The fourth summit of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), due to be held in Kathmandu on August 30-31, will call for a mix of hope and realism about the outcomes expected. This is a 21-year-old regional grouping, comprising five South Asian countries (India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka) and two from South East Asia (Thailand and Myanmar) which has an opportunity now to impart dynamism and substance to its programme of regional cooperation. Will it seize it?
Hope did rise earlier (on 16 October 2016) when BIMSTEC leaders held a rare Retreat and participated in the first ever BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach Summit in Goa. It brought home the awareness that BIMSTEC had come about because of its potential for economic and social development through cooperation in select sectors, but had achieved very little success in the previous two decades. They pledged “to work collectively towards making BIMSTEC stronger, more effective, and result orientated.”
The meetings in Goa had several end results: they gave momentum to cooperation in security matters and disaster management at the regional level. A new secretary general of BIMSTEC took over in Dhaka. Foreign ministers of the grouping, meeting in Kathmandu in August 2017, produced a purposeful plan of action.
However, on the debit side, the leaders were unable to hold the fourth summit in 2017. Also, BIMSTEC’s visibility is still low. The region’s diplomats hinted at a recent panel discussion, hosted by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), that progress in finalising proposals for decisions at the summit had been slow and inadequate. When the leaders assemble again later this month, they may have to show boldness and statesmanship for the regionalism of the BIMSTEC brand to be taken seriously.
Such brand value also comes from knowing that BIMSTEC has its own place and relevance and has to fly on its own – despite uncertainty about its future arising every time there are quiet endeavours to revive the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). The next SAARC summit, which was to be held in November 2016, may not take place until India-Pakistan relations improve. Besides, as its advocates point out, BIMSTEC represents a new geopolitical construct, a region linking a part of SAARC and a part of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) for people-oriented cooperation. BIMSTEC has no conflict of goals and objectives – neither with SAARC nor ASEAN.
Prioritisation, the only way
To achieve some of their own goals, BIMSTEC leaders need vitally to reduce the present number (14) of chosen fields of cooperation, devoting their attention and resources to a limited canvas. The sectors deserving priority attention are: trade and investment, connectivity, energy, people-to-people exchanges, counter-terrorism and the Blue Economy.
The foreign ministers of BIMSTEC had listed, in August 2017, the priority milestones for the organisation to reach. For example, even after a decade of signing the framework agreement, a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (FTA) – in goods, services and investment – remains elusive perhaps due to a general sense of fatigue and ennui with FTAs, especially in the current global climate of protectionism. Yet, progress in trade facilitation and customs cooperation is both desirable and doable. The Kathmandu summit should make a concerted effort to achieve this.
Linking by road and sea
A corollary of this objective is ‘connectivity’, the single most used word when political leaders and others discuss BIMSTEC. Thailand is helping BIMSTEC craft its Master Plan for Connectivity. Perhaps a deadline should be prescribed for BIMSTEC officials to complete this significant task. Meanwhile, member-states need to expedite negotiations on two agreements on motor vehicles and coastal shipping. BIMSTEC can be a well-knit grouping only when physical connectivity improves, long-pending road projects are completed and digital linkages are enhanced.
As FICCI’s January 2018 Knowledge Paper asserted: “Energy connectivity is instrumental in accelerating economic growth in the BIMSTEC region.” Experts believe that the potential for Cross Border Energy Trade (CBET), the concerting of operations in the oil and gas sector, and cooperation in renewable energy should be harnessed optimally. If the summit were to witness the signing of the proposed MoU on the establishment of the BIMSTEC Grid Interconnection, it would be a welcome development.
Enhancing people-to-people exchanges through education, tourism, easier travel, sports and cultural activities is on every country’s priority list. Special attention should be given to the welfare of the people of our Northeast and their neighbourhood – Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand. At the recent Shillong Dialogue, Conrad K Sangma, Meghalaya’s chief minister, emphasised the need to strengthen these very linkages, besides trade and cooperation in the agricultural-horticultural sector to benefit people directly. Further, governments are aware that full operationalisation of the BIMSTEC Cultural Industries Commission and BIMSTEC Cultural Industries Observatory is overdue now.
Making security count
In contrast to the achievement deficit by the economic ministries, national security advisers of member-states have recorded considerable progress in consolidating security-related cooperation. The task ahead is to put in place a set of relevant agreements soon. The BIMSTEC Convention on Cooperation to Combat International Terrorism awaits ratification; and two other agreements on illicit drug trafficking and mutual legal assistance in criminal matters await signature by the member-states.
Another area where BIMSTEC can show such progress is the Blue Economy, perhaps the single most novel and potentially important idea that the leaders added to the BIMSTEC menu at the 2016 Retreat. Now, experts need to come up with a forward-looking, but practical plan. To help them draw up such a plan and reflect on other domains, the summit needs to approve the establishment of the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) with a mandate to recommend a future roadmap for BIMSTEC Agenda 2030.
Even a limited canvas can be infused with ambition and involves a range of expectations. India’s leadership is crucial in guiding the summit to a positive outcome.
Moreover, BIMSTEC needs financial resources to implement its plans and has to forge creative partnerships with Japan, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and other acceptable multilateral financial institutions.
Finally, an essential prerequisite is the institutional reform of BIMSTEC. The leaders should consider holding an annual summit. Sparing a day every year for regional cooperation could be a hugely prudent investment, one that people in seven nations will value highly.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House. A former ambassador to Myanmar, he writes regularly on development in South Asia and Southeast Asia.
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 Press Information Bureau, Government of India, BIMSTEC Leaders’ Retreat 2016 Outcome Document,<http://pib.nic.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=151717>
 Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, Joint Statement of the 15th BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting (August 11, 2017), <http://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/28862/Joint_Statement_of_the_15th_BIMSTEC_Ministerial_Meeting_August_11_2017>
 BIMSTEC’s inability so far to be a robust regional grouping is attributed to insufficient policy convergence, lack of political commitment and will, limited financial resources, a weak secretariat, and inadequate engagement of business, civil society and people at large.
 Please see the author’s two previous articles on the subject: https://www.gatewayhouse.in/brighter-prospects-bimstec/; https://www.gatewayhouse.in/energise-bimstec-reaching-consensus/
 Bhatia, Rajiv, ‘Is dialogue in South Asia on pause?’, Gateway House, 16 November 2017, <https://www.gatewayhouse.in/south-asian-dialogue-paused/>
 FICCI, Reinvigorating BIMSTEC: An Industry Vision for the Next Decade, January 2018, pp. 22-23, <http://ficci.in/spdocument/23016/BIMSTEC-Report-final.pdf>
 Ibid, p.39.
 The Shillong Dialogue was hosted by Asian Confluence, in collaboration with The Asia Foundation, in Shillong, August 16-17 2018.