Photo: The Fourth BIMSTEC Summit was held in Kathmandu, Nepal on 30-31 August 2018. Credit: BIMSTEC. - Photo: 2018

BIMSTEC Viable, Though SAARC Deadlocked

By Sugeeswara Senadhira

The author is Director (Research & International Media), Presidential Secretariat in Colombo. This article first appeared in Ceylon Today on September 3, and is being reproduced with the author’s permission. – The Editor

COLOMBO (IDN-INPS) – Sri Lanka, as the new Chair of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (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.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, time and again, displays that 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, of which Pakistan is not a member, rather than reviving the deadlock in SAARC due to Indo-Pakistan differences. Some Indian analysts call BIMSTEC SAARC minus Pakistan and plus two (Myanmar and Thailand).

Modi made his intentions about SAARC and BIMSTEC very clear in 2016, when he convened the 3rd BIMSTEC Summit in Goa just after the cancellation of the SAARC Summit. Furthermore, he made BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach Summit by making it a joint event with the biggest five economies in five continents, Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS).

Addressing the 4th BIMSTEC Summit on August 30-31, Modi said that all the 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.

The Indian Premier also called for taking the process forward for BIMSTEC coastal shipping and motor vehicle agreements. BIMSTEC came into existence on June 6, 1997, through the Bangkok Declaration.

Both, President Sirisena and Prime Minister Modi, emphasized 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.

The geographical area of the Bay of Bengal region is more than two million square kilometres, 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.

Since ancient times, the waterways have been used as a primary medium of trade and have provided the impetus for the growth of maritime enterprises for their densely populated littoral countries. This report examines the dynamics of India’s maritime connectivity in the Bay of Bengal.

The connectivity linkages between India and the Bay adjacent countries, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, along with India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, with respect to trade, population flow and fiscal connectivity is a highly viable option.

There is every potential for BIMSTEC to become a highly successful forum of economic cooperation such as the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) or the European Union (EU). BIMSTEC is mandated to deepen regional cooperation through nothing less than 14 working groups, covering everything under the Bay of Bengal sun, including a free trade agreement, poverty alleviation, counterterrorism and disaster management, energy and climate change and tourism.

However, BIMSTEC should take lessons from the failure of SAARC, which will continue to underperform in each and every regard, unless member-states commit significant resources to strengthen the organization.

It is the responsibility of India to take the initiative for 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 organizations, but strong organizations can also make or revive regions.

As well-known Foreign Policy Expert Constantino Xavier said, BIMSTEC member-states will have to delegate autonomy to the Secretariat to hire technical experts, set the multilateral agenda, and serve as the driving force between summits and ministerial meetings. If leaders fail to meet at the highest level, as during last year’s 20th anniversary, they can’t expect officials to perform magical implementation.

Unlike in the past, where multilateral initiatives like SAARC were used to balance India’s subcontinental predominance, the ball of regional cooperation is now in New Delhi’s court. This requires taking on an asymmetric burden, ensuring that India is always represented at the highest level and also willing to go the extra mile, whether by keeping the momentum diplomatically or committing financial and human resources to strengthen BIMSTEC. “Showing up on time and following up on commitments is often half the success of a multilateral organization,” Xavier said.

Another priority area is economic connectivity, which is the prerequisite for regional integration in any other domain. 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 counterterrorism 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.

As President Sirisena said at the Summit, the people in the Bay of Bengal have a common history and shared cultural heritage, which is the backbone of multilateral understanding and respect. Hence, it is the responsibility of BIMSTEC leaders to further strengthen cooperation among member countries through regional integration, creating a prosperous Bay of Bengal region. [IDN-InDepthNews – 04 September 2018]

Photo: The Fourth BIMSTEC Summit was held in Kathmandu, Nepal on 30-31 August 2018. Credit: BIMSTEC.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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