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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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.

Missed Opportunities and the way ahead

Commenting on BIMSTEC’s track record (The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) 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.”

In the words of former Indian ambassador Rajiv Bhatia, this is crucial because BIMSTEC has been “innovative but under-performing.” 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.

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 post-colonial 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.”

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?

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.” Sri Lanka, for one, has expressed concerns about the BRI. 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.

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. 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 behaviour of extra-regional 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.

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.

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.

This article was originally published in the Print.