BIMSTEC at a crossroads - soaring or stalling?

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Published: March 04, 2019 20:31:49 | Updated: March 08, 2019 21:25:03

BIMSTEC headquarers in Dhaka

Headquartered in Dhaka, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectorial, Technical, and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) stands at a crossroads where it can soar irreversibly to put South and Southeast Asia on a faster growth track, or remain, as it has since incepted in 1997, stalled for good. Bangladesh may play a pivotal role in determining which direction it takes. As the leading country of the 7-member body on trade and investment, as well as climate-change, Bangladesh might find in that "growth" track the breakthrough benefits it sorely needs.

To be sure, Bangladesh faces enormous constraints to stir its BIMSTEC juices. With refugees from a member country sapping away its resources, posing unpredictable threats, and a negotiations stalemate with Myanmar, it faces even more protracted of a deadlock over joint river-water disputes with India (in essence, with neighbouring West Bengal, where the impediments lie), the very country capable of resolving the Rohingya crisis. It would, under those circumstances, surprise all if Bangladesh stood up, overlooked differences, and pushed both trade and climate-change issues to its two neighbours.

Yet, it must: the inconveniences it faces are short-term compared to the prolonged future benefits. One way to begin, as Scopus has harped at least twice this year (February 18, February 26), is to slash its own average tariff-level by first opening more outlets for its own business. Particularly those who may be instantly hurt can be induced to shift in other directions, while those expecting to benefit should be encouraged to lead the campaign to socialise the free-trade idea across the country. Once in motion, this policy approach could be used to leverage concessions from particularly India, a country with overloaded economic developmental plans to its east. Among BIMSTEC members, Bhutan and Nepal should not pose a problem since they have fairly easy-going relations with Bangladesh, nor too Sri Lanka or Thailand, with which new agreements are being negotiated constantly (the latest being over free trade). Only India and Myanmar need to be motivated, using leveraged concessions as instrument, perhaps with the help of non-BIMSTEC members, like China with the latter, and if successful, together with both China and Myanmar with the former.

Investment could easily follow suit, since Bangladesh is fertile place for foreign investment right now given its own "export-processing zone" ambition. We should regulate appropriate policies, and begin with the safest partners: Bhutan and Nepal to get the ball rolling, Sri Lanka, and Thailand to keep the ball rolling, then India and Myanmar to play the ball-game. Welcoming gestures might be ample to burst the walls invariably derailing talks. Of course, it would be a political chip of the highest order if an arrangement could be made with Myanmar to open RMG (ready-made garments) centres in Rakhine province with international safeguards and peacekeepers, an investment both Bangladesh and Myanmar could profit equally from, but it should not be left merely to wishful thinking. Chinese and Indian support for such an idea would be quite likely since their own Rakhine investments partly uprooted the Rohingyas. Besides, it would help normalise India's rather duplicitous Myanmar foreign policy approach, of supporting Myanmar's position on the refugees when India's Bangladesh bondage demands at least as much care.

Climate-change is the stuff Bangladesh has been intimately involved with. As more of a "ground-zero" playground than many (or any) other BIMSTEC member, Bangladesh's recent engagements, especially in the COP (Conference of Parties) series seeking to salvage the planet, tally with several global movements to arrest the disintegrating protective measures against inevitable future environmental threats. Whether it is coastal erosion, rivers drying up, or simply climbing temperatures, as large a proportion of Bangladesh will be directly impacted as perhaps in West Bengal, perhaps Assam and Meghalaya too. Action needs not only to grow, if not to manage the river water-flows (even inter-link them), but also to prepare for safeguarding future climate migrants and the coasts. The urgency here also resonates in India, which is why the basis for a collective approach exists, needing only cultivation.

Any Bangladesh approach would have to eschew obvious short-term losses, and elevate the many long-term benefits as the guide. Behind this philosophical drive must be available a well-oiled diplomatic machine to not only make the case, but also present that case through trade-offs, that is, going outside the relevant box to invoke others. That is the very essence of both BIMSTEC vitality and general cooperation: to spread engagements from one issue to a few, then from those few to the many.

A similar approach can be pursued with members, beginning with one, then expanding beyond. With both Bhutan and Nepal, Bangladesh has toyed with the idea of hydro-electric energy imports, an idea ready to be pursued further. Once it flows, not only will a new engagement enter the picture, but the likelihood of India joining subsequently also increases. Similarly, the ongoing plans for an India-Myanmar-Bangladesh gas pipeline can also be stretched out to Thailand, opening the scope of many more extant regional plans being given greater glow. Cross-border highways illustrate this point vividly, with the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) highway already accounting for half BIMSTEC members and capable of being extended to two others. If that becomes an active consideration, it is only a short hop-skip-and-jump to connect with the equally considered Kolkata-Ho Chi Minh highway, or even reviving the Kunmin-Kolkata (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar) economic corridor. Considerable studies have been devoted to these (see Sultana Yesmin's piece, this paper, February 19, 2019), but what value-added advantages they bring to the BIMSTEC body now would broaden membership boundaries further to the East and North, to China, among others. After all, if the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) could spread beyond the north Atlantic Ocean littoral zone, then why can the BIMSTEC boundaries not spread beyond the Bay?

There are many precedential cases why this becomes a logical next-step. Both China and India collaborated on the Kunmin-Kolkata highway planning from 1999, and though not much progress has been registered, the constraint seems to be more political than geographical. Similarly both the BIMSTEC and BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) networks have also crisscrossed each other. With both China and India being BRICS members, why they cannot come together within a BIMSTEC framework remains baffling.

True the BIMSTEC originally had a "ring-around-China" aspect to it, much as the defunct US-driven Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) did. As such, it would have been the most appropriate contestation platform against China's "one-belt-one-road strategy". Yet, it is not just the Kunmin-Kolkata formulation that underscores China-India collaboration. After the 2017 Doklam stand-off, China and India met at Wuhan to chart more bilateral cooperative plans.

As the country commendably balanced China and India in its own foreign-policy priorities, Bangladesh is uniquely positioned to marshal both emergent global powers into even more compacts, with the BIMSTEC platform being the most handily available one. Diplomacy can do much to soften divisions: Bangladeshi diplomacy, too, can do much to soften Chinese-Indian tensions using the BIMSTEC opportunities available.

At a time when "camps" consisting of like-minded countries have begun to proliferate, a business-as-usual Bangladesh putting one foot outside the BIMSTEC terrain, could loosen the hard-edged BIMSTEC membership boundaries. Where there is a will, there must be a way.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent  University, Bangladesh.

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