BIMSTEC: New Push for Stronger Regional Cooperation at the Kathmandu Summit

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Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina with head of states and governments at the Bimstec MoU signing ceremony in Kathmandu, Nepal, on August 31. Photo - PID

Bangladesh is known as a bridge between South Asia and South-East Asian nations. BIMSTEC (the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) is the only inter-governmental institution which connects both the regions and deal with issues that confront the regions.

The leaders of the government of seven member nations-Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand -participated in the 4th summit on August 30-31 in Kathmandu and approved an 18-point Kathmandu Declaration.

Set up in 1997 in Thailand with 14 priority sectors of cooperation, the grouping has remained largely in stagnation as five of the seven Bimstec member-countries of South Asia have remained more busy with SAARC. On the other hand, the Bimstec encompasses seven member states—five from South Asia (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka) and two from South East Asia (Myanmar and Thailand)—lying in the largest bay in the world, the Bay of Bengal.

BIMSTEC has a greater importance than the Saarc because it demonstrates regional unity as well as contiguity, according to many informed observers.

In the two-day summit held in Kathmandu , it is reported that the  heads of state and government of the seven member states reaffirmed strong commitment to making BIMSTEC a “ dynamic, effective and result-oriented regional organization” for promoting a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable Bay of Bengal Region through meaningful cooperation and deeper integration.

The leaders agreed on the following:

(i) To establish a BIMSTEC Permanent Working Committee

(ii) To draft the charter for the organisation

(iii) To develop the rules of procedure for the BIMSTEC mechanisms

(iv) To explore the possibility of establishing a BIMSTEC Development Fund

(v) Early conclusion of the BIMSTEC Coastal Shipping Agreement and the BIMSTEC Motor Vehicle Agreement

(vi) To promote intra-BIMSTEC tourism

The Declaration includes cooperation in other areas such as (a) agricultural technology exchange, (b) fight against terrorism, (c) gradual reduction of the impact of climate change, (d) increase trade and investment, and ( e) ease the visa processing for the people of BIMSTEC member states.

The fourth summit of the BIMSTEC in Kathmandu will perhaps be remembered for laying the foundation for institutional mechanisms to accelerate the BIMSTEC process, something that had been lacking for two decades since the bloc’s establishment.

The summit concurred that BIMSTEC countries are not immune to terrorism and transnational organised crimes and agreed to cooperate and adopt a comprehensive approach to combat terrorism and transnational organised crimes.

After a closing speech, Prime Minister K. P. Sharma Oli of Nepal who is the current chair of BIMSTEC, handed over the chairmanship of the next BIMSTEC summit to Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena.

Acknowledging that enhanced inter-linkages and inter-dependence within the economies and societies in the BIMSTEC, member states would provide greater opportunity to advance regional cooperation. The 4th summit underlined the importance of multidimensional connectivity for economic integration and shared prosperity.

The summit also decided to draft the organisation’s charter, defining its long-term vision and priorities for cooperation. The draft will be considered by the BIMSTEC Permanent Working Committee for its adoption by the fifth summit to be held in Sri Lanka, the declaration read. The date of the fifth summit is yet to be decided.

Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan, and Nepal agreed to establish a BIMSTEC Permanent Working Committee to deal with the administrative and financial matters of its Dhaka-based secretariat and the BIMSTEC centres and entities as well as develop the Rules of Procedure for the BIMSTEC mechanisms.

The BIMSTEC Foreign Ministers signed the MOU on the establishment of BIMSTEC Grid Interconnection in the presence of their heads of state or government to enhance energy cooperation among the seven member-states. Reports indicate that MoU would open the door for energy cooperation among the members of South Asia and South East Asia and would facilitate

The Kathmandu Declaration has acknowledged the importance of trade and investment as one of the major contributing factors for fostering economic and social development in the region.  It also focuses on joint efforts to combat terrorism.

The single most important factor that runs like a common thread within the Bimstec is the need for all modes of connectivity: physical, digital, financial and people-to-people. It is in this context that one has to see India building a multi-modal transport project on the Kaladan River in Myanmar and a highway connecting north eastern state of Manipur to Thailand through Myanmar. India-Myanmar-Thailand highway will be completed by the end of 2019. Progress in connectivity could be the game-changer for the Bimstec as it connects South Asia and South East Asia and gives the grouping a much bigger visibility in terms of regional economic integration. In fact, a suggestion has already been made to include Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam in the Bimstec in order to give it not only a greater South East Asian say but also take advantage of a region holding great economic potentials.

The summit also called for early adoption of the BIMSTEC Master Plan on transport connectivity and assigned the BIMSTEC Transport Connectivity Working Group to prepare the modalities for its implementation. The $50 billion project would have 167 connectivity-related components.

The summit agreed to take concrete steps to promote intra-BIMSTEC tourism while reaffirming commitment to developing and promoting Buddhist Tourist Circuit, Temple Tourist Circuit, ancient cities trail, eco-tourism and medical tourism. Nepal proposed hosting a BIMSTEC tourism conclave in 2020 coinciding with the Visit Nepal Year.

Former foreign secretary and ambassador Madhu Ram Acharya of India argued that the Kathmandu summit had been crucial to BIMSTEC for its institutional growth. “The decision to strengthen the secretariat, formation of standing committee, creating development funds and setting up other mechanisms shows that it is headed for institutionalisation,” said Acharya.

Barrister Harun ur Rashid, Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

  • BIMSTEC: New Push for Stronger Regional Cooperation at the Kathmandu Summit
  • Issue 9
  • Vol 35
  • DhakaCourier
  • Up Front
  • Barrister Harun ur Rashid

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