The countries surrounding the Bay of Bengal are witnessing a surge in cooperation and are actively raising their profiles in the international arena. Recognizing the strategic importance of this vast maritime region, with its abundant resources and potential benefits, these nations are coming together to strengthen bilateral ties and maximize the opportunities it presents.
A significant step towards this cooperation was taken last week when seven foreign ministers from the Bay of Bengal region held a retreat in Bangkok. Remarkably, this was the first time such an informal meeting has taken place since the inception of the regional organization in 1977. The retreat was met with enthusiasm and yielded fruitful discussions, leading the leaders to agree on holding such gatherings at least three times a year, beginning immediately. India has also pledged to host the next retreat on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York in September, showcasing the renewed vigor of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec).
Comprising the world’s largest democracy, India, along with four other South Asian countries (Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and Nepal), and two ASEAN members (Thailand and Myanmar), Bimstec holds a unique position in fostering regional cooperation and collaboration.
During the retreat, a wide range of issues were discussed, including common concerns such as food, health, and energy security. Technology solutions and the exchange of best practices were also explored, aligning with the objective of enhancing growth and promoting prosperity for all member countries.
Bimstec serves as a crucial platform for nations facing challenges and crises, as they can hold bilateral talks to discuss common problems and explore possible solutions. The region, home to nearly 1.5 billion people and with a combined GDP close to US$2.7 trillion, has the potential to become a significant force in the Global South. The recent establishment of an Eminent Persons Group further cements Bimstec’s relevance, as it draws up a future roadmap for the organization.
Thailand, as the current chair, is keen on strengthening connectivity within the bloc and promoting the Master Plan for Transport Connectivity. The India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway is a key project that Thailand is eager to see completed to enhance regional connectivity. Additionally, maritime transport cooperation and the Coastal Shipping Agreement are being pursued to leverage the region’s vast coastal areas and port facilities.
As geopolitical competition between major powers intensifies, small and middle powers are increasingly turning to mini-lateral forums like Bimstec to bolster cooperation and safeguard their interests. For Thailand, Bimstec presents a valuable platform to engage with India and other South Asian countries while maintaining existing ties with other global powers. Maritime cooperation among Bimstec members will also serve as preventive measures against security challenges, such as irregular sea-borne displaced persons and piracy.
Overall, the rejuvenation and better synergy among Bimstec members aim to promote their well-being, strengthen their strategic leverage, and enhance their international profiles within the Global South. As these countries work together, their collective values and interests will gain strength to counter external influences that may seek to undermine their sovereignty and prosperity.