International Relations

Multilateralism in the Light of BIMSTEC

While the efficacy of multilateral cooperation is frequently questioned in the midst of compelling force politics and global power politics, the world simply does not have any other option than structured cooperation. The fate of BIMSTEC, like the progress and relevance of multilateral cooperation, must be contextualised in a world order that demands action and resolve.

What is BIMSTEC?

  • The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is an international organisation of seven South Asian and Southeast Asian countries with a combined GDP of US$4.4 trillion (2022).
  • Members: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand are among the countries that rely on the Bay of Bengal.

BIMSTEC’s current situation

  • Inadequate connectivity and resources: On the one hand, BIMSTEC’s geographical boundaries suffer from poor intra-regional connectivity, which is critical to increasing economic engagement; on the other hand, the grouping itself is beleaguered by a lack of an institutional structure, operational blueprint, and financial resources.
  • Newfound passion: In recent years, the BIMSTEC has demonstrated intent, with member nations taking the first steps since the organization’s inception toward providing the latter agency, mobility, and funds.
  • Recent activities include the adoption of a charter that grants the grouping legal status; a reduction in the number of priority areas from 14 to seven pillars, allowing for more focused engagement; the signing of memorandums on technology transfer, diplomatic training, and a master plan on connectivity, all of which are critical to the grouping’s future as aspirational countries in a region that has already become the gravitational centre of global connectivity.
  • Economic and political stability: The’renewal of interest’ after more than two decades is attributed to the economic and political stability and growth that member countries (except Myanmar) have witnessed, as well as the world’s interest being directed towards opportunities in the Indo-Pacific and an increasingly hostile China.
  • BIMSTEC must cover a lot of ground: On paper, the BIMSTEC is well-positioned as a regional organisation to focus shared efforts on harnessing member nations’ economic, natural, and labour potential.

Understanding Multilateralism/Multilateral Cooperation

  • A hybrid rather than a binary assessment of multilateralism: An assessment of multilateralism must move away from binary understandings of world architectures. In essence, they are hybrid affairs, combining universal aspirations like human rights with a more mundane system of managed competition. This format is not going away.
  • Achieving common goals through collective strengths: Multilateral organisations serve as facilitators of regional goals by pooling the strengths of members for advancement, as lobbying entities for regional aspirations and demands on the global stage, and as the core purpose of these organisations. However, multilateralism has its own set of drawbacks.
  • Political disagreements: Perhaps the most significant limitations of multilateral engagement are ineffectiveness and becoming unwieldy as they include several member countries in certain types of decision-making, particularly political decision-making.
  • This is especially true of large regional or global organisations, with ASEAN serving as an exception to the rule.
  • Mini-laterals: To address this issue, smaller and more focused initiatives in the form of mini-lateral engagement have emerged in recent years, allowing smaller and more ‘like-minded’ nations to band together for function-based cooperation.
  • As an example, consider BBIN: In the South Asian region, one example of mini-lateral engagement is the BBIN sub-regional framework, which has struggled due to operational complexities.

What should be the next step?

  • Addressing illegal migration: Multilateral forums also allow for coordinated articulations of regional challenges. Among the BIMSTEC’s common challenges are irregular migration, environmental degradation, transnational crimes, terrorism and insurgencies, and drug trafficking, the mitigation of many of which requires the involvement of the world’s major powers, particularly on the issue of migration and climate action.
  • Support through the G20 presidency: India’s G20 presidency in 2023 provides a unique opportunity to use New Delhi’s strengthened position in global politics to rally support for BIMSTEC’s requirements and objectives.
  • Intention is more powerful than obstacles: The success of any organisation, large or small, is dependent on the members’ intent, regardless of operational, financial, political, or institutional constraints.
  • Finance, institutions, and organisation: There has been much concern about BIMSTEC, a grouping comprised of members from what is frequently referred to as the world’s least integrated region, lacking sufficient financing and institutional structures to guide its operations. Nonetheless, because the organisation has shown intent thus far, BIMSTEC’s promise has more clout than its impediments.

@the end

BIMSTEC has suffered from a lack of funding, a dedicated institution, and a proper grouping structure. Hopefully, new mini-laterals (BBIN) will revitalise the BIMSTEC in a much stronger and more successful way. India should take the initiative in reviving this multilateral forum.

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