As top leaders from five South Asian and two South East Asian countries gather in Kathmandu under the banner of Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Initiative for Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) on August 30 and 31 for their fourth summit, it faces certain fundamental challenges. Set up in 1997 in Thailand with 14 priority sectors of cooperation, the grouping has remained largely moribund as five of the seven Bimstec member-countries have remained more busy with Saarc despite its progress being buffeted by the India-Pakistan rivalry.
For long, the Bimstec was lying in virtual disuse and it got a fresh round of traction only when Saarc came to a standstill in the second half of 2016, when the Saarc Summit in Islamabad in November that year was cancelled. Within a couple of months of the cancellation of the Saarc Summit, the Bimstec Outreach Summit was convened in Goa, India, in October. This raises a couple of questions: one, do the Saarc and the Bimstec involve duplication of efforts, and two, isn't it time to introspect if a choice needs to be made between the two? While the Saarc has eight member-countries, the Bimstec has seven. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Maldives are missing from the latter. It is easy to say that the Saarc and the Bimstec should not be viewed as an either-one-or-the-other narrative. But it is time to undertake the difficult exercise of assessing which of the two groupings has a bigger and less trouble-free geopolitical construct. Many of the areas of cooperation are common to both the groupings—trade, energy, connectivity, security and so forth. Besides, the Saarc and the Bimstec countries also have bilateral and sub-regional (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) templates for collaboration in those areas.
The Bimstec encompasses seven member states—five from South Asia (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka) and two from South East Asia (Myanmar and Thailand)—lying in the largest bay in the world, the Bay of Bengal. It has a greater salience than the Saarc because it demonstrates regional unity as well as contiguity. However, the Bimstec is also one of the least integrated regions of the world. And that throws up an opportunity. What is needed is political commitment, strategic focus signalled by the 2016 Bimstec Outreach Summit in Goa and a proactive engagement strategy.
The desired level of collaboration has evaded the Bimstec so far and prevented it from becoming a result-oriented and meaningful platform for regional cooperation. And this brings us to the second fundamental question regarding the Bimstec. When it began 21 years ago, it brought in a rambling agenda of fourteen priority areas for cooperation including connectivity, trade, energy, tourism and the Bimstec Free Trade Area. All these were expected to have a multiplier effect on trade and investment in the region. So, the Kathmandu Summit should give a thought to it because the Bimstec should not eat more than what it can chew.
The last two decades have seen little tangible results in any of these areas. It took seven years for the Bimstec countries to sign the framework agreement for a Free Trade Area and the negotiations for the main deal are on for the last 13 years. Not that an FTA is the panacea for developmental problems facing the Bimstec. Besides, given the asymmetry in their size and economic potential as well as the presence of domestic trade and industry lobbies in the member-countries against free trade, it is certainly not easy to rush to a Bimstec FTA. That is why suggestions have been made from time to time to reduce the number of thrust areas of cooperation from fourteen to five to six—connectivity, power, security, climate change and trade, so that more time can be given to produce doable results. One hopes that the Kathmandu Summit would come up with some concrete agreements on coastal shipping that would open up access to landlocked Bhutan and Nepal to the Bay of Bengal through India and Bangladesh, and the Motor Vehicles Agreement. A Motor Vehicles Agreement under the Saarc ambit has been held up since 2014 due to Pakistan's refusal to sign on.
The single most important factor that runs like a common thread within the Bimstec is the need for all modes of connectivity: physical, digital, financial and people-to-people. It is in this context that one has to see India building a multi-modal transport project on the Kaladan River in Myanmar and a highway connecting north eastern state of Manipur to Thailand through Myanmar. The pace of work in both the projects has been frustratingly slow but there are now strong indications that the trilateral India-Myanmar-Thailand highway will be completed by the end of 2019. Progress in connectivity could be the game-changer for the Bimstec as it connects South Asia and South East Asia and gives the grouping a much bigger visibility in terms of regional economic integration. In fact, a suggestion has already been made to include Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam in the Bimstec in order to give it not only a greater South East Asian tilt but also take advantage of a region holding great economic potentials.
After a lack-lustre first two decades of existence, the Bimstec has entered a phase when it has been presented with an opportunity to change the narrative and its future course. One hopes the Kathmandu Summit will see it rising to the occasion.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent to The Daily Star.