The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation
(BIMSTEC) was established in 1997. Its members are Bangladesh, Bhutan, India,
Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. On 11 August 2017, the 15th BIMSTEC
Ministerial Meeting was held in Kathmandu. Addressing the meeting, India’s External
Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said, “For India, BIMSTEC is a natural choice to fulfil
our key foreign policy priorities of ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act East’…..”1 These
policies were enunciated by the Modi led Government which assumed office in May
2014. Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka are part of India’s immediate
neighbourhood wherein the ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy is implemented. Thailand
and Myanmar are members of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations)
which is central to India’s Act East policy. BIMSTEC connects South Asia to Southeast
Asia and most of the member countries are littorals of the Bay of Bengal. Given their
importance, a BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach Summit was organised at the BRICS (Brazil,
Russia, India, China, and South Africa) Summit in India in October 2016. A BIMSTEC
Leaders’ Retreat was also held on this occasion wherein the member countries pledged
to make BIMSTEC stronger, more effective and result oriented.
In the above context, this issue brief looks at the origin of BIMSTEC; the
discussions held at the BIMSTEC Leaders’ Retreat in October 2016; and the
significance of the Joint statement of the 15th BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting.
The paper argues that BIMSTEC, in its twentieth year, will play a decisive role in
transforming the Bay of Bengal as a hub of constructive maritime activity. The
BIMSTEC leadership is keen to implement maritime cooperation wherein issues of
multi-modal connectivity, ensuring maritime security, combating challenges of
climate change, and tapping opportunities of Blue Economy have been prioritised. For
India, BIMSTEC has an important role to play in its larger maritime vision. Also, the
Bay of Bengal is part of India’s primary area of maritime interest in the northern
Indian Ocean Region. 2


Origin of BIMSTEC
India’s interest in establishing BIMSTEC needs to be seen in the context of India’s
Look East Policy (LEP). The cold war geo-politics had limited India’s interactions with
Southeast Asia. After the end of cold war, India engaged with Southeast Asia bilaterally
and multilaterally through the LEP enunciated in 1992 under Prime Minister
Narasimha Rao. In 1992, India became a Sectoral Partner with ASEAN and in 1996 a
full Dialogue Partner.3
With the success of LEP, it was opined that these interactions could be utilised
for the economic development of India’s landlocked Northeast States which share land
boundaries with Bangladesh and Myanmar. According to Ambassador Ranjit Gupta,
who had been India’s ambassador to Thailand in the nineties – “The most important
point in favour of BIMSTEC was that it was meant to focus on the economic
development and stability of the Northeast by doing away with its isolation and lack of
connectivity with its geographical neighbours and even mainland India; remedying
this remoteness and this lack of connectivity lay at the heart of the idea of BIMSTEC”.
4 Thus, the primary reason motivating India to join BIMSTEC was that it will directly
connect South Asia to Southeast Asia and would provide economic opportunities to
India’s Northeast states.
On 6 June 1997, the officials of the countries of Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka
and Thailand established BIST-EC ie Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand
Economic Cooperation through the Bangkok Declaration. On 22 December 1997,
Myanmar joined the grouping and BIST-EC was amended to BIMST-EC ie
Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand Economic Cooperation. In February
2004 Nepal and Bhutan joined the grouping and since then the acronym BIMSTEC
stands for Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic
Coopeartion. BIMSTEC collectively comprises twenty two per cent of global
population and has a GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of US$2.85 trillion.

BIMSTEC is a sector driven co-operative organisation which seeks to create
an enabling environment for rapid economic development through projects that can
be dealt with most productively on a sub-regional basis making best use of available
synergies among member countries. The sectors for cooperation include transport and
communication, tourism, environment, disaster management, counter-terrorism,
trans-national crimes, trade and investment, climate change, cultural cooperation,


energy, agriculture, poverty alleviation, fisheries, public-health, people-to-people
contacts, and technology.

However, the grouping failed to take off due to disinterest among the
leadership and difficult bilateral relations among the member countries. A permanent
Secretariat was established in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2004 and only three summit
meetings have been held so far. The first in Thailand in 2004; the second in New
Delhi in 2008; and the third in Nay Pyi Taw in Myanmar in 2014. The fourth is slated
to be held in Nepal in 2017.
In its twentieth year however the situation in BIMSTEC is promising.
Bilateral relations have improved and the political leadership, including that from
India, is showing renewed interest in BIMSTEC. The maritime agenda of cooperation
has also assumed primacy. All this has to be seen in the context of global power shifting
from Europe to Asia with the economic rise of China and India; ninety per cent of
international trade including trade in critical energy resources being conducted

through the seas; the BIMSTEC littoral countries of Bay of Bengal being geo-
strategically located along important international shipping lanes; and the need to tap

the opportunities being offered by Blue Economy.
For India, the Bay of Bengal is part of the Indian Ocean Region which India
considers as its primary areas of maritime interest. Its engagement in BIMSTEC is part
of India’s larger maritime vision wherein SAGAR 7, SAGARMALA8, Project Mausam9,
Act East10 and India as a ‘net security provider’11 are being implemented. They propose
a shared security architecture in the maritime domain and thus emphasise
cooperation. Significantly, except Bhutan and India, the rest of BIMSTEC countries
are part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It is in India’s interest that
BIMSTECs maritime agenda be a success for then the members will be sensitive to
India’s security concerns while they maintain relations with China.
The re-orientation of BIMSTEC is closely linked to India’s Act East Policy. It
was at the India-ASEAN Summit in Myanmar in November 2014, that India stated
that its ‘Look East Policy’ has become ‘Act East Policy’. ASEAN is at the heart of India’s
Act East policy wherein focus is not only on economic but strategic and security
interactions too. India-ASEAN summit level partnership was established in 2002;
strategic partnership in 2012; and presently there are thirty annual institutional
mechanisms between them. While earlier India’s north-eastern states were looked
upon as a land bridge connecting India to ASEAN, presently its inland waterways


along with the ports of Bangladesh are being looked upon as a critical connecting link
to ASEAN. In fact, the Indian President inaugurating the Brahmaputra River festival
in April 2017 said, “The development of this national waterway can give Assam access
to international ports like Chittagong in Bangladesh. This will give Assam an exposure
to international trade and commerce. With the Act East Policy taking forefront, Assam
is perfectly positioned to become the corridor of the country to the ASEAN nations”.12
When connectivity with ASEAN improves, BIMSTEC too benefits.
India is taking steps to augment infrastructure and capacity at all major
ports on the eastern sea board which overlook the Bay of Bengal and the BIMSTEC
region to augment trade with ASEAN. This will have a direct bearing on BIMSTEC as

Myanmar and Thailand are part of both ASEAN and BIMSTEC. The Kaladan Multi-
modal Transit Transport Project is important in this connectivity plans13. It aims to

connect Kolkata Port with Sittwe seaport in Myanmar by sea; it will then link Sittwe
seaport to Lashio in Myanmar via Kaladan river boat route and then from Lashio on
to Mizoram in India by road transport.14 Another connectivity project is India
Myanmar Thailand Trilateral Highway project. It seeks to provide seamless
connectivity from Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar. Discussions
are taking place to extend this Trilateral Highway to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. 15
India’s diplomacy with the immediate neighbourhood is based on India’s
‘Neighbourhood First Policy’ with focus on connectivity, contact and cooperation.
Connectivity projects and strong bilateral diplomacy at the highest level form the
bedrock of this policy. 16 This policy, has specific relevance to India’s immediate
neighbours in the east i.e. Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh which along with India’s
Northeast states form the sub-region BBIN i.e. Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal
Growth Quadrangle. This entire region, which is part of BIMSTEC too, looks to the
ports of Bangladesh and India to access the Bay of Bengal. On the other hand, Sri
Lanka, another BIMSTEC member has opined that it looks to strengthen economic
cooperation in the Bay of Bengal.
These countries are focusing on ‘connectivity’ in the maritime domain. This
refers to enabling coastal shipping between countries; connecting inland waterways to
ports; connecting landlocked regions through roadways and waterways to ports;
facilitating a seamless movement of people and goods through the waterways and
ports of the South Asian region; and connecting the coast guards of the concerned
countries so that maritime security is ensured. This will result in a secure and safe


maritime space from traditional and non traditional threats so that economic activities
are not hindered and movement of people and goods is possible.
The BIMSTEC Leaders’ Retreat, Goa, India 2016
On 16 October 2016, the leaders of the BIMSTEC member countries met in Goa, India
for the BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach Summit and released an Outcome Document too.
This meeting was held in the background of the terror attack on 18 September 2016 on
an army camp in Uri in the state of Jammu and Kashmir in India. Later the 19th
SAARC Summit scheduled to be held in Pakistan in November 2016 was postponed.
India had opined that that the increasing cross-border terrorist attacks in the region
and growing interference in the internal affairs of Member States by one country had
created an environment that was not conducive to the successful holding of the 19th
SAARC Summit in Islamabad in November 2016.

It was in this context that the dominant narrative was that India was trying
to focus on BIMSTEC as SAARC was embroiled in difficulties. However, this paper
argues that BIMSTEC has a relevance and significance independent of SAARC. Infact,
by holding the BIMSTEC meet while BRICS Summit was being held, India sought to
convey to the BRICs countries especially China that the Bay of Bengal falls under its
area of influence.
Some of the issues spelt out in the outcome document are that terrorism
remains the single most significant threat to peace and stability in the region; the need
for implementation of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change as it impacts
livelihoods of the people in the Bay of Bengal; closer cooperation in Disaster
Management through joint exercises; need to focus on multi-modal physical
connectivity (air-rail-roads-waterways); look into possibility of a BIMSTEC Motor
vehicle agreement; deepen cooperation in agriculture sector to facilitate food security;
need for sustainable development of fisheries as the Bay of Bengal region is home to
over thirty per cent of world fisheries; tap into the enormous potential of Blue
economy; explore ways to deepen cooperation in areas of aquaculture, hydrography,
sea bed mineral exploration, coastal shipping, eco-tourism and renewable ocean
energy to promote sustainable development of the region.

As a follow up, the First Meeting of the National Security Chiefs of BIMSTEC
member states was hosted in New Delhi on 21 March 2017. The member states
emphasised the importance of recognising the Bay of Bengal as a common security


space and developing a holistic approach towards maritime security cooperation
which would include Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief too. The meeting
decided to establish Track 1.5 BIMSTEC Security Dialogue Forum. The issue of
terrorism was also discussed. It is important to note that India is the lead country in
areas of Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime; Transport& Communication;
Tourism; and Environment and Disaster Management. 20
Through BIMSTEC, India is focusing on issues of maritime cooperation in a
benign manner in the Bay of Bengal. However this should be seen in the context of
power projection which takes place on a different platform. For example in July 2017,
the USA-Japan-India trilateral Malabar exercises involving the navies of these three
countries took place off the coast of Chennai in the eastern coast of India in the Bay of
Bengal. 21
15th BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting, Kathmandu, 11 August 2017
The momentum initiated in Goa 2016 continued to have a positive impact at the15th
BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting. The joint statement issued at the conclusion of the
meeting indicates to the constructive activities which will be held in the months to
come. Bangladesh would hold a BIMSTEC Experts’ Workshop on Climate Change; the
third BIMSTEC Energy Ministers Meeting would be held in Nepal in 2018; India will
organise the First Annual Disaster Management Exercise in October 2017; an
International Conference on Blue Economy will be hosted by Bangladesh in October
2017; and the fourth BIMSTEC Summit would be held in Nepal.
The members also decided to conclude at the earliest the BIMSTEC Free
Trade Area; the Trade Facilitation Agreement; and Agreement on Mutual Assistance
on Customs Matters. The MoU on Establishment of BIMSTEC Grid Interconnection
was finalised; and discussions will be held on Framework Agreement on Transit,
Transhipment and Movement of Vehicular Traffic (BIMSTEC Motor Vehicle
Agreement); BIMSTEC Coastal Shipping Agreement; and Thailands Draft Concept
Paper on BIMSTEC Master Plan for Connectivity. Discussions were also held on issues
of counter-terrorism and Transnational Crime; the importance of sustainable
development of fisheries for food security; mountain economy; and tourism. 22
The Bangladesh Foreign Minister rightly said, “Connectivity is the key to
overall cooperation which is lagging behind among BIMSTEC countries.
Transportation of people and business through air-rail-road and seas and connectivity


of ideas, knowledge and skills are fundamental to boost mutual cooperation and
partnership in all other areas among BIMSTEC countries.”23

For India, BIMSTEC was an outcome of its Look East Policy where focus was on geo-
economics. Twenty years hence, BIMSTEC has an added strategic relevance and needs

to be examined in the context of Act East Policy and Neighbourhood First. All
BIMSTEC member countries are aware that they are geo-strategically located and
recent BIMSTEC meetings have prioritised maritime issues. There is a realisation that
maritime security is necessary to tap the economic opportunities offered by Blue
Economy. Most important, BIMSTEC is not a substitute for SAARC and was never
meant to be.
The Bay of Bengal is part of the Indian Ocean Region which India terms as
its primary areas of maritime interest. India needs to sustain the cordial bilateral
relations in BIMSTEC and ensure that the connectivity projects are implemented. The
resultant maritime activity will not only benefit the people of the region but also ensure
that India’s influence in the region prevails.


*G. Padmaja is Regional Director of the Visakhapatnam Chapter of the National
Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi. The views expressed are her own and do
not reflect the official policy or position of the NMF. She can be reached at

Notes and References

1 Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, Statement by External Affairs Minister at the 15th

BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting in Kathmandu (August 11, 2017),

isterial_Meeting_in_Kathmandu_August_11_2017 (last accessed 26 August 2017)
2 Ministry of Defence (Navy), Government of India, Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security
Strategy, October 2015, Chapter 2, Maritime Security : Imperatives and Influences, pp 32
3 Dinesh Yadav, ‘Look East’ to ‘Act East’ : India’s Policy Shift or ‘Old Wine’ ?, p 50-63 in India and
China, Constructing a Peaceful Order in the Indo-Pacific, ed., Gurpreet S Khurana and Antara Ghosal
Singh, Dialogue Series, National Maritime Foundation, 2016


4 Leonora Juergens, “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow – An Interview with Amb Ranjit Gupta”, 4 June

2014, Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies,
and-tomorrow-bimstec-an-interview-with-amb-ranjit-4494.html (last accessed 26 August 2017)

5 Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, Statement by External Affairs Minister at the 15th

BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting in Kathmandu (August 11, 2017),

isterial_Meeting_in_Kathmandu_August_11_2017 (last accessed 26 August 2017)
6 The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, ( last accessed 3 September 2017)
7 Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, Prime Minister’s Remarks at the Commissioning
of Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) Barracuda in Mauritius (March 12, 2015),

_Vessel_OPV_Barracuda_in_Mauritius_March_12_2015, (last accessed 27 February 2017)
8 Press Information Bureau, Government of India, Ministry of Shipping, Sagarmala National
Perspective Plan Released, 14 April 2017,,
(last accessed 27 February 2017); Also refer to Indian Prime Minister Modi’s speech at the

inauguration of the ‘Maritime India Summit’ 2016.
inauguration-of-maritime-india-summit-2016- in-mumbai-440341 (last accessed 31 December 2016)

9 Press Information Bureau, Government of India, Ministry of Culture, 25 April 2016, ( last accessed 27 February 2017); Press
Information Bureau, Government of India, Ministry of Culture, Project ‘Mausam’ Launched by
Secretary, Ministry of Culture, 21 June 2014, (last accessed 27 February 2017); Ministry
Of Culture, Government of India, Mausam: Maritime Routes and Cultural Landscapes, (last accessed 27 February 2017)
10 Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, Prime Minister’s remarks at the 9th East Asia Summit, Nay

Pyi Taw, Myanmar, 13 November2014,

(last accessed 5 September2017)

Ministry of Defence (Navy), Government of India, Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security
Strategy, October 2015, Chapter 5, Strategy for Shaping a favourable and positive maritime
environment, pp. 78-101
12 “Prez inaugurates Namami Brahmaputra, says Assam can be India’s link to SE Asia” Hindustan

Times, e-paper, 31 March 2017, at
KPzT6War0NJLn4HZpTJ8KI.html, accessed 8 June 2017 ; Abdus Salam, “There is a feeling that now

the Northeast will grow”, The Wednesday Interview with Sarbananda Sonowal, Assam Chief Minister ,
The Hindu, 24 May 2017, Visakhapatnam Edition
13 Keynote Address of Secretary (East) at the Joint Inaugural Session (Business & Academic) of Delhi Dialogue IX , July

05, 2017

_Business_amp_Academic_of_Delhi_Dialogue_IX (last accessed 5 September 2017)
14 Ministry of Development of northeastern Region, Government of India, Kaladan Multimodal
Transit Transport Project, (last accessed 1
September 2017)


15 B Muraidhar Reddy, India Thailand hopeful of Trilateral Highway by 2016, The Hindu, 8 June 2016,
2016/article4766782.ece (last accessed 5 September 2017)

16 For details refer, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, One Year of
ish_final__2_.pdf (last accessed 27 February 2017)
17 Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Nepal, Press Release on the Postponement of the 19th

SAARC Summit, 2 October 2016,
summit/ (last accessed 5 September 2017);

18 After Uri Attack, India Boycotts SAARC Summit in Islamabad, ,The New Indian Express, 27

September 2016,
SAARC-Summit-in-Islamabad-MEA-1523580.html (last accessed 5 September 2017)

19 Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, BIMSTEC Leaders’ Retreat 2016 Outcome Document 17

October 2016,
documents.htm?dtl/27501/BIMSTEC_Leaders_Retreat_2016_Outcome_Document (last accessed 5

September 2017)
20 Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, First meeting of the BIMSTEC National Security Chiefs

(March 21, 2017)

17 ( last accessed 5 September 2017)

V Ayyapan, Malabar 2017: India kicks off naval exercise with US, Japan, Times of India, 10 July

joint-attempt-to-address-common-challenges/articleshow/59524855.cms (last accessed 5 September

22 Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, joint Statement of the 15th BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting

(August 11, 2017)

_11_2017 ( last accessed 5 September 2017)
23 The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, 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 at the 15th Ministerial Meeting of BIMSTEC on 11
August 2017 in Kathmandu, Nepal , ( last accessed 3
September 2017)



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