BIMSTEC and South Asian Integration

BIMSTEC as key to a new South Asian regional order

#GS 02 International Relations

For Prelims


  • The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is a regional multilateral organisation.

There are five South Asian nations:

  • Bangladesh
  • Bhutan
  • India
  • Nepal
  • Sri Lanka

There are two southeast Asian nations:

  • Myanmar
  • Thailand


  • Initially, the economic bloc was formed with four countries with the acronym ‘BIST-EC’ (Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation).
  • With the entrance of Myanmar in 1997, the grouping was renamed ‘BIMST-EC’ (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation).
  • Finally, with the entrance of Nepal and Bhutan at the 6th Ministerial Meeting in 2004, the grouping was named Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).
  • Pakistan is not a BIMSTEC member.

South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC):

  • The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was established with the signing of the SAARC Charter in Dhaka on 8 December 1985.
  • SAARC was established by Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to promote economic growth in South Asia.
  • Afghanistan became the latest member of SAARC at the 13th annual summit in 2005.


For Mains:

The failure of SAARC:

  • South Asia continues to be an extremely poor and least integrated region in the world.
  • The intraregional trade and investment in South Asia are very low when compared to other regions such as the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Pakistan has adopted an obstructionist attitude within SAARC by repeatedly blocking several vital initiatives such as the motor vehicles agreement, aimed at bolstering regional connectivity.
  • Deepening hostility between India and Pakbistan has made matters worse.
  • Since 2014, no SAARC summit has taken place leaving the organisation rudderless, and practically dead.

The Need of Regional Integration:

  • A greater regional integration helps in promoting other promising regional institutions such as the South Asian University (SAU), which is critical to buttressing India’s soft power in the region.
  • Regionalism has brought immense success in other parts such as East Asia and Africa as seen by the spectacular success of ASEAN.
  • Regionalism can deliver prosperity in the South Asian region too, especially because multilateralism is weakening.

The significance of BIMSTEC:

  • While a revived and resurgent SAARC seems to be the most ideal for a more united South Asia, current political climate is rather unfavourable to it.
  • So, the next best scenario is to look at other regional instruments such as BIMSTEC.
  • The BIMSTEC Charter is significantly better than the SAARC Charter.
  • For instance, unlike the SAARC Charter, Article 6 of the BIMSTEC Charter talks about the ‘Admission of new members’ to the group.
  • This paves the way for the admission of countries such as the Maldives.

Concerns about BIMSTEC:

  • The BIMSTEC Charter does not contain the flexible participation scheme of the kind present in the ASEAN Charter.
  • This flexible scheme, also known as the ‘ASEAN Minus X’ formula, allows two or more ASEAN members to initiate negotiations for economic commitments.
  • Thus, no country enjoys veto power to thwart economic integration between willing countries.
  • A flexible ‘BIMSTEC Minus X’ formula might have allowed India and Bangladesh or India and Thailand to conduct their ongoing bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations under the broader BIMSTEC umbrella.

What needs to be done:

  • A high-quality FTA offering deep economic integration would be an ideal step.
  • Likewise, India should explore legal ways to move successful SAARC institutions such as SAU to BIMSTEC.
  • These steps will give stronger roots to BIMSTEC and enable erecting a new South Asian regional order based on incrementalism and flexibility, ushering in prosperity and peace in the region.

Source “BIMSTEC as key to a new South Asian regional order