The fifth summit of the regional grouping BIMSTEC, held virtually in Colombo on 30 March, has undoubtedly advanced the cause of regional cooperation and integration. Twenty-five years after it was envisioned, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is no longer a mere initiative or programme or a sub-regional grouping. It is now a regional intergovernmental organization with a formal charter, giving it a clear mission and legality, and a destiny linked to five South Asian and two Southeast Asian countries.
It is now better equipped to tackle the task at hand: to trigger accelerated economic development for the fifth of the world’s population it represents, which contributes only 4% of the global GDP.
The package of decisions and agreements announced in Colombo has strengthened BIMSTEC, by re-defining its purpose and rejuvenating its organs and institutions.
The new charter clearly states the purpose of accelerating economic growth and social progress, as also the promotion of “multidimensional connectivity.”
On the first, it is helpful that the unwieldy 14 areas of cooperation is halved to the more manageable seven. Each member-state will lead one, according to their chosen interests, with clear benchmarks for progress. Bangladesh will lead trade, investment and development; Bhutan is in charge of environment and climate change; security, including energy security is India’s responsibility; Myanmar will manage agriculture and food security while Nepal will lead people-to-people contacts. Sri Lanka is charged with science, technology and innovation, and Thailand with connectivity.
A critical component is that of connectivity. An ambitious Master Plan for Transport Connectivity for 2018-2028 was adopted, with political support of all countries at the highest-level. It is essential for the region to develop transport and connectivity based on its own needs, rather than be stranded with projects that do not serve national or regional needs. The Master Plan was devised and backed by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and lists 264 projects with $126 billion in investment. It includes projects worth $55 billion already under implementation by the ADB. BIMSTEC will need to generate additional funding from international agencies and push for timely implementation.
Rounding off the formalization of BIMSTEC are three new agreements signed by member-states, relating to mutual legal assistance in criminal matters, cooperation between diplomatic academies, and the establishment of a technology transfer facility in Colombo.
The grouping will now have to work hard to earn its regional position. There are several unfinished tasks and new challenges. Key is trade, economic and investment cooperation.. Despite signing a framework agreement for a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in 2004, BIMSTEC is far from activating this goal. Of the seven constituent agreements needed for the FTA to function, only two are in place as of now. Another critical element is connectivity, which all member states agree is necessary to expand. But finalizing legal instruments for coastal shipping, road transport and intra-regional energy grid connection has been lagging. Covid-19 too has strained development efforts.
On the positive side, BIMSTEC has deepened cooperation in maritime and cyber security, counter-terrorism and management of the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR).
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha as the new Chair, expressed his resolve to work for “a Prosperous, Resilient and Robust, and Open (PRO) BIMSTEC” during his tenure. As a co-founder and key driver of BIMSTEC, Thailand can contribute much, and marshal its institutional and political resources. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made practical suggestions to strengthen the grouping like having the BIMSTEC secretariat work closely with the member states for action plans and implementation. India was the only country to offer additional funding to the Secretariat in Dhaka for this purpose, and support the Secretary General’s proposal to establish an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) for developing a vision document. Other countries need to emulate this sincere matching of words with action.
Thailand and India will need to be astute in managing Myanmar’s engagement until the political situation there becomes normal. Meanwhile, BIMSTEC should focus more on new areas of cooperation such as the blue economy, digital economy, and promotion of exchanges, cross-investments and links among start-ups and MSMEs.
The achievements of BIMSTEC will depend on three elements: First, the personal engagement of the political leadership, which should be stepped up. Hosting a summit every two years is welcome but the medium term goal should be an annual summit with an informal retreat built into its programme. Second, BIMSTEC needs greater visibility. India’s turn to host G20 in 2023 presents a golden opportunity, at which all BIMSTEC members can be invited as the chair’s special guests.
Finally, brevity is the soul of success. Simplifying the grouping’s name needs urgent attention. The present name running into 12 words should be changed to four words only – the Bay of Bengal Community (BOBC). It will help to quickly popularize the institution.
This article was first published in The Hindu.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House, and former ambassador to Myanmar.