With the SAARC summit having been cancelled after the boycott by India and most other members, the eyes are now on the little-known BIMSTEC grouping. Its third summit is to take place along with BRICS summit in Goa mid-October.
BIMSTEC, which is short for Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, has five of SAARC members in it, plus Myanmar and Thailand. The only SAARC members who aren't in BIMSTEC are Pakistan and Afghanistan.
With India's ties with Pakistan having gone beyond repair, at least for the time being, there is feeling of “give-up” over SAARC in India's foreign office. Though officials deny that SAARC is dead, they have begun stressing on the advantages of BIMSTEC. “It's an issue-free relationship that we have among the members of BIMSTEC,”said secretary (east) Preeti Saran, meaning that there are no bilateral tensions as there are between India and Pakistan within SAARC. Though the nomenclature is around the Bay of Bengal, two landlocked SAARC members, Nepal and Bhutan, are also in it. “Most of the economic outreach (of Nepal and Bhutan) to the world is through India and the Bay of Bengal,” pointed out an officer in the ministry of external affairs.
India is a founder-member of BIMSTEC, and energising it would also accelerate India's Act East policy. The other advantage is that it would give impetus to India's domestic goal of developing the northeastern region, which is the country's geographical gateway to the east and sourtheast Asia.
Another plus-point with BIMSTEC, which will complete 20 years of virtually unnoticed existence, is that all members have concerns, though in varying degrees, about the increasing profile of China in their neighbourhood. On the contrary, within SAARC, the attitude towards China has been quite dissimilar to one another's. While Pakistan has a interrelationship of strategic trust with China, India has strategic suspicions towards China.
Already, Bangladesh, which was the original founder of SAARC, has started sounding out other BIMSTEC members on BIMSTEC eventually eclipsing SAARC.
Foreign ministry officials, always cautious, say that it is too early to write the obituary for SAARC. They also point out that while SAARC is run by a formal charter and therefore has a structural order to its functions, BIMSTEC is still only a talking club of countries who have some common economic interests.
The friendly left-out members can be still be roped into BIMSTEC business. The Maldives can become a natural member, being located in the contiguous maritime zone of BIMSTEC members. When asked about Afghanistan, Amar Sinha, joint secretary in the foreign office, pointed to the possibility of trading through the Iranian port of Chabahar, and opening an air corridor to Kabul and Kandahar.