Is BIMSTEC an alternative to SAARC? – A comprehensive analysis for UPSC Civil Service


International organizations facilitate cooperation and coordination among member nations. India, one of the nations in the South Asian Region, is a member of both SAARC and BIMSTEC. The South Asian region covers three percent of the total land in the world. The South Asian region has a diverse socio-economic set up with a young demographic dividend in search of employment. The region has countries with the fastest-growing economies in the world. This topic is important for UPSC civil service exam for GS2 – International Relations.

Subject wise insight for UPSC civil service exam (Prelims and Mains)

Mains GS2 – International Relations

What is BIMSTEC?


  • The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is a regional based organization.
  • It includes seven countries (Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Nepal, and Bhutan) that lie in the littoral and adjacent areas of the Bay of Bengal. BIMSTEC includes the countries of the Bay of Bengal region: five countries from South Asia and two from ASEAN.
  • It was launched on 6 June 1997 through the Bangkok Declaration.
  • Initially, it was formed with four countries with the acronym BIST-EC (Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand Economic Cooperation. From the inclusion of Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan, the name of the group was changed to ‘Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation’ (BIMSTEC).
  • The objective is to accelerate growth through cooperation in different areas of common interests by utilizing regional resources and geographical advantages.
  • BIMSTEC is a sector-driven cooperative organization. The sectors include trade, technology, energy, transport, tourism fisheries, agriculture, public health, poverty alleviation, counter-terrorism, environment, culture, people to people contact and climate change.
  • India is leading in subsectors like transportation & communication, tourism, environment and disaster management, counter-terrorism and transnational crime.
  • The BIMSTEC region comprises around 22% of the global population with a combined gross domestic product (GDP).
What is SAARC?


  • The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is the regional organization in South Asia.
  • It was established in 1985.
  • The member states of the SAARC are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
  • The SAARC aims to promote the welfare of the people; to accelerate economic growth, social progress and culture development; and to strengthen collective self-reliance.
  • It comprises nearly 21% of the world’s population and 4.21% of the global economy.
  • South Asian University is one of the specialized bodies of SAARC. It was established in 2010 in India.
Will SAARC replace BIMSTEC?
  • The main aim of the SAARC is to enhance regional cooperation in South Asia. However, the organization has not had a smooth run. Numerous agreements have been signed under SAARC, but they have not been implemented.
  • Disputes among the member countries have slowed down the decision process. The shortage of resources makes the countries to be reluctant to increase their contribution. The cold war between India and Pakistan is the major reason for the failure of the organization.
  • The annual summit has been postponed for more than 11 times. The conflict between India and Pakistan had a severe impact on the summit.
  • At the 18th SAARC summit in Kathmandu in 2014, initiatives such as the SAARC– Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA) was not signed due to Pakistan’s dithering.
  • The 19th SAARC summit scheduled to be held in Pakistan was called off as India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan decided to boycott it.
  • The SAARC failed to nurture the cooperation between South Asian countries and the future of SAARC remains uncertain.
  • In recent years, BIMSTEC has gained popularity among South Asian countries as a platform for regional cooperation.
  • The good relationship among the member countries is one of the reasons for its popularity. Though BIMSTEC has been launched in 1997, it has impressive records.
  • BIMSTEC’s primary focus is on economic and technical cooperation among the countries of South Asia and South-East Asia. It acts as a vehicle for regional cooperation.
  • BIMSTEC also helps smaller countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan to develop connectivity with ASEAN countries. Compared to SAARC, BIMSTEC has greater trade potential as well.
  • Regular summits, improving the capacity of the manpower and funding, ensuring tangible results can make the BIMSTEC as a powerful organization.
  • BIMSTEC offers many opportunities for its member countries. For India, it aids in its  Act East Policy and South-South cooperation efforts. It also provides the opportunity to work together to create a common space for peace and development.
  • In 2016 India hosted a regional grouping that brought together most countries in South Asia and the leaders of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). India had not invited the leaders of SAARC even though India had spent more political capital and effort to make SAARC work than on BIMSTEC.
  • One of the reasons for India’s interest in BIMSTEC was Kaladan Multimodal project which is favorable to India.
Kaladan Multimodal Project
  • Kaladan Multimodal Project, one of the major projects of BIMSTEC, was signed by India and Myanmar in 2008. It added value to the economic, commercial, and strategic ties between India and Myanmar.
  • Kaladan Multimodal Project sought to link India and Myanmar which was the implementation of Act East Policy.
  • It is called as Multimodal Project because it uses three different modes of transport (sea route, river route, and roadway). The project connects Kolkata to Sittwe port in Myanmar, and then Mizoram by river and road.
  • The new route through Sittwe would significantly lower the cost and distance of movement from Kolkata to Mizoram and beyond.
The other important projects are
  1. Trilateral Highway Project between India, Myanmar, and Thailand
  2. The Highway Project between Moreh (Manipur) and Mandalay (Myanmar)

The SAARC and the BIMSTEC focus on geographically overlapping regions. However, this does not make them equal alternatives. SAARC is a purely regional organization, whereas BIMSTEC is inter-regional and connects both South Asia and ASEAN. The possibility of SAARC’s revival remains. The success of BIMSTEC does not render SAARC pointless; it only adds a new chapter in regional cooperation in South Asia.

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