Bimstec Summit: Discussion on Economic Integration

by September 13, 2018 0 comments

Being temporarily active, the recent Bimstec Summit has come up with the hopes of economic integration. The grouping believes that economic integration based on enhanced connectivity holds key to success.

 

The recently concluded Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) Summit 2018 in Kathmandu, Nepal, has robustly reiterated the idea of building a ‘multi-modal connectivity’ across countries surrounding the Bay of Bengal. The ‘Kathmandu Declaration’ emphasised on the need to build Bimstec as a more effective multilateral organisation for regional integration, wider economic cooperation and promoting multidimensional connectivity networks among member states.

The ‘18-point Declaration’ signed during the Summit also sought to address transnational challenges of non-traditional security threats within the region, like terrorism and violent extremism, and also the problem of organised transnational crimes. The deliberations and agenda of the Summit are poised to transform Bimstec into a more ‘effective multilateral organisation’ in the region, based on the promoting peace, prosperity and sustainable development.

Established in 1997 as the Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand Economic Cooperation (BIST-EC), the grouping became Bimstec after Myanmar joined the organisation in December 1997 as a full-time member.

Later on with the joining of Nepal and Bhutan in February 2004, the grouping was renamed as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation or Bimstec. Despite being devoid of any ‘bilateral tensions’ among its member states, the organisation has made ‘slow progress’. Only three Summits were held – in Thailand (2004), India (2008) and Myanmar (2014) – in the last 20 years of its formation. This was mostly due to a lack of strong leadership and failure to identify the collective vision for the future.

However, after the establishment of its permanent secretariat at Kathmandu, Nepal in 2014, which happened after a after of 17 years, the organisation identified 14 priority sectors of regional cooperation and also signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in 2004.

The ‘geographical leverage’ of this organisation forms a prudent link between South Asia and Southeast Asian countries. This also finds direct resonance with India’s efforts to build greater regional economic engagement and partnership between its north-eastern region and south-eastern economies.

The scope for direct connectivity, anti-insurgency cooperation and potential access to energy resource areas has evoked India’s interest to make this platform active in the last years. India’s ‘renewed interest’ in Bimstec also finds convergence with the country’s foreign policy efforts to establish its ‘Neighbourhood first’ and ‘Act East policy’. It is also an outcome of the Brics-Bimstec outreach Summit held in October 2016 at Goa, India, where leaders from the member countries collectively pledged to work to make Bimstec stronger and effective.

On the 20th anniversary of this organisation, Prime Minister  Narendra Modi described Bimstec as a “natural platform” for India’s eastward engagement. In March 2017, India chaired a meeting of Bimstec National Security chiefs in New Delhi. This allowed India to take the leadership role based on the promotion of cogent economic interests for the region under the collective vision for growth and development for all.

For other member states, like Myanmar, stakes are high given its ‘strategic positioning and how Bimstec could be the possible gateway to Asean. It also allows augmenting wider economic cooperation between India and Thailand as key stakeholders in regional connectivity network. India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) Trilateral Highway is expected to boost trade and commerce between Asean and India and Bimstec, as a sub-regional grouping, forms concurrence with India’s ‘Look East’ and Thailand’s ‘Look West’ policy.

For landlocked countries, like Nepal and Bhutan, Bimstec holds the prospect for enhancing connectivity. On the other hand, for Sri Lanka, Bimstec provides an opportunity to engage with booming Southeast Asian economies. Nepal, too, under the new regime, is keen to build relations with India and other regional players. Given its position, Bangladesh remains the lead country for Bimstec, especially for cooperation in trade and investment, energy corridors and blue economy and climate change as well.

First, the Summit was important in seeking to build connectivity links in the region. The declaration underscored the importance of developing multi-dimensional connectivity in the region to enable economic integration for shared prosperity and collective development. To quote Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Bimstec offers “a big opportunity” for strengthening connectivity in terms of trade, economy, transport, digital and promoting people-to-people linkages.

The Summit witnessed the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to establish ‘Bimstec Grid Interconnection’ to enhance energy cooperation in the region which has much hydroelectricity potential. Connectivity holds significance for Bimstec in terms of cooperation in areas like transport and communication, tourism promotion, flow of trade and commerce and also for the promotion of civil society linkages.

Second, in order to strengthen sub-regional cooperation on combating terrorism and transnational crime, the declaration reiterated to fight collectively against “terrorism, terror organisations and terror financing”. It called for a “comprehensive approach” to tackle the menace of terrorism and organised crime with the member states. In his speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi underlined the significance of the Bay of Bengal for security and development of all member countries.

Third, the declaration emphasised on a more “institutionalised and structural cooperation” among member states towards more effective and result-oriented functioning of the organisation. It sought to identify strengthening coordination among the law enforcement, intelligence and security agencies of the member states, holding meetings at the level of Bimstec Home Ministers and Bimstec National Security chiefs. To make the Bimstec more visible and prudent, regional organisation these are key positive developments.

The establishment of Bimstec Network of Policy Think Tanks (BNPTT) is a good step to build links between academic communities and knowledge network. On the economic front, we need to expedite the FTA process to boost intra-regional trade and commerce. The Summit also reiterated faith in multilateralism and emphasised to establish fair, just and equitable international order. The member nations called for effective implementation of the ‘Bimstec Poverty Plan of Action’ in line with the UN Agenda for Sustainable Development by 2030.

The grouping accounts for 22 per cent of the global population, and has a combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $2.8 trillion. As we look forward to make it an enabler for regional cooperation, it must primarily seek to establish trade and connectivity across the region, based on common aspirations for growth, development, commerce and technology.

Connectivity holds the key for economic integration of this region and this must evolve based on identifying regional synergies and bottom-up approach. This process must also explore specific areas of cooperation among the member states, transforming the Bimstec into a much stronger organisation and driver to make this region a hub of economic activities and cooperation.

(The writer holds PhD from East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and teaches at the University of Delhi)

Writer: Abhishek Pratap Singh

Courtesy: The Pioneer

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