The BIMSTEC potential
Former Indian ambassador Anil Wadhwa looks at why 2019 is a crucial year for regional organisation BIMSTEC
The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is an organisation which brings together Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal. The aim of this regional organisation is to bridge the gap between South and Southeast Asia, and to enhance the potential of the member countries by mitigating the effects of globalisation by utilising regional resources and geographical advantages. A permanent secretariat for the organisation has been functional in Dhaka since August 2014. BIMSTEC is increasingly being seen as an alternative to SAARC- which has been in a logjam due to Pakistani intransigence on a series of cooperative projects.
BIMSTEC is a sector-driven organisation and by 2008, it had added 15 sectors as focus areas of cooperation – trade and investment, strengthening medical and Buddhist tourism, technology, energy, transport and communication, tourism, fisheries, agriculture, public health, poverty alleviation, counter terrorism and transnational crime, environment and disaster management, cultural cooperation, people-to-people contact and climate change. Work has begun on a new charter for BIMSTEC, which has so far functioned on the basis of the Bangkok declaration of 1997, outcomes of the four summits, and a Leaders Retreat in 2016. This makes 2019 a crucial year for the organisation.
The fourth summit held in August 2018 has taken some important decisions which include setting up of a Permanent Working Committee to provide direction during the intra summit periods, and preparing the Rules of Procedure. The secretariat has received attention, and has been promised more finances and human resources, as well as elevation of its role as the coordinator, monitor and implementor of the activities of the organisation. Member states will also consider a proposal from Thailand to focus on five primary areas of connectivity, trade and investment, people-to-people contacts, security, and science and technology in order to benefit the organisation.
While an MOU on grid interconnection has been signed at the last summit, the organisation has been discussing a free trade agreement for the past 14 years, and has yet to set up a BIMSTEC Energy Centre despite agreement being reached in 2009. The Motor Vehicles Agreement and the Coastal Shipping Agreement are still being considered, both of which are important for connectivity. The organisation has done well in strengthening security cooperation – the annual meetings of national security advisers and army chiefs are held, and in future, the home ministers will also start meeting. A revitalisation of business and economic forums and meetings of universities, cultural organisations, media and parliamentarians are on the cards.
The littoral areas of the Bay of Bengal, who are members of the organisation, have large exclusive economic zones and comparatively weak naval capabilities for their protection. It is in this area that countries like India can take the lead in increasing maritime domain awareness by strengthening capabilities wherever desired through the navy and coast guard, and setting up of Regional Information Sharing Centres (ISCs) in line with the Information Sharing Centre in Singapore. Cooperation needs to be strengthened to counter terrorism, violent extremism and radicalisation, and cooperation needs to be deepened to deal with traditional and non-traditional security threats in a comprehensive manner.
The BIMSTEC transport, infrastructure and logistics Study (BTILS), conducted in the mid 2000s and funded by Asian Development Bank, identified 160 projects to boost connectivity, of which 65 were prioritised. The Trilateral Highway, the Kaladan Multimodal project, and the Bangladesh Bhutan India and Nepal Motor Vehicles Agreement are the flagships. All these are close to realisation although last mile challenges remain. In order to boost trade, tourism and investment, and for energy synchronisation and cooperation, BIMSTEC countries must concentrate on building connectivity in all forms and dimensions – physical connectivity through land, sea and air, digital connectivity and people-to-people connectivity.
Strengthening the Buddhist connection, connecting through border community zones, cultural art forms and cinema need to be encouraged. The presence of marine resources like fish present regional opportunities in the joint development of a blue economy, and fostering mountain economy, especially in countries like Bhutan. In order to emerge as a vibrant regionalorganisation, member states will need to introduce trade facilitation steps, harmonise their national technical means, strengthen regional value chains by linking South and Southeast Asia and setting up industrial parks for investments by countries of the region.
Sea borne trade and coastal shipping between the countries of the organisation has to be made viable, Northeast India developed and connected with the rest of the region,multimodal transport models made more prevalent, and coastal and border economic zones developed. India must complete the physical connectivity projects it has undertaken in the region – like the Trilateral highway connecting India to Thailand via Myanmar, and the Kaladan Multimodal project connecting states of Northeast India with Myanmar at the earliest. Members of the organisation must push for cross border energy trade, a BIMSTEC energy grid and regional renewable energy cooperation, given the hydropower potential of the region and the presence of gas and petroleum in countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh.
As PM Narendra Modi said in Kathmandu, regional integration in South Asia would go ahead “through SAARC or outside it, amongst all of us or some of us” – BIMSTEC opens up new avenues for cooperation amongst its members. India, as a major contributor to the organisation, will need to pay more attention to its reinvigoration, helping it overcome its lack of political thrust, ensuring availability of financial resources and involvement of business and civil society in the functioning of this organisation which has emerged as a new engine for regional cooperation.