Removal of physical and regulatory obstacles essential for success : BIMSTEC to take off with Sri Lanka as Chair | Sunday Observer

Removal of physical and regulatory obstacles essential for success : BIMSTEC to take off with Sri Lanka as Chair

Sri Lanka is fortunate to be the new chair of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) at a time when this regional organisation is set for a giant leap in regional cooperation after extremely slow progress for two decades. The 4th BIMSTEC summit successfully concluded last month with Nepal Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli handing over the chairmanship of the grouping to Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena.The current optimism about BIMSTEC future is mainly due to the Indian Prime Miniter Narendra Modi’s absolute commitment to strengthen the organisation. It is an accepted fact that any regional bloc to be productive, the political desire of major member nations is essential. In the regional organisations in our region, the commitment of the economic giant, India is a prerequisite.

India’s positive policy towards BIMSTEC became very clear from the speech of Modi at the two-day summit in Kathmandu. This was further endorsed by Raveesh Kumar, the spokesman of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, when he tweeted, “With a commitment by PM @narendramodi and other leaders to reinvigorate the BIMSTEC process, the #BIMSTEC Summit in Kathmandu came to a successful close.”

BIMSTEC’s success continues to primarily hinge on removing the formidable physical and regulatory obstacles to the free flow of goods, capital, services and people between its member-states. Although security cooperation such as geostrategic imperatives, security dialogues, or counter terrorism cooperation initiatives are important, together with these issues, BIMSTEC will have to move forward to increase regional connectivity and revive the Bay of Bengal community.    

Addressing the BIMSTEC Summit on Thursday (Aug 30) Modi said that all member countries of BIMSTEC seek peace and prosperity and this will be possible only if there is connectivity in all forms between member states of the regional bloc. “Each of our countries seek peace, prosperity and happiness, but in today’s inter-connected world, we cannot achieve this alone,” Modi said.

India’s support would give a much needed boost to BIMSTEC. Although it showed some achievements in regional cooperation in the political, economic and cultural spheres since its inception in 1997, it has not achieved its full potential. However, recent progress is commendable and it would provide encouragement to seek new avenues of cooperation.

As the current chair as well as a founder member, Sri Lanka is committed to the BIMSTEC process. Sri Lanka, as an active participant, is the Lead Country in the Technology Sector and the Permanent Chair of the Trade Negotiating Committee, for a Free Trade Agreement. This Agreement is expected to open new vistas to increase trade and economic cooperation in the region.

In 2016, BIMSTEC received a new lease of life with the revival of Indian interest. India galvanised this organisation to set out a forward-looking agenda in the areas of regional connectivity, coastal shipping, space, energy, transport, and tourism. The Modi government is keen to underscore BIMSTEC’s centrality in its outreach to its neighbors and had invited members of this grouping to a BRICS outreach forum in Goa in 2016. The inclusion of the biggest five economies in the five continents - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa opened up BIMSTEC as an outreach cooperation partner of BRICS.

Indian analysts are of the view that New Delhi is very keen to strengthen cooperation with not only the South Asian neighbours barring Pakistan, and expand this cooperation to the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean region. It is not without reason that the idea of BIMSTEC has gained currency in Indian policy making circles. It can potentially allow India to break through the traditional confines of South Asian boundaries and leverage its Bay of Bengal identity to link up with the wider Southeast Asia.

India is in no mood to promote the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) because of major differences between Pakistan and India. India finds it very convenient to promote and strengthen BIMSTEC, which is an organisation in which Pakistan is not a member, rather than removing the deadlock in SAARC due to Indo-Pakistan differences. Some Indian analysts call BIMSTEC as ‘SAARC minus Pakistan and plus two’ (Myanmar and Thailand).

The BIMSTEC region is more than two million square kilometers and the Bay is situated between vital sea routes and stretches from Sri Lanka, up the coast of eastern India, curving under Bangladesh and Myanmar, and heading south along Thailand and Malaysia, until it reaches the northern coast of Sumatra in Indonesia. The Bay of Bengal is increasingly gaining salience as a strategic maritime space. Maritime trade and maritime connectivity, after all, have been the oldest forms of cross-cultural and cross-civilisational interaction, and this has been manifested in this region.

As Indian analysts often point out, successive Indian governments have struggled to get a grip on India’s neighborhood. Initially, the struggle with Pakistan sucked a large part of India’s diplomatic capital. Today, there seems to be a clear recognition that India’s Pakistan policy is merely a subset of India’s China policy and as Beijing’s economic and political engagement in India’s periphery has grown, New Delhi is coming to terms with the reality of a “new” South Asia. India will not only have to more creatively re imagine its strategic geography but also evolve new terms of engagement with its neighbors – terms which reflect the reality of the times, in which both India and its neighbors can have a stake in each other’s success. Revitalising BIMSTEC should, therefore, be a key priority of New Delhi. Sri Lanka, as the new Chair of BIMSTEC has a special responsibility of ensuring speedy cooperation of the member states of the Bay region. Though this is not an easy task, Sri Lanka is fortunate because it can get maximum support from the regional super economic power India for this endeavour.

BIMSTEC’s success continues to primarily hinge on removing the formidable physical and regulatory obstacles to the free flow of goods, capital, services and people between its member-states. Although security cooperation such as geostrategic imperatives, security dialogues, or counter terrorism cooperation initiatives are important, together with these issues, BIMSTEC will have to move forward to increase regional connectivity and revive the Bay of Bengal community.

President Sirisena and Prime Minister Modi emphasised that the Bay of Bengal countries have shared aspirations for growth, development, commerce and technology and that BIMSTEC is the natural platform to implement regional connectivity and economic cooperation.

Now it is for the new BIMSTEC Chair, Sri Lanka to remind India about its responsibility to take initiative for the BIMSTEC to perform successfully. To start with, there should be a strong management mechanism as nothing will progress unless the BIMSTEC secretariat is significantly empowered. Regions often lead to multilateral organisations, but strong organisations can also make or revive regions.

 

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