Evaluating progress within the BIMSTEC process

Muhammad Zamir | Published: September 09, 2018 21:50:03 | Updated: September 12, 2018 21:42:35

The two-day fourth Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) Summit concluded in Kathmandu, Nepal on August 31, 2018. The First Summit was convened in Bangkok, Thailand on July 31, 2004, the Second in New Delhi, India on November 13, 2008, the Third in Nay Pyi Daw, Myanmar on March 04, 2014 and the Fourth and latest in Kathmandu. In between there was an informal Leaders Retreat in Goa, India on October 16, 2016 wherein BIMSTEC leaders met alongside the leaders of the  Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) group and pledged to work collectively towards making BIMSTEC stronger, more effective and result-oriented. It has been decided in Kathmandu that the next Summit, the Fifth, will be held in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

This new sub-regional grouping was initially constituted on June 06, 1997 in Bangkok under the name BIST-EC and included Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand. On December 22, 1997, Myanmar also joined the grouping and was renaming as BIMSTEC. In 1998, Nepal became an observer. In February 2004, Nepal and Bhutan became its full members. After their inclusion the organisation became the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). The Permanent Secretariat of BIMSTEC is located in Dhaka with Ambassador M. Shahidul Islam from Bangladesh as its Secretary General.

The 14 main objectives of BIMSTEC are directed towards creation of and furthering technological and economic cooperation among south Asian and southeast Asian countries along the coast of the Bay of Bengal. Commerce, Investment, Technology, Tourism, Human Resource Development, Agriculture, Fisheries, Transport and Communication, Textiles, Leather etc. have been included within this matrix. BIMSTEC is also supposed to be able to create platforms for providing cooperation to one another not only for the provision of training and research facilities in educational, vocational and technical fields but also promoting active collaboration and mutual assistance in economic, social, technical and scientific fields of common interest.

Matters related to tourism, transport and communication, counter-terrorism and transnational crime, environment and disaster management are generally supervised by India. There are four sub- groups to contain and curb terrorism. The subgroup on intelligence sharing is monitored by Sri Lanka as leader, terror financing is monitored by Thailand and law enforcement and narcotics are supposed to be monitored by Myanmar. To assist this process a BIMSTEC Information Centre has been established in New Delhi. A Tsunami Warning Centre is also situated in Noida, India.

Matters related to public health are supposed to be monitored by Thailand but there is also particular focus in this regard through the BIMSTEC Network of Traditional Medicine in India. Bangladesh is supposed to monitor and look after not only trade and investment but also climate change. Nepal has been charged with the task of monitoring poverty alleviation, Myanmar with matters related to agriculture and Thailand with fisheries. Bhutan is in charge of enhancing cultural cooperation and Sri Lanka with areas related to technology.

The Summit meeting in Kathmandu was preceded by two additional meetings of the member countries - one at the level of Foreign Secretaries and the other at the level of Foreign Ministers. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Bhutan Interim Government Chief Adviser Lyonpo Tshering Wangchuk, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Myanmar President Win Myint, Nepalese Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha attended the summit.

In the two-day summit, BIMSTEC leaders agreed to transform the Bay of Bengal region peaceful and prosperous by strengthening common bonds through collective efforts. They also agreed to make the organisation a dynamic, effective and result-oriented body for intensifying regional cooperation, alleviating poverty and promoting connectivity, energy and free trade. The summit underlined the importance of multidimensional connectivity for economic integration and shared prosperity.

The summit ended with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on establishing a Bimstec Grid Interconnection to enhance energy cooperation among the seven member states -- Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Earlier, a BIMSTEC Grid Interconnection MoU, signed in 2014, but had not moved forward effectively and comprehensively. This time the Foreign Ministers of the countries signed a relevant deal. This is expected to pave the way for buying and selling electricity among Bimstec members once the cross-country energy grids are put in place. From the point of view of Bangladesh, this has been a welcome development, given its efforts to import hydro-electricity energy from Nepal and India.

KATHMANDU DECLARATION: At the closing session, Nepalese Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli presented an 18-point draft of the Kathmandu Declaration, which was adopted unanimously.

It included cooperation in areas such as agricultural technology exchange, gradual reduction of climate change impact, boosting trade and investment, bolstering the potential of the blue economy and the mountain economy, tourism, cultural cooperation and people-to-people contact.

The Kathmandu Declaration has deplored terrorist attacks in all parts of the world, including in Bimstec countries, and strongly condemned terrorism in all its forms. BIMSTEC "Affirms that the fight against terrorism should target not only terrorists, terror organisations and networks but also identify and hold accountable States and non-State entities that encourage, support or finance terrorism, provide sanctuaries to terrorists and terror groups and falsely extol their virtues." Bimstec member states have reiterated their strong commitment to combat terrorism and called upon all countries to devise a comprehensive approach  which would include prevention of financing of terrorists and terrorist actions from territories under their control, blocking recruitment and cross-border movement of terrorists, countering radicalisation, tackling misuse of internet for purposes of terrorism and dismantling terrorist safe havens. This constructive approach was to a great extent due to the efforts of the Bangladesh delegation and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who repeated their belief in "zero tolerance" with regard to terrorism.

In this context the Summit agreed to expedite the conclusion of Bimstec Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters and called upon the member states for its early ratification. It also expressed satisfaction that many member states have ratified the Bimstec Convention on Cooperation in Combating International Terrorism, Transnational Organized Crime and Illicit Drug Trafficking. It is believed that implementation of these principles should also assist in the process of extradition of a person if that person has been identified as having carried out terrorist activities or facilitated such activity in a country other than his own. 

There was also consensus in the Summit with regard to the establishment of seamless multi-modal transportation linkages and smooth, synchronised and simplified transit facilities through the development, expansion and modernisation of highways, railways, waterways, sea routes and airways in the region.

It was also decided to speed up the efforts to conclude the Bimstec Coastal Shipping Agreement and the Bimstec Motor Vehicle Agreement as early as possible taking into account the special circumstances and needs of the member states. This strategic move is being undertaken to facilitate coastal shipping within 20 nautical miles of the coastline in the region to boost trade between the member countries. Compared to the deep sea shipping, coastal shipping requires smaller vessels with lesser draft and will involve lower costs. Once the agreement becomes operational after it is ratified, a lot of cargo movement between the member countries can be done through the cost effective, environment friendly and faster coastal shipping routes.

The leaders, as expected, stressed on the need to have an early conclusion of Bimstec Free Trade Area (FTA) negotiations, and in this context directed the Bimstec Trade and Economic Ministerial Meeting and its subsidiary bodies, including the Trade Negotiating Committee (TNC), to expedite finalisation of all related agreements of the BIMSTEC FTA as early as possible. This committee is presently negotiating in areas of trade in goods and services, investment, economic co-operation, trade facilitations and technical assistance for least developed countries (LDCs). Once negotiation on trade in goods is completed, the TNC would then proceed with negotiation on trade in services and investment.

Within the financial paradigm, the Summit called for exploring the possibility of establishing a Bimstec Development Fund with voluntary contributions from the member states. This fund would be utilised for research, planning and financing of BIMSTEC projects.

One, however, needs to note here that the Summit would have been perceived as a total success if the Member States would have avoided the ostrich syndrome and touched on the Rohingya crisis inflicted on Bangladesh which needs to be resolved the soonest possible. One understands that Myanmar President Win Myint has informally assured Prime Minister Hasina in Kathmandu that the repatriation process is being given due attention. Obviously, this is not enough.

The Kathmandu Summit has been a good exercise. One can only hope that the relevant authorities in the Secretariat will take more proactive steps and measures to enable BIMSTEC to emerge as a stronger, more effective and result-oriented organisation.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.








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