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BIMSTEC Cooperation-Building Momentum (India’s World: 4 April, 2021)

BIMSTEC Cooperation-Building Momentum (India’s World: 4 April, 2021)

Context:

External affairs minister S Jaishankar has reiterated India's commitment to further build the momentum of regional cooperation under the framework of BIMSTEC which is the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation. Speaking at the 17th BIMSTEC Ministerial meeting on Thursday, the External Affairs minister said that BIMSTEC enjoys the unique strength of connecting South and Southeast Asia.

Background:

  • BIMSTEC has a combined GDP of 2.7 trillion dollars and is home to one and a half billion people roughly accounting for 22 percent of the global population.

Key Takeaways:

  • He expressed satisfaction that the region is witnessing rapid economic growth with growing political and economic cooperation among member states adding that BIMSTEC has achieved significant progress in many of the priority areas of cooperation.

  • He stressed upon the need for BIMSTEC countries to make a paradigm shift in raising the level of cooperation and regional integration to make it an even more stronger, vibrant, and result-oriented grouping.

  • He underlined the importance of connectivity because there's no doubt that networking entails good connectivity.

  • There was a need to put in place legal frameworks for smooth connectivity by finalizing the BIMSTEC Coastal Shipping Agreement and the Motor Vehicles Agreement at an early date.

How the grouping evolved over the years?

  • In 1999, the renowned columnist Thomas Friedman had written that the world had gone from a system built around walls to a system built around networks.

  • India has always been favoring good networking with its neighbors and that's why India had taken a pioneering role in setting up SAARC.

  • Unfortunately, the political relationship with Pakistan has been rather up and down and the Pakistanis have come in the way for meaningful regional cooperation.

  • Then a significant step was taken when in 1997, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand formed BISTEC which then was later transformed into BIMSTEC with the addition of Myanmar and then later again in 2004, Nepal and Bhutan joined and this became the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation.

  • In 2016, India had invited leaders of the BIMSTEC grouping for an extended session of the BRICS leaders summit.

  • India and Bangladesh signed the Coastal Shipping Agreement a few years ago and based on that in 2017, BIMSTEC itself started moving towards having this Coastal Shipping Agreement.

  • In 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had invited leaders of the group to his swearing in after retaining power in the national polls to underline India’s commitment to the grouping.

  • BIMSTEC has also formed a platform with the SAARC and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member countries.

  • The Coastal Shipping Agreement is so very important once that comes through then India, Bangladesh, Myanmar connects directly and using the waterways of India and the railways of India, Nepal and Bhutan connecting either to Indian ports or to port of Chittagong.

  • Bangladesh and Bhutan are even talking about running planes for cargo between the two countries.

  • Currently, the BIMSTEC is involved in 15 sectors including trade, technology, agriculture, tourism, fisheries, energy and climate change among others, for sectoral cooperation.

Significance of BIMSTEC in India's foreign policy:

  • We have a neighborhood first policy and BIMSTEC helps us to give primacy to our immediate neighbourhood.

  • We are pursuing an Act East policy and this would enable India to connect with Southeast Asia.

  • There is this question of the economic development of India's Northwestern states, they would be linked better through the Bay of Bengal region via Bangladesh, Myanmar.

  • Using BIMSTEC platform, India can counter Chinese influence in countries around the Bay of Bengal.

Major concern:

  • The situation in Myanmar presenting some challenges.

  • There is the looming presence of China which always impedes meaningful regional cooperation where India is concerned and it has close relations with many of the countries and BIMSTEC.

  • All the countries do have a very serious intention of furthering cooperation and working on all the sectors but the pace of progress in regard to finalizing agreements is comparatively slow.

  • The pace of cooperation has been impeded by bilateral problems for instance, the problem between Myanmar and Bangladesh over the Rohingyas. So, when there are bilateral problems of this nature, the progress in regard to cooperation gets impeded.

  • There is a trust deficit between some of the member countries of BIMSTEC and when there is a trust deficit, mutual cooperation does get impeded.

  • Connectivity will only improve when nations which are members of BIMSTEC don't distrust each other unfortunately that situation has not yet been realized.

What are the other focus areas that the other member states should work upon to further enhance the cooperation?

  • It is very important that the countries of the region should be able to forge out certain agreements which will enhance cooperation for instance, the BIMSTEC region does not have a Free Trade Agreement, the countries have been working on it but as yet there is no agreement that has been finalized.

  • There are many focus areas, these include trade and investment, technology, energy, transportation and communications, tourism, fisheries, agriculture, cultural cooperation, environment and disaster management, public health, people-to-people contacts, poverty alleviation and counter terrorism and climate change.

  • Developing relationship with each other across the spectrum of issues like transport and electricity, but also issues of culture and soft power like Buddhism.

  • BIMSTEC doesn't even have its internal rules for business, standard operating procedures as an example. These have now been negotiated and by the time this summit takes place in Colombo later this year hopefully, this will be adopted then.

  • All countries by and large Thailand apart have surpluses at certain times and deficits at other times of electricity. If you are jointly together in a larger grade, your surplus time may be the deficit time of somebody else.

What is the way ahead to realize the full potential of BIMSTEC cooperation?

  • There is a need perhaps to focus attention on some priority areas now, one of the major challenges which is confronting the world at the moment relates to COVID-19 and India has shown how much it can assist other countries in terms of giving vaccines and helping them to cope with this problem.

  • One of the areas of cooperation included in BIMSTEC h is public health, now public health should be a priority area identified by BIMSTEC countries because they have realized that this is a major challenge as major and as serious as any sort of security challenge. So, there is a lot of work that can be done.

  • India has played a pioneering role India has been very generous. Vaccine Maitri has shown that India can help others and perhaps there are so many other areas like that where we can give a helping hand to our fellow members in BIMSTEC.

  • Transaction costs are the major part in obstacles to trade, remove those obstacles to trade and suddenly the movement of goods becomes simpler faster and cheaper.

  • Take up the issues on which we can cooperate with each other, when we share a larger vision, work together, understand each other and the more we work with each other and adjust and accommodate each other's concerns, the level of trust and faith in each other and in BIMSTEC as a network grows.

  • Very specific issues of technology, cyber security, etc which many of these countries are relatively weak in terms of their internal capacities but some others in the grouping have much better capacities so cyber something is really moving fast.

  • India have to really put its weight into it, put a muscle into it, not the hard muscle, the softer muscle put the capital, human beings and connect all of government approach to really move on it.

  • We must deliver on specific things, transport is something we should deliver on very quickly that should not be delayed. India can deliver the completion of the Sittwe project to benefit the Bangladesh, Bhutan India waterways network.

Conclusion:

  • The countries involved particularly India, Thailand, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal need to enhance the framework of connectivity, enhanced cooperation, so hopefully the problems and challenges which the organization is confronting will be sorted out and the vision that we all have for cooperation within this region will be really exciting.

Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC)

  • It is a regional organization comprising seven Member States lying in the areas of the Bay of Bengal.

  • Secretariat: Dhaka, Bangladesh.

  • This organization came into being in 1997 through the Bangkok Declaration.

  • It comprises seven countries: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand.

  • Objective:  To create an enabling environment for rapid economic development; accelerate social progress; and promote collaboration on matters of common interest in the region.

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