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India & BIMSTEC: BOOSTING ECONOMIC TIES, By Prof. Arvind Kumar, 5 March, 2014 Print E-mail

Round The World

New Delhi, 5 March 2014



By Prof. Arvind Kumar

(Dept. of Geopolitics & Intl Relations, Manipal Univ)


The recently-concluded third summit of the seven-member BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) at Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar seems to have proven that inter-regional cooperation will be intensified in the foreseeable future.


Established in 1997 with four countries, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand as BIST–EC it got evolved in due course and saw the inclusion of Myanmar in December 1997 to mainly tap the synergies of land and maritime contiguity. Later on, Nepal and Bhutan joined in February 2004 to become part of the larger initiative of inter-regional cooperation. All the seven members share both land and maritime boundaries and the mandate of BIMSTEC has mainly been to emerge as a strong organization in different geo-political and geo-economic settings.


Undoubtedly, BIMSTEC provides a unique link between South Asia and Southeast Asia at the rim of Bay of Bengal. It was anticipated that the inter-regional grouping will serve as a bridge between the five SAARC nations and two ASEAN countries. Such bridging would provide a greater advantage to increase trade among member countries. The BIMSTEC has a combined GDP of over US $2.5 trillion with a population of 1.3 billion, which is roughly 21 per cent of the world population. BIMSTEC certainly has a potential of working in tandem and building upon the traditional links between its member countries.


Over the years, the areas of cooperation have expanded from original six to 13 and these are relating to Trade & Investment, Technology, Energy, Transport & Communication, Tourism, Fisheries, Agriculture, Cultural Co-operation, Environment and Disaster Management, Public Health, People-to-People Contact, Poverty Alleviation and Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crimes. In due course, greater connectivity through road and rail transport links would also feature as a major focus if all the areas of cooperation among member States need to be realized.


Importantly, the BIMSTEC Summits got elevated to Prime Ministers and Presidents’ level at its first summit held in Bangkok in July 2004. So far, three BIMSTEC summits have been held-- the second in November 2008 in New Delhi and the third after a gap of almost six years, with Myanmar assuming leadership.


Until recently, India was the Chair of BIMSTEC, which also has a Working Group (BWG) comprising the Bangkok-based Ambassadors of BIMSTEC member countries and the Director General, International Economic Relations of Thai Foreign Ministry. The BWG holds regular monthly meetings to monitor and review progress under various areas of cooperation, which have greatly helped in understanding the complexities involved.


Given its composition, there is an ongoing dominant debate whether the BIMSTEC grouping can be transformed into a vibrant regional entity. Obviously, the member countries would be required to promote greater cooperation in key areas such as security, energy, trade, commerce, connectivity in rail-road links and people-to-people contact. The focus of cooperation should also be in the field of building infrastructure and identification of other concrete projects. With trade and economic cooperation obviously being the key in the foreseeable future, the member nations are envisaging an early conclusion of the BIMSTEC Free Trade Agreement.


It is commonly believed that BIMSTEC is some sort of an expression and desire shown by India to promote its Look East Policy of the 1990s, which also finds semblance with Thailand's Look West Policy. Ultimately, such semblance will help in building a bridge across Asia’s most promising and dynamic environment, which finally would usher in peace and prosperity in the region.


Notably, over the years, India’s bilateral relations with each of the member countries of BIMSTEC have significantly improved. New Delhi has been able to evolve a robust engagement with each one of them in the regional context. India has also been working with BIMSTEC members to improve physical connectivity through various projects such as the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project, the Asian Highway Network, the ASEAN Master Plan for Connectivity and others. Further, there seems to be a plan to launch a direct shipping line to Myanmar.


During the deliberation at the recent summit, energy issues featured prominently, with member States agreeing to connect with each other through transmission highways and gas and oil pipelines. This apart, opportunities for cooperation in renewable energy sources will also be explored for enhancing the cooperation in energy sector.


The role of India in BIMSTEC is going to be very crucial. In fact, in a number of areas of cooperation, New Delhi has to be proactive and see how best there can be intensification in every sector. It has shown willingness to work with its BIMSTEC partners in application of space science in areas such as resource management and economic development.


Moreover, the member nations need to also work together in providing the security of sea lanes of communication in the region given that the threat perceptions emanating from terrorism and transnational crimes are common to all the seven members. They do realize that to counter the growing threat of terrorism in the BIMSTEC region there is need for greater urgency for stronger cooperation.


During the third summit, three separate Memorandum of Understandings (MoUs) were signed--one on the establishment of Permanent Secretariat, two on establishment of a BIMSTEC Center for Weather and Climate and the third on the setting up of a BIMSTEC Cultural Industries Commission and BIMSTEC Cultural Industries Observatory.


Notably, the Nay Pyi Twi Declaration has brought out a number of areas for cooperation among the member States with a greater focus on the BIMSTEC FTA, over which there are apprehensions. It needs to be emphasized here that the BIMSTEC FTA will be much more comprehensive in scope covering trade in goods as well as services and investment. The other existing mechanism such as South Asia Free Trade Area Agreement confines only to trade in goods.


There is renewed hope that the inter-regional grouping in the form of BIMSTEC will have a greater potential to increase trade among member countries by taking advantage of their geographical location in the region of Bay of Bengal and the eastern coast of the Indian Ocean. Such vision can only be realized if all the members are willing to cooperate and also promote the larger interests of the region in all the identified spheres. India would require playing a pro-active role and also showing the direction where the meeting point should be for a win-win situation for all. -- INFA

(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)


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