BIMSTEC: Why Britain should increase strategic cooperation

With the Royal Navy’s Carrier Strike Group (CSG21) having returned last month following its successful seven-month long deployment from the United Kingdom (UK) to Japan, it has become abundantly clear that Britain has become increasingly clear-eyed about its strategic objectives in the region. 

UK engagement with regional diplomatic and sub-regional alliances, as demonstrated by the expanded outreach towards the Association of Southeast Asian Nations over the past year, highlights what appears to be a focal characteristic of Her Majesty’s (HM) Government’s current Indo-Pacific policy: closer strategic and political cooperation with regional and sub-regional alliances in pursuit of British interests.

It is in this respect that the significance of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) – a sub-regional grouping of seven countries bordering or situated near the Bay of Bengal – should come into greater focus among British policymakers. At a time when Chinese revisionism is on the rise within the broader Indo-Pacific, the UK ought to step up its current cooperation with BIMSTEC – both as a bloc and with the group’s constituent governments.

What is BIMSTEC?

Established in June 1997[↗], BIMSTEC is a sub-regional alliance of seven countries bordering or located near the Bay of Bengal: India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand. The group is aimed at facilitating several shared objectives among its member states, including economic cooperation, the enhancement of regional communication infrastructure, and combating climate change.

Home to approximately 22% of the world’s total population and with a combined economic output[↗] of over US$2.7 trillion, BIMSTEC’s strategic relevance has only grown as major powers such as the United States (US), the UK and France focus more on Asia and the Indo-Pacific amid a context of growing Chinese belligerence across the region in terms of both military and economic.

Add to this the geostrategic importance of the Bay of Bengal as providing an entry point into both the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea and the membership of key rising economies and UK partners such as India, Bangladesh and Thailand among others, and it becomes clear why HM Government should engage with the bloc in line with the policy objectives[↗] of ‘Global Britain’. 

The Chinese threat

At a time when Britain seeks to expand her naval presence in the Indo-Pacific in pursuit of an increasingly assertive and outward-looking foreign policy, the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) economic expansion across the region and within certain BIMSTEC countries, calls for  a strong British response in close coordination with its allies. This is something which can only be done through increased diplomatic and strategic engagement with BIMSTEC itself. 

Examples of Chinese investments in strategic infrastructure across the Bay of Bengal range from the well-known case[↗] of Hambantota port in BIMSTEC member-state Sri Lanka to Kyaukpyu port in Myanmar, with Chinese involvement on the latter having been catalysed[↗] following the military coup in the country in February 2021.

The consequences for Britain and its allies of tolerating this Chinese debt-trap diplomacy in port and energy infrastructure in BIMSTEC countries are dire. Chinese economic control over such projects essentially translates into direct control over the maritime trade routes and maritime communication lines across the Bay of Bengal. Such control would give the PRC significant leverage over all regional and non-regional stakeholders in the vicinity. 

At a time when the UK seeks to expand its presence and grow its power projection capabilities across the region in coordination with its partners – as underscored by the CSG21’s joint exercises[↗] with the Indian Navy in July 2021 – allowing certain BIMSTEC countries to fall prey to Chinese attempts to monopolise their strategic infrastructure poses a significant potential threat to British foreign policy objectives in the Indo-Pacific.

The recent spate of US sanctions against governments of and individuals from key BIMSTEC member-states – specifically against Sri Lankan military officers[↗] and Bangladeshi law enforcement agencies[↗] – may drive these two democracies further into the PRC’s arms. In such circumstances, Britain ought to step in to prevent this from happening, which would ultimately have repercussions for British maritime activity within the region. 

This requires engaging more with BIMSTEC at the diplomatic, economic and military levels, both as a bloc, and with its individual member states. Expanded British defence exports to BIMSTEC member-states, the appointment of a military liaison officer with the bloc, and the sharing of British intelligence with BIMSTEC partners would also help reflect the seriousness of HM Government’s engagement with the bloc.

Additionally in this respect, Britain may follow the model set forth by Japan within the BIMSTEC region in working alongside partners and BIMSTEC member-states such as India to provide economic alternatives to Chinese investment in strategic infrastructure projects. Japan’s close cooperation with India on joint investment programmes across the region are increasingly crucial in stemming unchecked Chinese economic belligerence. In March 2021, the Sri Lankan cabinet cleared an Indo-Japanese joint venture[↗] to build the West Container Terminal, located right next to a US$500-million project Chinese infrastructure project within Colombo port- essentially diluting the economic leverage the PRC holds over poorer BIMSTEC members such as Sri Lanka. 

The UK could take a leaf out of the Japanese playbook by engaging in joint financial ventures with companies in India, a democracy with a large economy currently at the frontline of countering Chinese revisionism at both a financial and geopolitical level. Such a line of action would similarly act in accordance with the ‘Global Britain’ doctrine, as British companies expand to new markets while projecting the UK’s power and influence.

Climate Change

Cooperation on issues of climate security provide yet more avenues for engagement between the UK and BIMSTEC. With taking leadership in the global pushback against climate change having become an increasingly fundamental cornerstone of British foreign policy over the past year – as demonstrated by the successful hosting of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in 2021 – the UK would do well to engage more deeply with the rapidly growing BIMSTEC economies.

With most BIMSTEC member’ urban population centres concentrated in low-lying areas along the Bay of Bengal coastline, they remain particularly vulnerable to climate change induced-challenges such as rising sea levels and the impact on agriculture. The BIMSTEC states have already signalled their interest in cooperation with the UK on this issue, as highlighted by the presence of an official delegation at COP26 from each of its members barring Myanmar.

The potential areas of cooperation on climate change between the UK and BIMSTEC are considerable. Diplomatic engagement between the UK and BIMSTEC members would facilitate negotiation on contentious issues such as carbon taxes. It would also provide British companies with opportunities to invest in the various smart city infrastructure projects taking place across BIMSTEC members, aimed at providing better standards of living while reducing net fossil fuel consumption. 

Scientific and academic cooperation between British universities and their BIMSTEC counterparts on issues of climate change would enable both sides to gain a better understanding of its impact across the world, and how best to tailor solutions to the problem with respect to different regions’ environmental conditions and strategic interests.

Therefore, increased strategic cooperation with BIMSTEC ought to take centre-stage in the UK’s current Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’, especially as post-Brexit Britain seeks to expand to new markets and shed the old reticence in establishing its presence ‘East of Suez’. As the expanded outreach towards ASEAN[↗] has demonstrated, engagement with regional and sub-regional blocs within the Indo-Pacific today forms an increasingly critical aspect of British foreign policy. It is in this respect that stepped-up strategic cooperation with BIMSTEC remains especially important, both for its own geostrategic interests and those of its regional allies.

Archishman Goswami is the Operations and Membership Coordinator at the Council on Geostrategy.

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