A Bay of Hope with BIMSTEC | Sunday Observer

A Bay of Hope with BIMSTEC

The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) which entered its third decade is yet to reap benefits of the full socio-economic potential of the region – with intra- regional trade at only 3.7% and investment approximately 5%. At a recent conference named Kolkata Colloquium on ‘Reimagining BIMSTEC’ held in Kolkata, India, academics, policy makers, journalists and various other stakeholders discussed the cross-national issues, agreeing that ‘a narrower focus and broader context appears necessary to reimagining BIMSTEC’.

BIMSTEC as an institution will be successful if initiatives are undertaken by member countries with ‘functionalist models’. It’s been 22 years since the BIMSTEC bloc was initiated; but the organization is yet to become fully activated. The organization which consists of Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan has had historical linkages across the Bay with great deal of trade relations, according to historical evidence.

This sub-regional orgainsation is a unique and exclusive platform that can revive the age old linkages that once formed the lifeblood of trade and connectivity in the Bay. The Bay cooperation can be transformed into a ‘Bay of Hope’ from being a Bay of Disaster, considering the natural calamities the bay nations are facing on a regular basis. Although the Bay of Bengal is known for its natural disasters, no regional mechanism yet exists in the Bay for collective disaster mitigation.

However, Secretary General of BIMSTEC, M. Shahidul Islam said with renewed political commitment of the Member States and the desire to put in place focused institutional structure, BIMSTEC has generated new hope.

BIMSTEC received new impetus when BIMSTEC Leaders were invited to a Leaders’ Retreat organised alongside BRICS Summit held in Goa in October 2016. At the Goa Retreat, the Leaders reiterated their strong political commitment to make the organization stronger, more effective and result-oriented, and recommended a 17-point Agenda of Action.

Since then, BIMSTEC began to hold meetings more regularly and resumed negotiations to conclude pending agreements including BIMSTEC FTA. Riding on the new momentum, the 4th BIMSTEC Summit held in Kathmandu in 2018 took a number of important decisions to rationalise and consolidate BIMSTEC’s operational modalities and institutional structure.

The Summit decided to draft the BIMSTEC Charter, establish a BIMSTEC Development Fund, and review and rationalise the 14 sectors of cooperation to bring focus in BIMSTEC’s work, he said.

The possibility of a BIMSTEC Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and the other drives that can create a congenial environment for trade and investment could bring some hope. However due to asymmetric economies and differing challenges, the FTA may also not possible, according to some of the speakers.

One of the key topics discussed by the panelists was the way to use BIMSTEC to enhance multilateral collaboration. Since the organisation lacks resources and capacity to enhance such collaboration at the outset, it can only be overcome when members have a stronger commitment to BIMSTEC, the speakers noted.

“The member countries should prioritise a polycentric government approach, clear identification of agendas and economic engagement to bring the organisation into the limelight within the Indo-Pacific.”

Connecting nations within BIMSTEC

The importance of hard and soft forms of connectivity in rejuvenating BIMSTEC is also a key area to look at in the event if reimagining BIMSTEC. It was pointed out that for multi-modal connectivity to succeed there is need for better coordination among the different ministries and agencies. There exists political and economic partitions among littorals which are continually reaffirmed with an inward looking mindset that inhibit the growth of the organisation, the speakers highlighted.

Maritime connectivity

When it comes to Maritime connectivity and significance of the Bay of Bengal the panelists discussed how the Bay was gaining strategic salience situated at the intersection of the Indian and the Pacific Oceans.

As the east-west shipping route passes just below the Bay, the maritime space is traversed by numerous shipping lines. Presently only Sri Lanka has been able to effectively tap into this maritime traffic owing to its efficacy of ports.

Overall to improve maritime connectivity BIMSTEC members must engage in improving infrastructure and undertake a holistic view of finances. Finally it was put forth that before reimagining BIMSTEC it was important to reimagine the Bay itself as a ‘Bay of Hope’ rather than a ‘Bay of Fear’.

Disaster management

During an Interactive session on Global warming, climate change, disaster management and BIMSTEC with Jayanta Bandopadhyay, Visiting Distinguished Fellow, ORF, Kolkata, India and Sugata Hazra, Director, School of Oceanographic Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India. Discussions illustrated how increase in green house gas concentration is changing monsoon patterns which affect the fertile Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin of the Bay of Bengal region. It also increases the frequency of natural disasters in the Bay. Both the speakers agreed that the region has numerous common ecological concerns and as a bloc the BIMSTEC nations can work towards collective mitigation.

The speakers on Climate change, disaster management and BIMSTEC drew attention to how it was important to realise the convergence between the geo-political, geo-economic and the geo-physical factors if BIMSTEC is to make any headway. It was highlighted that the merchant navy must be involved in disaster management and the organization must also work towards the creation of a regional disaster management framework.

Look East

BIMSTEC has not been a politically important and controversial subject like SAARC in the past.

But it could become an important subject given the reported Indian initiative to promote BIMSTEC with India’s ‘Look East’ policy. The panelists also noted, given this background, India can take the lead in revamping BIMSTEC without dominating its member countries.

In 2014, BIMSTEC established its permanent secretariat in Dhaka, which gave a formal structure to this regional forum.The Kolkata Colloquium 2019 on Reimagining BIMSTEC was organised by Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in collaboration with Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Centre for New Economic Diplomacy and Department for International Development, U.K.

The two-day conference was attended by 51 participants from BIMSTEC member countries and beyond, ranging from academics, thinkers, policy makers, journalists to other important stakeholders.