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BIMSTEC — as it evolves to transform itself into a platform of regional cooperation

M Shahidul Islam | Published: October 02, 2019 21:22:39


The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, better known by its acronym BIMSTEC, is a unique regional organisation that brings together seven member states surrounding the Bay of Bengal, namely Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. As stipulated in the Bangkok Declaration of 1997, BIMSTEC's primary objective is to create an enabling environment for rapid economic development through identification and implementation of specific cooperation projects in the sectors of trade, investment and industry, technology, human resource development, tourism, agriculture, energy, and infrastructure and transportation.

Drawing its members from South and Southeast Asia, BIMSTEC constitutes a bridge between South and Southeast Asia and represents a reinforcement of relations among these countries. BIMSTEC with a population of more than 1.7 billion and a combined GDP (gross domestic product) of US$ 3.7 trillion is one of the fastest growing regions in the world. The Bay of Bengal being the key transit route between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean makes BIMSTEC increasingly relevant in shaping the geopolitical and geostrategic discourse in the region and beyond.  

BIMSTEC has been evolving constantly to transform itself into an efficient platform of regional cooperation and integration in the Bay of Bengal region. Beginning with 6 (six) sectors of cooperation, the number of sectors of cooperation under BIMSTEC has increased in the subsequent years to 14 covering such diverse areas as trade and investment, transport and communication, technology, tourism, energy, agriculture, fisheries, counter terrorism and transnational crime, environment and disaster management, climate change, public health, poverty alleviation, culture and people-to-people contact. It is noteworthy that the scope of cooperation has been broadened from purely technical and economic fields to include such areas as counter-terrorism and transnational crime.

While the initial focus of BIMSTEC was to implement project-based cooperation, the organisation gradually began to lay down legal framework for cooperation and build institutions, and curved its distinct identity as a grouping of Bay of Bengal nations.  BIMSTEC has concluded some landmark agreements like the 2004 Framework Agreement on BIMSTEC Free Trade Area (FTA); BIMSTEC Convention on Cooperation in Combating International Terrorism, Transnational Organised Crime and Illicit Drug Trafficking (2009); and a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to establish BIMSTEC Grid Interconnection (2018). In 2014, BIMSTEC established its permanent secretariat in Dhaka, which gave a formal structure to this regional forum. Four specialised centres namely, BIMSTEC Centre for Weather and Climate (India); BIMSTEC Cultural Industries Observatory (Bhutan); BIMSTEC Energy Centre (India); and BIMSTEC Technology Transfer Facility (Sri Lanka) are at various stages of operation.

Bangladesh as a founding member and the host country of BIMSTEC Secretariat has an important role to play in advancing BIMSTEC process. The BIMSTEC Secretariat was inaugurated by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina,  which speaks volume of Bangladesh's commitment to BIMSTEC. The stalled BIMSTEC FTA negotiations have resumed after a gap of three years on the behest of Bangladesh. Bangladesh has also decided to host BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting on Culture later this year and BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting on Tourism early next year. In order to enhance the visibility of BIMSTEC, the Secretariat is keen to partner with the Foreign Ministry of Bangladesh to hold seminars and round tables on specific issues relevant to BIMSTEC activities.

BIMSTEC received fresh impetus at the BIMSTEC Leaders' Retreat held in Goa, India on October 16, 2016, when the leaders reiterated their strong political commitment to make the organisation stronger, more effective and result-oriented. Since then, efforts have been redoubled to conclude new agreements to enhance trade and connectivity, including Agreement on Cooperation and Mutual Assistance in Customs Matters, BIMSTEC Motor Vehicle Agreement and BIMSTEC Coastal Shipping Agreement. The Trade Negotiating Committee (TNC) and its Working Groups have resumed negotiations to finalise the constituent agreements of the Framework Agreement on BIMSTEC FTA. The 21st TNC Meeting held in Dhaka in November 2018 reached agreement on a number of core elements related to the Agreement on Trade in Goods, and its Rules of Origin and Product Specific Rules (PSR).  Besides, other trade facilitation agreements are also being negotiated to remove non-tariff barriers to trade.

BIMSTEC recognises that a well-established transport network is a prerequisite for reaping the benefits of a free trade area, including the promotion of trade and investment, as well as progress in other areas of cooperation such as tourism, people-to-people contact and cultural exchange. Most member states have taken initiatives towards implementation of the 167 projects involving a cost of around US$50 billion that were identified by the ADB-assisted BIMSTEC Transport Infrastructure and Logistics Study (BTILS) of 2014 in order to address the missing links to establish greater physical and economic connectivity between South and South East Asia. BIMSTEC is currently developing the BIMSTEC Transport Connectivity Master Plan with a vision to promote seamless connectivity between and across BIMSTEC countries, through the use of different transport modes, to achieve enhanced transport and trade linkages for faster and more inclusive growth. 

BIMSTEC has been serving as an effective platform to facilitate regular exchanges among the government officials and think tanks of member states, thereby narrowing down differences and creating common grounds for cooperation. BIMSTEC held four  Summits, 16 foreign minister-level meetings, three national security chiefs' meetings and 19 foreign secretary-level meetings. The Fourth BIMSTEC Summit, held in 2018, has further emphasised the need to hold regular meetings of various levels of institutional mechanisms.  

Efforts are underway to rationalise and consolidate BIMSTEC's operational modalities and institutional structure. The Forth Summit agreed to adopt a BIMSTEC Charter in the Fifth BIMSTEC Summit to be held in Sri Lanka this year, decided to explore the possibility of establishing a BIMSTEC Development Fund (BDF), and review and rationalise the existing 14 sectors of cooperation to eventually reduce their numbers to enhance focus of the organisation. As part of strengthening the BIMSTEC Secretariat, the number of directors has been increased to seven, to be filled by one director from each member state.  

The organisation is increasingly aligning its activities with the efforts of its member states to meet the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Fourth BIMSTEC Summit reiterated BIMSTEC's commitment to the eradication poverty in the Bay of Bengal Region by 2030 in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and called for gearing up efforts of all sectors to contribute to the over-arching goal of poverty alleviation. BIMSTEC is in the process of establishing closer collaboration with the UN system, Asian Development Bank and the World Bank in this regard.

Historically, the Bay of Bengal used to be a centre for global maritime trade, and a hub of commercial and cultural exchange.  BIMSTEC is striving to restore the historical connectivity in order to promote trade and investment, tourism, people-to-people contact and cultural exchange to contribute to the sustainable development of this region.  With renewed political commitment of the member states and the urge to put in place focused institutional structure, BIMSTEC has generated new hope. Indeed, the time for BIMSTEC has come, and the organisation is poised to play a greater role in promoting peace, prosperity and sustainable development in the Bay of Bengal region.

Ambassador M Shahidul Islam is the Secretary General of BIMSTEC.

sg@bimstec.org

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