A ‘silver’ moment to propel a Bay of Bengal dream

News: On June 6, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) has completed 25 years

Background

It was launched as a modest grouping of Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand), with the acronym, BIST-EC as a result of the Bangkok Declaration 1997.

Later on, three countries (Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar) and it became the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).

Importance of the Grouping

It is an instrument of regional cooperation and integration between South Asia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Resurgence

The far-reaching decisions which were taken in Goa paved the way for the institution’s reform. Further, the Goa decisions took final shape in Kathmandu summit in 2018. Further, The Colombo summit in March 2022 finally approved the plans of rejuvenation.

Key achievements

It has crafted a new Charter. The charter spells out the grouping’s vision, functions of its constituent parts, and has secured a legal personality.

It has prioritised the sectors of cooperation. The sectors have been reduced from 14 to 7. Each member-state will serve as the lead country for the assigned sector.

It has taken measures to strengthen the Secretariat.

Unlike the SAARC, post-2014, BIMSTEC has continued to hold its summits and meetings of Foreign Ministers.

The grouping has progressed in combating terrorism, and forging security cooperation. It has created mechanisms and practices for the better management of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

The grouping has established institutions such as an Energy Centre and the Centre on Weather and Climate to push sectoral cooperation forward.

What are the challenges?

BIMSTEC has been hindered by the burdens of South Asia Countries. Therefore, it grew slowly.

In the 21st century, the strategic contestation between the United States and China defines the region’s geopolitics and geo-economics. It is creating new tensions and opportunities.

There are internal tensions between member countries. For example, the Rohingyas influx into Bangladesh, Myanmar’s military coup has led to its virtual boycott by a large segment of the international community; and Sri Lanka is facing political and economic crisis.

It has failed to produce a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (FTA) despite signing of the Framework Agreement before 18 years.

Despite summit declarations, the concerned ministers and officials have failed to expedite action.

There has been poor connectivity with respect to infrastructure (roads, railways, air, river, and coastal shipping links); energy; the digital and financial domain; and institutions. This has been despite the adoption of the Master Plan for Connectivity supported by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

The bilateral initiatives, for example, taken by India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan to strengthen transport links have also been delayed inordinately.

The grouping has not started working upon the Blue Economy.

The members have not engaged business chambers and corporate leaders with activities of BIMSTEC. Therefore, the grouping remains in the hands of officials and experts.

Way Forward

The Heads of state and government need to assert their authority to fulfil the FTA obligations.

More financial resources are needed for greater regional connectivity. The BIMSTEC Development Fund can be launched.

The vision of the Bay of Bengal Community (BOBC) should be realized. It has the potential to play a pivotal role to deepen linkages between South Asia and Southeast Asia in this Indo-Pacific century.

The collaboration can be done with the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) to accelerate the region’s economic development.

Three countries have a special responsibility: Bangladesh as the host of the BIMSTEC Secretariat; Thailand as the representative of Southeast Asia; and India as the largest state in South Asia.

Source: The post is based on an article “A silver moment to propel a Bay of Bengal dream” published in the “The Hindu” on 7th June 2022.

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