BIMSTEC: Hopes & apprehensions for regional cooperation

Published : Tuesday, 4 September, 2018 at 12:00 AM
Around the world, all the countries today are now bound by the concept of globalization. Trade, politics, economy and every other aspect is now being chased by this phenomenon. It is not possible to grow without the influence of external stakeholders. Hence, regional cooperation has become very vital and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is a forum like such for seven South Asian and Southeast Asian countries. This regional forum in recent times received a lot of attention after cancellation of SAARC summit in 2016 due to conflicts between India and Pakistan and the BIMSTEC members can be highly benefitted through establishing regional cooperation due to several common interest areas.

BIMSTEC was formed in June 1997 through the Bangkok Declaration. Among its seven member states Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka are from South Asia while Myanmar and Thailand are from Southeast Asia. Initially, this economic bloc was formed with only four Member States with the acronym ‘BIST-EC’ (Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation). Following the inclusion of Myanmar on December 22, 1997 during a special Ministerial Meeting in Bangkok, the Group was renamed ‘BIMST-EC’ (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation). With the admission of Nepal and Bhutan at the 6th Ministerial Meeting in February, 2004 in Thailand, the name of the forum was changed to ‘Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation’ (BIMSTEC).

The regional group composes a bridge between South and South East Asia. BIMSTEC has set a stage for intra-regional cooperation between SAARC and ASEAN members. Around 1.5 billion people reside in the BIMSTEC area- around 22per cent of the global population. This area also holds a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of 2.7 trillion showing its prospect as an economy. During the last five years, BIMSTEC Member States were able to sustain an average 6.5per cent economic growth line despite global financial meltdown.

Unlike many other regional groupings, BIMSTEC is a sector-driven cooperative organization. Initially it started with six sectors including trade and investment, technology, energy, transport, tourism and fisheries. Later it expanded to nine more sectors including agriculture, public health, poverty alleviation, counter-terrorism and transnational crime, environment and disaster management, cultural cooperation, people to people contact and climate change in 2008. It also provides substantial emphasis on blue economy and mountain economy.

4th BIMSTEC summit was held recently on August 30-31, 2018 in Kathmandu, Nepal. Head of states and governments of all member countries participated in this summit. The summit was concluded with the Kathmandu declaration emphasizing the significance of multidimensional connectivity as a key enabler to economic integration for collective prosperity of the region. The declaration also highlighted the importance of trade and investment as one of the key contributing factors for nurturing economic and social development all through the region.

The declaration is also expected to improve the efficacy of BIMSTEC Secretariat by engaging it in diverse technical and economic activities in the region. A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the establishment of a BIMSTEC Gird Interconnection was also signed by the member states to boost energy assistance among them.

The leaders of the BIMSTEC member states strongly condemned terrorism of all forms and expression. They stressed that any act of terrorism cannot have any justification. They also affirmed that the fight against terrorism should target not only terrorists, terror organizations and networks but also identify and hold accountable States and non-State entities that encourage, support or finance terrorism, provide sanctuaries to terrorists and terror groups and falsely admire their virtues.

Different global forums have often failed due to conflict among its members despite strong effort and commitment from few. Bilateral conflicts can create a huge barrier in achieving the goals set from the forum. For example, the conflict between Bangladesh and Myanmar over the Rohingya issue could have substantial influence over the two countries’ collaboration in future works. If the issue remains completely unaddressed, then question of ignoring a member’s interest will arise. It was anticipated that the Rohingya issue will be discussed in this year’s BIMSTEC summit but that actually did not happen.

Answering the eager media who wanted to know why the issues of Rakhine State in Myanmar missed in the agenda of discussions when its member states had come up with collective commitments against terrorism, Nepal’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Pradeep Kumar Gyawali told that, the objective of forming BIMSTEC was for serving common interests and concerns of the member states and internal issue of any particular country or a dispute between certain two countries hence did not enter the Summit. It was a clear incident of ignoring a burning issue and can be seen as a way of not protecting a member’s or a common interest.
Without political peace, it is very hard for the regional unions to become successful as only trade or development projects are not sufficient. If issues like border killings in India-Bangladesh borders or humanitarian issues between Assam-Tripura and Bangladesh or Rohingya issue between Myanmar and Bangladesh are not addressed, success of BIMSTEC will be hampered. Bangladesh undoubtedly has portrayed peaceful gestures for a long time by not reacting irrationally over these matters. Humanitarian context is a must to uphold regional cooperation. Arms use at border areas as well as use of weapons of mass destruction or contamination weapons must be eliminated among the regional partners to create trust. Without accommodating the political context, regional cooperation like BIMSTEC can fail terribly as it happened with SAARC.

Despite huge potential of BIMSTEC, it has fallen behind in achieving its targets till now and there are some reasons behind. Like; acquired memberships of all BIMSTEC members in various other regional or sub-regional forums promoting cooperation at different levels; lack of political will limiting the prospects of BIMSTEC; lack of physical connectivity; negligible growth of intra-regional investment; lack of good infrastructure working as a barrier to trade by raising costs and time etc. Moreover, the initiatives agreed in the regional forums can require several internal policy dilemmas and it is very crucial to make adequate adjustment to achieve collective goals.

Along with collective goals, BIMSTEC has helped in building bilateral relationships among its members. Bangladesh has gained a lot in terms of increasing trade after establishment of BIMSTEC. Before BIMSTEC, Bangladesh’s trade with other BIMSTEC countries was estimated at Tk. 2390 million in 1994-95. But in 2007, after BIMSTC had come into existence, it went up to Tk. 21,600 million. Before BIMSTEC, Bangladesh’s trade with BIMSTEC countries was only 1.5 per cent of the country’s global trade which later became 2.6 per cent. Other than that, Bangladesh has huge potential in terms of its relationship with India and Nepal. 

For BIMSTEC to bring in further achievements in terms of regional trade or economy, a free trade agreement (FTA) should come into act. Due to the influence of India mostly such agreement could not come into action till now though preferential trade rules are applied in some cases. But several barriers are often created by the tough rules and standards like; extreme quality control set by few regional partners like India. At least for goods of basic needs, we should grant much favorable terms. With close currency valuation of all the member countries, BIMSTEC can achieve many economic goals like; EU. Moreover, if schemes like free movement of citizens among these seven countries can be initiated, then this association will be highly acknowledged by the general people. Hence, cultural exchange due to similarities in culture can help in to attain stronger regional cooperation with good intent from all ends.

Due to diverse concerns of different member states, it can sometimes set aside the common goals. Like; India takes a lot of interest in BIMSTEC as it helps the country in controlling its neighbors as well as in keeping China under substantial control. Moreover, India’s archrival Pakistan’s absence in this forum automatically makes India a lot inclined towards this regional unity. BIMSTEC brings together all the countries in South Asia which India needs to control. 

For India, losing control over almost all South Asian countries in recent years came out as a big concern against its pre-eminence. It fits in with India’s policy to spread out its interests in South and South East Asia using economic supremacy as well as diplomacy. For other members also there are certain concerns and issues which they want to solute through BIMSTEC though the rise of self-conscious states, the raising of border barriers due to the fresh found fear of cross border terrorism; increasing struggle for scant resources etc. have made global assistance for the general welfare a very complicated mission.

After the independence of Bangladesh, the father of the nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman dreamt of regional cooperation in South Asia proving his visionary leadership. In today’s world when the performance of different economies is interlinked, Bangladesh must establish strong bilateral, regional and multilateral cooperation. We must be careful to drive the initiatives in our favour while contributing significantly to collective welfare. We hope to move forward utilizing our regional ties as today’s era is all about thinking outside the box.

The writer is Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA), Editor at Kishore Bangla and Vice-Chairman, Democracy Research Center (DRC)

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