BIMSTEC: A Vehicle for Growth and Development

KATHMANDU: BIMSTEC has emerged as an important vehicle of sub-regional cooperation in South Asia and Southeast Asia. The region is home to one fifth of the world’s population with a combined GDP of US$2.7 trillion. With current membership of seven countries along the Bay of Bengal BIMSTEC has completed 24 years of its existence with notable progress in 14 priority areas for cooperation including (1) Counterterrorism and transnational crime, (2) Transport & Communication, (3) Tourism, (4) Environment and Disaster Management, (5) Trade and Investment, (6) Cultural Cooperation, (7) Energy, (8) Agriculture, Poverty Alleviation, (10) Technology, (11) Fisheries, (12) Public Health, (13) People-to-People contact, and 14) Climate Change. Most of these issues remain at the core of economic development, enhancing social security through poverty alleviation measures and cooperating on non-traditional security issues and capacity building.

Although BIMSTEC would complete 25 years in 2022, it is very important to look and analyse the achievements and future road map to consolidate the gains and explore new possibilities. In the 4th BIMSTEC summit held in Kathmandu, leaders of the BIMSTEC countries have outlined the new trajectories of cooperation in line with the changing global economic landscape. The pandemic has also thrown new challenges. Economies of the member countries have been adversely impacted, especially the people dependent on tourism and service industries. Poverty and unemployment situation has worsened in most of the BIMSTEC countries and people are pushed to extreme poverty. There are also several climate change and environmental threats to the region which need to be addressed.

India gives thrust to BIMSTEC as an important scheme of regional cooperation in the neighbourhood. BIMSTEC is an important vehicle for India’s ‘Act East’ policy. India’s emphasis on BIMSTEC was evident when BRICS-BIMSTEC outreach leadership summit took place in Goa in 2016. As the Fifth BIMSTEC Summit is ensuing, it is imperative to take India’s leadership and contribution to a new height for realizing a peaceful and prosperous BIMSTEC region.

Major Issues

BIMSTEC is a unique grouping with a rich agenda of regional cooperation. Over the years, there has been tremendous diversification of issues within the priority sectors of cooperation. While all the sectors are important for furthering cooperation among the BIMSTEC countries, the web Symposium would focus on select themes discussed briefly below:

Opportunities and Challenges for BIMSTEC Cooperation

BIMSTEC region is undergoing significant developments in the economic, social and technological spheres. With greater trade and FDI flows, the economic landscapes in the BIMSTEC economies are also changing rapidly. Integration with global value chains and promoting regional economic integration are being viewed as transformative forces for the future growth and development of the region. Despite signs of revival of economic activity following lifting of COVID-19 lockdowns in different parts of the world, BIMSTEC could face new opportunities and challenges. The scope and modality of cooperation among the member countries may require a paradigm shift as many new areas demand higher attention. For instance, the benefits of digitalization for supply of essential services, gaps in social infrastructure e.g. health, education, skill development, digital payments, etc opens up new possibilities for the BIMSTEC countries. On the other hand, resource constraints and rising debt levels could be cause of concern. In the social spectrum, the legacy issues of poverty, unemployment, regional imbalances, lack of connectivity, etc are to be addressed as well. In this sense, it is sensible to have a dedicated session in the web Symposium on opportunities and challenges for BIMSTEC in the near future.

Trade and Connectivity

Enhancing trade and investment is fundamental to BIMSTEC economic cooperation. In fact, the progress in negotiations for the conclusion of BIMSTEC FTA is comprehensive and substantial. Negotiation on trade in goods is almost complete whereas agreement over trade in services and investment is still on-going. An early conclusion of BIMSTEC FTA is desirable for promoting intra-regional trade in the region. Connectivity is the enabler of trade integration in the region. As the member countries are contiguous and share long physical borders, the scope for road and rail connectivity in the region is immense. The Trilateral Highway (TH) between India, Thailand and Myanmar and its extension to Cambodia, Lao and Vietnam opens possibilities for enhancing physical connectivity between BIMSTEC countries and Southeast Asia.

In terms of regulatory harmonization, BIMSTEC Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA) has been signed by the member countries. MVA would streamline vehicle movement in the region. BIMSTEC Transport Infrastructure and Logistics Study (BTILS) are yet to be signed. Out of 167 projects, the Study has prioritized 66. As per the recommendation, the member countries constituted a single Working Group on transport and trade facilitation to be referred as BIMSTEC Transport Connectivity Working Group (BTCWG) to finalise a master plan for multimodal connectivity which was finalized in New Delhi, India, on 08 December, 2020. This has already been approved by the 17th BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting held virtually in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on 01 April, 2021. Experts can deliberate upon the pertinent issues relating to trade & connectivity in the BIMSTEC region.

Sectoral Cooperation

While region-wide FTA and overall economic integration should be pursued, there is merit in promoting sectoral cooperation in certain sectors so as to benefits from the emerging opportunities in those sectors. Very often, some sectors remain low-key areas within the overall scheme of regional cooperation. In that sense, BIMSTEC can consider advancing sectoral cooperation along with the overall agenda. As health sector issues came to limelight during the COVID-19 pandemic, BIMSTEC can explore the avenue for improving the health systems and infrastructure. Energy cooperation is another potential area for sectoral cooperation. Both conventional and renewable sources of power generation need to be scaled to meet the growing energy demand of the member states. Trade in energy especially hydropower between India, Bhutan and other BIMSTEC countries may be explored. During the Fourth BIMSTEC Summit a MoU on BIMSTEC Grid Interconnection was signed. There exists cross-border grid connectivity and power exchange between the four BBIN countries who are also members of the BIMSTEC. Similarly, agriculture is an important sector for income diversification and livelihood promotion in the BIMSTEC region. By developing suitable food processing technologies, testing and standards facilities, warehousing and logistics infrastructure, agriculture in the region can strive towards modernization and value addition in the coming years.

Disaster Management, Maritime Cooperation and Coastal Security

Maritime sector in the BIMSTEC region has assumed renewed importance in recent years. In line with the priority assigned to the blue economy by India, Bangladesh and other coastal nations in the last few years, BIMSTEC has identified the blue economy as an important sector for cooperation during the Fourth BIMSTEC Summit held in Kathmandu in 2018. Exploring coastal shipping for cargo transport has also been discussed between India and Bangladesh. On the security front, maritime security in the Bay of Bengal is a topmost priority. Ensuring the Bay of Bengal as a peaceful mode of maritime trade could be a game changer for the BIMSTEC region. Disaster management has been a key pillar of regional cooperation in BIMSTEC. With advancement of meteorology and related technologies, regular upgradation of weather forecasting and disaster prevention and management practices is necessary. BIMSTEC countries should discuss cooperation in disaster management for preventing human and economic losses in the future.

Sawtee |
Sunday October 24, 2021, 10:42:45 AM |

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