International Relations

India’s shifted diplomatic energy from SAARC to BIMSTEC

SAARC Charter Day is observed on December 8. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), an intergovernmental organisation, was founded on this day, 37 years ago.


  • Establishment: On December 8, 1985, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the SAARC Charter was signed, thus establishing the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
  • Members: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka founded this intergovernmental organisation. Later, Afghanistan joined SAARC.
  • Secretariat: On January 17, 1987, the Association’s Secretariat was established in Kathmandu.
  • Objectives: According to the SAARC Charter, the region’s goals are to advance the welfare of its citizens and raise their standard of living, to speed up economic expansion, social advancement, and cultural development, to give everyone the chance to live with dignity and reach their full potential, and to encourage and strengthen regional unity.

SAARC achievements

  • SAARC has utterly failed to achieve the majority of its goals.
  • The world’s most impoverished and least integrated region is still South Asia.
  • When compared to other regions like the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia’s intraregional trade and investment are quite low.
  • By continually opposing important measures like the motor vehicles accord, which is intended to improve regional connectivity, Pakistan has chosen an obstructionist stance within SAARC.
  • Things have gotten worse as India and Pakistan’s enmity has grown. Since 2014, there hasn’t been a SAARC summit, leaving the organisation directionless and all but dead.

Bilateralism or religionalism

  • Bilateralism can support regional efforts rather than replace them. According to a new narrative, India can successfully advance its interests in South Asia by favouring bilateralism over regionalism. Bilateralism is unquestionably vital, but it can only serve to supplement rather than to replace regional or multilateral initiatives.
  • Regionalism in East Asia and Africa: In other areas, including East Asia and Africa, regionalism has had great success. The South Asian region can benefit from regionalism as well, especially since that multilateralism is waning.
  • Idea for a new regional economic system: International lawyers Julien Chaisse and Pasha L. Hsieh have developed the idea of a new regional economic order in response to ASEAN’s spectacular success in regional integration. This process involves developing countries looking for a trade-development model that is based on incrementalism and flexibility as opposed to the neoliberal model established by the Washington Consensus.


  • The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is a regional organisation made up of seven member states that are located in or close to the Bay of Bengal. These seven states together form a contiguous regional unity.
  • Establishment: On June 6, 1997, the Bangkok Declaration led to the creation of this sub-regional organisation.
  • Serve as a bridge between South and South East Asia: The regional group strengthens ties between these nations by serving as a bridge between South and South East Asia.
  • Platforms for intra-regional cooperation between SAARC and ASEAN nations have been established by BIMSTEC, which also offers platforms for inter-regional cooperation.

Importance of BIMSTEC

  • India switched its diplomatic focus from SAARC to BIMSTEC: India appears to have switched its diplomatic focus in recent years from SAARC to BIMSTEC. As a result, BIMSTEC this year adopted its Charter for the first time in 25 years.
  • Better than the SAAC charter is BIMSTEC: The BIMSTEC Charter outperforms the SAARC Charter by a wide margin. For instance, Article 6 of the BIMSTEC Charter discusses the “Admission of new members” to the organisation, unlike Article 6 of the SAARC Charter. This makes it possible for nations like the Maldives to be admitted.
  • No flexible formula, though, like “ASEAN Minus X”: Despite the advancements, the BIMSTEC Charter lacks the flexible participation system seen in the ASEAN Charter in order to promote economic integration. Two or more ASEAN countries may start discussions for economic obligations using this flexible framework, sometimes known as the “ASEAN Minus X” formula. As a result, no nation has the ability to prevent economic integration between willing nations.
  • It is odd that BIMSTEC does not have a more flexible participation structure given Pakistan’s obstructive behaviour within SAARC, where Pakistan consistently vetoes various regional integration attempts. India and Bangladesh or India and Thailand may have conducted their ongoing bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations under the more inclusive BIMSTEC framework if the “BIMSTEC Minus X” formula had been flexible. By permitting the slow and incremental expansion of these contractual obligations to other members, this would have eventually strengthened BIMSTEC. India ought to advocate for this change to the BIMSTEC Charter.

Steps to be taken

  • In order to prevent BIMSTEC from becoming another SAARC, its member nations should increase the bar. The best course of action would be a high-caliber FTA that offered comprehensive economic integration, something that Prime Minister Narendra Modi also supported at the most recent BIMSTEC ministerial meeting.
  • India should look into legal options to transfer successful SAARC institutions like SAU to BIMSTEC in order to make the organisations more adaptable and promote peace and prosperity in the region. These actions will strengthen BIMSTEC’s foundation and make it possible to establish a new regional order for South Asia based on incrementalism and flexibility, bringing wealth and peace to the area.


The best course of action will be to revitalise SAARC by injecting political energy into it and amending its antiquated Charter because South Asia cannot reject regionalism. This, however, is overly optimistic given the current situation. Considering additional regional tools like the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral, Technical and Economic Cooperation is therefore the next best course of action (BIMSTEC).

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