In the last 26 years of its existence, BIMSTEC has emerged as a strong regional group in the Indo-Pacific region with its members appearing all set to take cooperation among themselves in the field of connectivity and economy to the next level at the time when the Ukraine war has thrown various geopolitical challenges
Last week, the first ever BIMSTEC Business Conclave was organised by the Ministry of External Affairs in collaboration with the Indian Chamber of Commerce in Kolkata. More than 150 international delegates, including ministers, business leaders and officials from BIMSTEC countries comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand attended the conclave which was held in the capital city of West Bengal on June 13-15. As per a tweet by MEA Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi, the “conclave saw fruitful B2B, G2G and B2G interactions among BIMSTEC member nations.” Serving as a link between South Asia and Southeast Asia, the BIMSTEC has evolved as a forum for functional partnership among member states in the area of trade, commerce, connectivity, and people-to-people. Trade facilitation Since BIMSTEC's establishment, trade has been a major area of collaboration, and increasing trade has been a cornerstone of BIMSTEC's efforts to strengthen economic cooperation among member states. However, despite the combined GDP of the BIMSTEC nations being $3.6 trillion, intra-BIMSTEC trade remains a paltry $77 billion. Negotiations on a BIMSTEC FTA have been going on since 2005. It should be known that in order to overcome trade barriers in the region, BIMSTEC has adopted a twin strategy: i) the BIMSTEC Free Trade Area initiative, which has been specifically designed to assist in removing or reducing tariff barriers that adversely affect intra-regional trade, and ii) the BIMSTEC trade facilitation programme, which is intended to address non-tariff barriers affecting trade in general. The disparities in the capacities of Member States to promote trade facilitation have been one of the main obstacles for BIMSTEC in developing a regional trade facilitation framework. While some BIMSTEC member nations have made substantial progress with their trade facilitation agreement, other member states have not yet completed several necessary requirements. Despite recent significant regional improvements in trade facilitation, national performance in this area still lags well below that of the majority of affluent/developed nations or market leaders. BIMSTEC member nations have very different trade facilitation standards. The most advanced facilitation agreement in the area, as per a few international trade facilitation performance measures, are between India and Thailand, followed by Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka. Therefore, while creating a new common framework strategy to address such a problem, these variances must be taken into consideration. Connectivity In 2022, a Master Plan for Transport Connectivity was announced during the BIMSTEC meeting with an aim to establish a framework for local and regional connectivity. It envisages constructing border infrastructure at the major BIMSTEC land border crossings, developing inland clearance depots at suitable locations, reviewing, and streamlining the documentation requirements for import and export clearance, promoting mutually beneficial agreements, and upgrading computerised systems as a strategy for lowering the high cost of distribution and long transportation times. The Asian Development Bank has designed and supported the BIMSTEC Master Plan for Transport Connectivity, which includes 264 projects totalling $126 billion in investment. On the connectivity front in the region, India is already seized with the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway project and its eastward extension. Agriculture cooperation In keeping with the view that food security is the need of the hour, BIMSTEC nations have been emphasizing on cooperation among member states for enhancement of agricultural productivity. At the second BIMSTEC Agriculture Ministerial Meeting held virtually in November last year, an Action Plan for strengthening agricultural cooperation for 2023-27 was adopted. An MoU between the BIMSTEC Secretariat and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) was signed and approval was given to bring fisheries and livestock sub-sectors under the Agricultural Working Group. To strengthen cooperation in agricultural research and development India announced awarding six scholarships each for postgraduate and PhD programmes in agriculture. Counter terrorism Counter terrorism has been one of the priority sectors of BIMSTEC cooperation since the first BIMSTEC summit in 2004. In the last 14 years, two documents have been signed in the domain of counter terrorism and transnational crime. These documents include the BIMSTEC Convention on Cooperation in Combating International Terrorism, Transnational Organised Crime, and Illicit Drug Trafficking. It was signed in December 2009 in Myanmar and entered into force on March 16, 2021. The second document is on the BIMSTEC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters. It was signed during the 5th BIMSTEC Summit in Colombo on March 30, 2022. This Convention will come into force upon deposition of the instrument of ratification by all Member States of BIMSTEC. So far, India has deposited the instrument of ratification in respect of this Convention. On implementation, the Convention will enable BIMSTEC nations to extend mutual assistance in prevention, investigation, prosecution and suppression of international terrorism, transnational organised crime and illicit trafficking of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances. Indian leadership in BIMSTEC For India, there is a lot at stake in BIMSTEC’s success because India is the largest economy in the grouping. It is an important regional grouping for the country to advance its key foreign policy initiatives like ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act East.’ Contrary to SAARC, which is hampered by India-Pakistan conflicts, BIMSTEC is largely free of acrimonious bilateral disputes and promises to give India its own area of influence for regional cooperation. India has assumed a leadership position in BIMSTEC under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, especially functioning to placate any concerns within the group related to power imbalances among the smaller members and India has attempted to promote greater cross-border connectivity and investment flow by bringing down hurdles to the movement of people and goods. Way forward Speaking at a recently concluded BIMSTEC event in New Delhi, Ambassador Saurabh Kumar, Secretary (East), in the Ministry of External Affairs said that there is likelihood of signing of agreement among BIMSTEC nations on marine transport cooperation and adoption of the Bangkok Vision 2030 document at the BIMSTEC summit in Thailand, expected to be held at the end of this year. The draft of BIMSTEC Bangkok Vision 2030 has already been finalized during the 19th BIMSTEC ministerial meeting hosted by Thailand in March 2023. Conclusion In a fast-changing geopolitical calculus, BIMSTEC has enormous potential as a natural platform for development cooperation, and it can use its unique position as a pivot in the Indo-Pacific region. The Bay of Bengal region in general, and BIMSTEC in particular, have the potential to become the central pivot of the Indo-Pacific region due to natural and human resources, and strong historical ties between member states of the group. The group's primary focus has been on encouraging collaboration on common interests and establishing an enabling climate for rapid economic development. ***The author is working as a Senior Research Fellow with India Foundation; views expressed here are his own