversary in 2017, the organization remains largely unknown to most people in BIMSTEC states beyond government officials. To change this, member states must shore up their budgets for promotional campaigns and activities, following India’s lead this year, as New Delhi announced that it would dedicate new funds to “enhance the visibility of ‘Brand BIMSTEC.’”127 The organization’s annual foundation day, marked on June 6, could be renamed Bay of Bengal Day with a wider set of celebratory initiatives across the region. Finally, the name BIMSTEC is one of the longest and most complex names among regional organizations, a fact that has prompted many experts to suggest a change. The Bay of Bengal Community would be one option.

Second, BIMSTEC should engage sector-specific technical experts. Situated between the government and the wider public, expert groups play a crucial intermediary role in advancing regional integration agendas. BIMSTEC must expand efforts to engage these communities as advocates for greater regional cooperation and leverage their technical know-how in specific areas. Established in 2008, the BIMSTEC Network of Policy Think Tanks should be separated into different subsectors and convened annually. Rather than a one-time affair to launch a vision for 2030, the BIMSTEC Eminent Persons’ Group should be formalized as an advisory council with senior representatives from government, business, and other interest groups committed to the organization’s objectives. BIMSTEC should also reinstitute its young ambassadors program, inactive since 2006, and revive plans for a cultural industries observatory.

Third, BIMSTEC ought to strive to foster community through academic exchanges. No new Bay of Bengal narrative will emerge unless scholars are incentivized to dig into the past and recover the rich sense of community that animated the region until the twentieth century. As historian Sunil Amrith has pointed out, the “hope for a new regionalism lies in recognizing that the bay’s history, as much as its ecology, transcends national frontiers.”128 In coordination with BIMSTEC, member states should commit dedicated resources for cross-country scholarship that identifies both past and present flows of people, capital, and ideas across the region. This should also include specific BIMSTEC scholarships and grants for educational exchanges and collaborative research programs, visiting chairs, and a network of universities focusing on the Bay of Bengal region. Following the Thai government’s announcement of a new BIMSTEC Center, other member states should also be encouraged to designate nodal research institutions for Track II and other people-to-people initiatives.

Stimulate Security Cooperation

BIMSTEC must also boldly embrace its role in encouraging cooperative practices among its member states to address transnational security challenges. It may be tempting to divorce security and economic issues, but doing so is impracticable given the variety and complexity of cross-border challenges in the Bay of Bengal region. For example, as long as insurgent and other armed groups are in effective control of large stretches along the India-Myanmar border, there will be little scope to establish new connectivity projects and accelerate economic development.

At their first meeting, in New Delhi, the BIMSTEC national security chiefs therefore “underscored the importance of recognizing the Bay of Bengal as common security space and agreed to work out collective strategies for common responses.”129 There are currently three main nontraditional security threats that affect all member states and illustrate the need for more coordinated and cooperative behavior.

First, the Bay of Bengal region has witnessed some of the world’s largest refugee flows. In 2017, more than 500,000 people crossed the Myanmar border from Rakhine State into Bangladesh.130 India now hosts an estimated 40,000 displaced people from Myanmar, and there are also small refugee populations in Nepal and Sri Lanka.131 The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that the Bay of Bengal is three times more deadly than the Mediterranean for such refugees.132 Between 2008 and 2013, roughly 1,200 people are believed to have died at sea trying to reach Australia via the Bay of Bengal.133 The flow of such populations has important security implications beyond the region, affecting Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand.

Second, the Bay of Bengal is prone to some of the world’s worst natural disasters. Between 1996 and 2015, calamities in the region took 317,000 lives and displaced more than 16 million people in BIMSTEC countries.134 The region was devastated by the 2004 Asian tsunami, whose death toll was concentrated mostly along the bay’s shores from Sri Lanka to Indonesia. According to one study, seventeen of the world’s twenty-five most devastating tropical cyclones over the last two centuries were located in the Bay of Bengal, with the two most recent ones—Sidr (2007) and Nargis (2008)—claiming almost 150,000 lives and causing an estimated $12.7 billion in economic damage to Bangladesh and Myanmar.135

Finally, the region has witnessed a spike in maritime criminal activities, including piracy and trafficking. In recent years, thousands of Bangladeshi fishermen have been attacked, killed, or taken hostage off the coast of the port of Chittagong. Pirates made more than $1 million in ransoms between late 2011 and late 2012, severely affecting the fishing industry.136 As the main maritime outlet for the Golden Triangle, one of the world’s largest opium-producing areas, the Bay of Bengal also contains key global routes for narcotics smuggling.137 Regional criminal groups also engage in the trafficking of humans and weapons, posing a regional security threat.

To mitigate such complex security challenges, BIMSTEC will have to nudge its member states to share threat assessments and best practices and, in the long run, set up mechanisms to operate collectively. As noted in the joint declaration of the BIMSTEC national security chiefs, this will require initiatives that “enhance cooperation and coordination among their [member states’] law enforcement, intelligence and security organisations and enhance capacity building.”138 BIMSTEC can implement this agenda by focusing on four areas:

  • Develop common legal instruments: To facilitate cooperation between police, security, and judicial agencies in its respective member states, BIMSTEC must accelerate efforts to develop common legal frameworks across the region. Signed in 2009, the Convention on Cooperation in Combating International Terrorism, Trans-National Organized Crime and Illicit Drug Trafficking still requires ratification by two states (Nepal and Bhutan) to come into force. Meanwhile, after an exchange of draft texts, the Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons and Convention on the Extradition of Fugitive Offenders are still being negotiated as is the Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters. Finally, in 2017, member states began negotiating a Convention Against Trafficking in Persons.139 Until such foundational agreements are signed, BIMSTEC members will have trouble acting collectively against common security threats.
  • Offer consultative platforms: BIMSTEC must aim to create forums for government officials and experts from member states to have free and frank dialogues on various security issues affecting the region. Held at various levels, such platforms should institute a more regular exchange of threat assessments, operational experiences, and best practices. For example, in 2014, the BIMSTEC Sub-Group on Combating the Financing of Terrorism hosted a productive discussion on counterfeit currency across the region.140 To multiply such channels, BIMSTEC must now build on the outcome of the first meeting of its national security chiefs, which called for a conference on counter-radicalization, a Track 1.5 security dialogue, and a joint forum on cybersecurity.
  • Set up information-sharing mechanisms: Beyond consultative channels, BIMSTEC should strive to develop new regional institutions for member states to share information. This could include, for example, white shipping agreements for coast guards and navies to exchange data on commercial vessels in the Bay of Bengal. By adopting region-specific mechanisms such as the Automatic Identification System, Port Community System, Vessel Traffic Management System, and Electronic Data Interchange, BIMSTEC would support greater awareness in the maritime domain among its member states. The BIMSTEC Sub-Group on Intelligence Sharing has also discussed the possibility of a region-wide intelligence-sharing mechanism and identified relevant nodal agencies and contacts.141
  • Cultivate operational coordination: BIMSTEC would also do well to serve as a platform for member states to conduct joint military exercises and increase their preparedness to collectively address common threats, crises, and contingencies. Building on the first BIMSTEC disaster management exercise, held in 2017, the organization should push for an annual BIMSTEC joint naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal focusing on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. On land, members should join forces to conduct a regular BIMSTEC counterinsurgency exercise. In the long run, such joint training should eventually lead to operational coordination, whether the aim is to combat pirates at sea or to deny extremist safe havens in borderlands.


As BIMSTEC celebrates its twentieth anniversary, its member states must reflect on how the institution can become a more effective platform to further regional cooperation around the Bay of Bengal. The diverse range of organizational and sector-specific recommendations put forward above cover a variety of issues, and they require different types and levels of investment of financial and technical resources. Given BIMSTEC’s wide regional mandate, the secretariat, member states, experts, and other interested parties will naturally diverge on the hierarchy and relative urgency of many of these recommendations.

Such differences, however, will remain on paper as long as BIMSTEC is not backed politically. This is the single most important—and only necessary—factor for the organization to increase its capacity to implement all the above recommendations and, in so doing, contribute to reviving regionalism in and around the Bay of Bengal. It is, therefore, imperative for governments of BIMSTEC’s seven member states, and of India in particular, to commit financial and political resources beyond mere expressions of intention and support. Repeated delays and the consequent inability to hold the fourth BIMSTEC summit on the organization’s twentieth anniversary in 2017 does not demonstrate such commitment.

The organization now faces an opportunity to realize the vision of an integrated economic space and a bridge between South and Southeast Asia that drove its founding members. Whether it is India’s Act East policy, Thailand’s Look West strategy, Nepal’s search for a coastal connection, or Bangladesh’s commitment to take a leading role in promoting a new brand of regionalism, the interests of BIMSTEC’s seven member states are finally aligned. The key word will be connectivity—be it maritime hubs, riverine links from the Himalayas and hinterland regions to the coast, economic topics like free trade and investments, or the cultural foundations of people-to-people exchanges. Such cross-border linkages in and around the Bay of Bengal are crucial for establishing the region as a distinct economic space and cultural community.

It is, therefore, imperative for governments of BIMSTEC’s seven member states, and of India in particular, to commit financial and political resources beyond mere expressions of intention and support.

On the other hand, while the organization is pivotally important for fostering economic integration around the Bay of Bengal, this should not preclude its member states from pursuing parallel paths to increase connectivity between the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. As the only multilateral organization focused on the Bay of Bengal, BIMSTEC’s priority areas, in fact, overlap with and complement many other initiatives that seek to bridge what remains one of the world’s least integrated regions.

Fulfilling the Bay of Bengal’s tremendous economic potential requires a cooperative approach. BIMSTEC is well equipped to play a major role in facilitating this new regionalism. But its member states will have to endow the organization with adequate resources to transform its bold vision for the Bay of Bengal into reality.


The author is grateful to George Perkovich for his inputs on a draft of this paper. The author would also like to thank Aarushi Aggarwal, Nikita Coutinho, Saksham Khosla, Arushi Kumar, Sreeja Kundu, Rakshit Mohan, Charvee Puri, and Ayan Tandon for their excellent research and editorial assistance.


1 Sunil S. Amrith, “Crossing the Bay of Bengal: the Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 9. The seven countries, from east to west, are Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, and Sri Lanka.

2 S.M. Nazmul Hassan, “Strengthening Railway Transport Connectivity in the South and Southwest Asia,” BIMSTEC presentation, New Delhi, March 15–16, 2017, 3, For average growth rates, see Table 3.

3 David Brewster, “The Rise of the Bengal Tigers: The Growing Strategic Importance of the Bay of Bengal,” Journal of Defence Studies 9, no. 2 (April–June 2015): 90,

4 Uttam Kumar, Md. Sohel Parvez, Jewel Das, Chowdhury Mohammad Nizamuddowla, and Satya Ranjan Tarafdar, “Capture Fisheries Scenario of the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh in Last Two Decades Through Industrial Freezer Trawler,” Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries 3, no. 1 (April 2016): 217–226,

5 Ellen L. Frost, “It’s Time to Deepen Integration Around the Bay of Bengal,” Carnegie India, May 31, 2017,

6 Shoumik Hassin, “Building a Stronger BIMSTEC in Next 20 Years,”, May 29, 2017,

7 Vasantha Senanayake, “Statement by Hon. Vasantha Senanayake, State Minister of Foreign Affairs of Government of Sri Lanka at the Fifteenth Sessions of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) Ministerial Meeting,” Kathmandu, August 11, 2017, 1.

8 V. Suryanarayan, “Prospects for a Bay of Bengal Community,” Seminar Magazine no. 487, March 2000,

9 Second Roundtable of BIMSTEC Network of Think Tanks, “BIMSTEC Integration: Challenges and Tasks Ahead” (Kolkata: Center for Studies in International Relations and Development, April 2015), 18,

10 World Intellectual Property Organization, “Framework Agreement on the BIMST-EC Free Trade Area and its Protocol and the Declaration Establishing the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation,” June 1997,

11 These remarks were made at a Carnegie India discussion led by Ambassador Sumith Nakandala, Secretary General of BIMSTEC, in the aftermath of the BRICS-BIMSTEC Leaders’ Outreach Summit and the BIMSTEC Leaders’ Retreat. Sumith Nakandala, “BIMSTEC and the Bay of Bengal,” Carnegie India, November 4, 2016,

12 C. Raja Mohan, “Raja Mandala: Bay of Bengal’s Glad Tidings,” Indian Express, October 11, 2016,

13 Ashok Sajjanhar, former ambassador in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs at a private discussion hosted by Carnegie India, New Delhi, November 4, 2016.

14 Government of India, Prime Minister’s Office, Press Information Bureau, “BIMSTEC Leaders’ Retreat 2016 Outcome Document, October 17, 2016,

15 Author interview with Sumith Nakandala, former secretary general of BIMSTEC, New Delhi, March 30, 2017.

16 Sumon Mahbub, “BIMSTEC for ‘Sonar Bangla,”, March 4, 2014,

17 Governments of India and Bangladesh, “India-Bangladesh Joint Statement During the State Visit of Prime Minister of Bangladesh to India,” High Commission of India, April 8, 2017,

18 Meera Srinivasan, “India, Sri Lanka Sign Energy Pact,” Hindu, April 28, 2017,

19 The author chaired a discussion led by Sujeev Shakya, chairman at the Nepal Economic Forum. “Unleashing East South Asia,” Carnegie India, New Delhi, February 15, 2017,

20 Sher Bahadur Deuba, Fifteenth BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting Inaugural Address, Kathmandu, Nepal, August 10, 2017,

21 Indian Ministry of External Affairs, “Prime Minister’s Message on 20th Anniversary of Establishment of BIMSTEC,” June 6, 2017,

22 Rajiv Bhatia, “Brighter Prospects Ahead for BIMSTEC,” Gateway House, June 5, 2017,

23 “BIMSTEC is Unlikely to Move Forward,” Hindu, March 31, 2015,

24 Indian Ministry of External Affairs, “Question No. 1933 New Regional Grouping in Place of SAARC,” Rajya Sabha (parliament Q&A), January 4, 2018,

25 Constantino Xavier, “India Can’t Afford to Wait for an Obstinate Pak and a Moribund SAARC,” Hindustan Times, October 5, 2016,

26 K. Yhome, “BIMSTEC and India’s Shifting Diplomatic Calculus,” Observer Research Foundation, October 3, 2016,

27 “BIMSTEC: The Road Ahead,” Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS), 2016, 11.

28 Indian Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation, “Statistical Year Book India 2016: Area and Population,” 2016,

29 Second Roundtable of BIMSTEC Network of Think Tanks, “BIMSTEC Integration: Challenges and Tasks Ahead,” 11; Indian Ministry of External Affairs, “Statement by External Affairs Minister During the 14th BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar,” March 3, 2014,

30 For a viewpoint on the Bay of Bengal as a new theater of Sino-Indian competition, see Nilanthi Samaranayake, “The Long Littoral Project: Bay of Bengal: A Maritime Perspective on Indo-Pacific Security,” CNA, September 2012,

31 Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, “India Planning to Set Up SEZ in Myanmar’s Sittwe,” Economic Times, August 2, 2016,

32 Author interview with Prashant Agrawal, joint secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi, May 9, 2017.

33 Narendra Modi, “Prime Minister’s Speech at 2014 SAARC Summit in Nepal,” November 26, 2014,

34 Arun Jaitley, “Text of the Speech of Union Minister of Finance Shri Arun Jaitley at the Meeting of the South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) Countries in New Delhi Today,” Indian Ministry of Finance Press Information Bureau, April 3, 2017,

35 Arun Jaitley, “Union Minister of Finance of India Shri Arun Jaitley at the Meeting of the Finance Ministers of the South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation Countries in New Delhi,” April 3, 2017,

36 Nilova Roy Chaudhury, “IORA Takes Shape With India Stressing Security Collaboration,” South Asia Monitor, March 15, 2017,

37 Indian Ministry of External Affairs, “Framework Agreement on Cooperation for Development between India and Bangladesh,” September 6, 2011,

38 The joint working group has met for three rounds of talks, the last being in January 2016. Indian Ministry of External Affairs, “Third Joint Working Group (JWG) Meetings on Sub-Regional Cooperation Between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal (BBIN) (January 19–20, 2016),” For background, see

39 For instance, Pakistan refused to sign on to the SAARC Regional Agreement on Motor Vehicles (RAMV), and Islamabad also stalled negotiations toward a SAARC energy grid and a SAARC satellite. Furthermore, it refused to grant India transit rights to trade with Afghanistan.

40 Constantino Xavier, “India’s ‘Like-Minded’ Partnerships to Counter China in South Asia,” Center for the Advanced Study of India, September 11, 2017,

41 Darshana M. Baruah, “Toward Strategic Economic Cooperation Between India and Japan,” Carnegie India, December 1, 2016,; Vindu Mai Chotani, “India and Japan: Reconnecting in the Bay of Bengal,” Observer Research Foundation, January 11, 2016,

42 Arun Jaitley, “Text of the Speech of Union Minister of Finance Shri Arun Jaitley at the Meeting of the South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) Countries in New Delhi Today.”

43 Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali, “Statement by His Excellency Mr. Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali, M.P., the Hon’ble Foreign Minister of the Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh,” Fifteenth BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting, August 11, 2017,

44 Rajiv Bhatia, “Brighter Prospects Ahead for BIMSTEC.”

45 “BIMSTEC: The Road Ahead,” RIS, 13.

46 Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali, “Statement by His Excellency Mr. Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali, M.P., the Hon’ble Foreign Minister of the Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.”

47 “BIMSTEC: The Road Ahead,” RIS, 32.

48 Indian Ministry of External Affairs, “Official Spokesperson’s Response to a Query on Participation of India in OBOR/BRI Forum,” May 13, 2017, For a summary of Indian concerns about the BRI, see Dhruva Jaishankar, “India Feeling the Heat on Belt and Road,” Lowy Institute, August 21, 2017,

49 “Sri Lanka Backs India’s Concerns Over China’s OBOR Project,” Times of India, May 16, 2017,

50 Ranil Wickremesinghe, “Global Power Transition and the Indian Ocean,” inaugural address, Indian Ocean Conference, September 1, 2016, 6,

51 In September 2017, for example, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina brought up the issue of Rohingya refugees in her meeting with outgoing BIMSTEC secretary general Sumith Nakandala. “Myanmar’s Way of Dealing Insurgents Causing Problem for Bangladesh, Says PM,” Daily Star, September 7, 2017,

52 On the issue of refugees and internally displaced people, for example, India is one of the few major powers that are not signatories to the United Nations Refugee Convention. During recent conflicts in Sri Lanka (2006–2009) and Myanmar (2017), the respective governments have, in some cases, opposed the presence of representatives from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

53 This idea had been recommended as early as 2001 at the fourth senior officials meeting. “Report of the Fourth BIMSTEC Senior Officials Meeting,” BIMSTEC Secretariat, December 19–20, 2001, Yangon,'%20Meeting%20Report,%2019-20%20Dec%202001,%20Myanmar.pdf.

54 Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation: Background,” December 2013,

55 Saman Kelegama, “Regional Economic Integration in the Bay of Bengal,” Daily Star, February 25, 2016,

56 Author interview with Tariq Karim, former high commissioner of Bangladesh to India, New Delhi, May 18, 2017.

57 Author interview with Kunzang Namgyal Tshering, director, BIMSTEC Secretariat, New Delhi, June 23, 2017.

58 Author interview with Indian government official familiar with BIMSTEC’s working relationships with member state bureaucracies, New Delhi, June 2017.

59 Author interview with Tariq Karim, New Delhi, May 18, 2017.

60 Estimation by various officials interviewed.

61 Author interview with Kunzang Namgyal Tshering, New Delhi, June 23, 2017. Other approximate country-level shares of contributions are as follows: Thailand (17 percent), Bangladesh (14 percent), Sri Lanka (13 percent), Myanmar (12 percent), and Nepal (11 percent).

62 Ibid. Please also see Economist data team, “Measuring the Cost of Living Worldwide,” March 21, 2017,

63 Mandates are for three years to ensure rotation. The director from Bangladesh will be replaced by one from Myanmar in 2017, the one from Bhutan by a Nepalese one in 2019, and the one from India by a Sri Lankan one in 2020.

64 Arndt Michael, “Assessing Regional Cooperation in South Asia and Beyond,” India in Transition, Center for the Advanced Study of India, March 9, 2015,

65 “Report of the Third BIMSTEC Senior Officials Meeting,” BIMSTEC Secretariat, July 4–5, 2000, New Delhi,'%20Meeting%20Report,%204-5%20Jul%202000,%20New%20Delhi.pdf.

66 Author interview with Tariq Karim, New Delhi, May 18, 2017.

67 BIMSTEC, “BIMSTEC Mechanism,”

68 Author interview with Sumith Nakandala, New Delhi, March 30, 2017.

69 “BIMSTEC: The Road Ahead,” RIS, 7.

70 “Report of the Fourth BIMSTEC Senior Officials Meeting,” BIMSTEC Secretariat, December 19–20, 2001. Author interviews with ambassador Pinak R. Chakravarty and Tariq Karim, New Delhi, May 18, 2017.

71 Rajiv Bhatia, “Brighter Prospects Ahead for BIMSTEC.”

72 National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR), “India in a South Asian Context,” NBR Rsearch for the Senate India Caucus, August 2014,

73 “BIMSTEC: The Road Ahead,” RIS, 13.

74 Sujatha Singh, “Transcript of Media Briefing by [Indian] Foreign Secretary,” Indian Ministry of External Affairs, February 26, 2014,

75 These figure are based on data compiled in annual Indian Ministry of External Affairs budgets from 2015–2016 to 2017–2018. See Indian Ministry of External Affairs, “E-Citizen/Tenders: Budget,” February 10, 2017,

76 Author interview with Sumith Nakandala, New Delhi, March 30, 2017.

77 Amrith, “Crossing the Bay of Bengal: the Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants,” 29.

78 Ranil Wickremesinghe, “Address by H.E. Ranil Shriyan Wickremesinghe, Prime Minister of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka,” World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF) Foundation, August 2, 2016, Indian scholar V. Suryanarayan has called for Singapore and the Maldives to join the organization. V. Suryanarayan, “Prospects for a Bay of Bengal Community,” Seminar Magazine no. 487, March 2000,

79 Interviews with various BIMSTEC and Indian government officials, New Delhi, June 2017.

80 Author interview with Prashant Agrawal, joint secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi, May 9, 2017.

81 Ibid.

82 See, for example, the draft of an early institutional joint statement. BIMST-EC, “Joint Statement for the BIMST-EC [later BIMSTEC] Ministerial Meeting,” Dhaka, December 1998,'%20Meeting,%2017-18%20Dec%201998,%20Dhaka.pdf.

83 “Report of the Ninth BIMSTEC Senior Officials Meeting,” BIMSTEC Secretariat, May 31–June 1, 2005, Dhaka,'%20Meeting%20Report,%20Dhaka%2031%20May%20-%201%20June%202005.pdf.

84 Author interview with official familiar with BIMSTEC’s infrastructure initiatives, New Delhi, June 2017. The Asian Development Bank wanted to set up a unit along the lines of the Greater Mekong Subregion. Asian Development Bank, Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS),

85 Indian Ministry of Finance Press Information Bureau, “The Union Finance Minister Asks the Asian Development Bank to Set Up a Regional Hub in New Delhi for the South Asia Region to Meet Growing Aspirations of the People,” May 7, 2017,

86 See point fourteen in the “Report of the Second BIMSTEC Senior Officials Meeting,” BIMSTEC Secretariat, Dhaka, December 18, 1998,'%20Meeting,%2017-18%20Dec%201998,%20Dhaka.pdf.

87 “Report of the Fifth BIMSTEC Senior Officials Meeting,” BIMSTEC Secretariat, Colombo, December 18–19, 2002,'%20Meeting%20Report,%2018-19%20Dec%202002,%20Colombo.pdf.

88 Second Roundtable of BIMSTEC Network of Think Tanks, “BIMSTEC Integration: Challenges and Tasks Ahead,” 14. The second quote is from Rajiv Bhatia, “Brighter Prospects Ahead for BIMSTEC.”

89 World Intellectual Property Organization, “Framework Agreement on the BIMST-EC Free Trade Area and its Protocol and the Declaration Establishing the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation.”

90 Author interview with Kunzang Namgyal Tshering, New Delhi, June 23, 2017.

91 Guy De Launey, “Has Chinese Power Driven ASEAN Nations Apart?” BBC, July 19, 2012,

92 Author interview with an Indian government official, New Delhi, June 2017.

93 “BIMSTEC: The Road Ahead,” RIS, 14.

94 “India’s Engagements With CLMV: Gateway to ASEAN Markets,” Export-Import Bank of India, Occasional Paper no. 180, February 2017,

95 Between 2011 and 2015, trade between North Korea and South Korea ranged between $1.7 billion and $2.7 billion and was mostly land-based. Trade between Seoul and Pyongyang decreased markedly in 2016. Bank of Korea, “Gross Domestic Product Estimates for North Korea in 2017,” press release, July 22, 2017,

96 See data for 2016. “International LPI Global Ranking,” World Bank, 2016,

97 Md. Shafiqur Rahman, “Promoting Transport Connectivity in Southern Asia: A BIMSTEC Perspective,” United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, November, 20, 2014,

98 Indian Ministry of External Affairs, “Joint Statement of the 15th BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting,” August 11, 2017,

99 Hari Bansh Jha, ‘Visakhapatnm Port: More Beneficial to Nepal,” Vivekananda International Foundation, August 16, 2017,

100 “BIMSTEC: The Road Ahead,” RIS, 2.

101 Mohammad Masudur Rahman and Chanwahn Kim, “SERSC Prospects for Economic Integration of BIMSTEC: Trade and Investment Scenario,” International Journal of u- & e- Service, Science and Technology 9, no. 4 (2016),

102 In 2015, the ASEAN figure was 7 percent, while the SAARC figure was 3 percent. N. Chandra Mohan, “BIMSTEC: An Idea Whose Time Has Come,” Observer Research Foundation no. 164, November 2016, 3,

103 See the 2014–2015 data. Indian Ministry of Commerce and Industry, “Trade Share of India with BIMSTEC Countries,” November 30, 2015,

104 India, for example, wanted to renegotiate the product specific rule. Member states also disagreed about the timeline. For a detailed discussion, see Jayshree Sengupta, “BIMSTEC-FTA: A New Hope for Enhanced Regional Trade,” Observer Research Foundation, September 19, 2017,

105 “India Pushing for Consensus on BIMSTEC Free Trade Pact: Nirmala,” Indian Express, October 15, 2016,

106 Kelegama, “Regional Economic Integration in the Bay of Bengal.”

107 Senanayake, “Statement by Hon. Vasantha Senanayake, State Minister of Foreign Affairs of Government of Sri Lanka at the Fifteenth Sessions of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) Ministerial Meeting.”

108 Author interview with Sumith Nakandala, New Delhi, March 30, 2017.

109 According to one study, a BIMSTEC FTA would have overall benefits for all member states, with a positive effect on the real GDP growth rate ranging between Myanmar (5 percent) and Thailand and India (less than 1 percent). For a less optimist estimation, see Mohammad Masudur Rahman and Chanwahn Kim, “SERSC Prospects for Economic Integration of BIMSTEC: Trade and Investment Scenario.”

110 Author interview with Prabir De, professor at the Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS), New Delhi, August 9, 2017.

111 Ibid.

112 “The Potential of the Blue Economy,” World Bank, 2017, p. vi.

113 “Bangladesh Seeks ‘Bay of Bengal Partnership’ for Blue Economy,” bdnews24,com, September 2, 2014,

114 For a list of all these areas, see BIMSTEC, “Areas of Cooperation,” India leads four working groups; Thailand leads three; Bangladesh and Myanmar each lead two; and Bhutan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka each lead one.

115 Indian Ministry of External Affairs, “Statement by External Affairs Minister During the 14th BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting” Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, March 3, 2014,

116 Author interview with Tariq Karim, New Delhi, May 18, 2017.

117 This ended up becoming Visit BIMSTEC Day in 2004. “Report of the Second BIMSTEC Senior Officials Meeting,” BIMSTEC Secretariat.

118 Amitav Ghosh and Aaron Savio Lobo, “Bay of Bengal: Depleted Fish Stocks and Huge Dead Zone Signal Tipping Point,” Guardian, January 31, 2017,

119 See, for example, measures by Bangladesh. “65-day Ban on Deep Sea Fishing from May 20,” Daily Observer, May 6, 2015,

120 See, for example, the case of Myanmar, where foreign fishing vessels reportedly illegally catch approximately 100 times as many fish as local ones do. San Yamin Aung, “Myanmar Bans Foreign Fishing From Its Waters,” Asia Sentinel, April 3, 2014,

Between October 2014 and May 2015, BNGL marine law enforcers detained thirty-three foreign trawlers from India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. “65-day Ban on Deep Sea Fishing From May 20.”

For an overview of India-Sri Lanka disputes, see V. Suryanarayan, “The India-Sri Lanka Fisheries Dispute: Creating a Win-Win in the Palk Bay,” Carnegie India, September 9, 2016,

121 S. Kreft, D. Eckstein, L. Junghans, C. Kerestan, and U. Hagen, “Who Suffers Most From Extreme Weather Events? Weather-related Loss Events in 2013 and 1994 to 2013,” Global Climate Risk Index 2015, November 2014, 6–7,

122 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Basin,” Water Report 37, 2011,

123 Madushka Balasuriya, “Para Diplomacy Key in Unlocking Bay of Bengal Potential: PM,” Colombo International Maritime Conference, 2016,

124 U.S. Department of Commerce, National Travel and Tourism Office, “2016 Monthly Tourism Statistics: Table C- Section 5: India, Japan, South Korea, PRC (Excl. HK), ROC (Taiwan), Non-Resident Arrivals to the U.S, By World Region/Country of Residence 2016,” July 2017,

125 Author interview with Sumith Nakandala, New Delhi, March 30, 2017.

126 Hassin, “Building a Stronger BIMSTEC in Next 20 Years.”

127 Indian Ministry of External Affairs, “Statement by External Affairs Minister During the 15th BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting,” Kathmandu, August 11, 2017,

128 Sunil S. Amrith, “The Bay of Bengal in Peril from Climate Change,” New York Times, October 13, 2013,

129 Indian Ministry of External Affairs, “First Meeting of the BIMSTEC National Security Chiefs,” March 21, 2017,

130 “Rohingya Emergency,” United Nations High Commission for Refugees, January 7, 2018,

131 Neeta Sharma, “Rohingya Population Shot Up Four-Fold in 2 Yrs to 40,000, Parliament Told,” NDTV India, August 10, 2017,; Puja Sen, “Life for Rohingya Refugees in Nepal Is Better Than in India and Bangladesh, But Only Marginally, Wire, September 21, 2017,

132 UN News Center, “Bay of Bengal ‘Three Times More Deadly’ Than Mediterranean for Migrants and Refugees, February 23, 2016,

133 “1,200 Lankan Refugees Died Trying to Reach Australia,” Hindu, January 23, 2016,

134 Indian Ministry of Home Affairs, Pressu Information Bureau, “Shri Rajnath Singh Inaugurates the First BIMSTEC Disaster Management Exercise,” October 10, 2017,

135 Peter J. Webster, Violeta Toma, and Hyemi Kim, “Probability, Prediction and Decisions - A South Asian Project,” Presentation at Sub-Seasonal Prediction Workshop, Exeter, December 2010, 6–7,

136 Anurag Chakma, “Maritime Piracy in Bangladesh,” International Policy Digest, June 24, 2014,

137 Kamal Uddin Bhuiyan and Md. Jahangir Alam, “Maritime Crimes and Regional Cooperation,” Independent, November 30, 2015,

138 Indian Ministry of External Affairs, “First Meeting of the BIMSTEC National Security Chiefs.”

139 For the current status of these and other agreements, please see: Indian Ministry of External Affairs, “Joint Statement of the 15th BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting,” August 11, 2017,

140 BIMSTEC Sub-Group on Combating the Financing of Terrorism, Thimphu, Bhutan, May 4, 2015, (accessed on July 18, 2017).

141 BIMSTEC, Sub-Group on Intelligence Sharing, “Report of the Third Meeting of the BIMSTEC Sub-Group on Intelligence Sharing,” Colombo, Sri Lanka, (accessed on July 18, 2017).