BIMSTEC Summit Feel – good moment

Dr D.K. Giri
The just-concluded BIMSTEC Summit in Kathmandu should provide a feel-good moment for Prime Minister Modi and the Indians, as clearly the new grouping is emerging as a substitute to SAARC as well as China’s OBOR-Project. SAARC is practically paralysed due to Pakistan’s support to terrorism alienating member countries like Bangladesh, Bhutan and India, which boycotted the Summit in Islamabad in 2016.
In the past, SAARC has failed to openly condemn terrorism which is a major cause of concern and conflict in the region. But the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technology and Economic Cooperation) vision document unequivocally condemned terrorism in all its forms. It affirmed that the “fight against terrorism should target not only terrorists, terror organisations, and networks, but also identify and hold accountable States and non-State entities, that encourage, support and finance terrorism, provide sanctuary to terrorists and terror groups and falsely extol their virtues”.
The member States also ratified the convention on cooperation in combating international terrorism, transnational organised crime and illicit drug trafficking. These ‘declarations were supported by structured meetings of Home Ministers in addition to annual meetings of the National Security Advisors and the meetings of Army Chiefs; one is happening this month in Pune.
Arguably, BIMSTEC should provide for India the countervailing instrument to China’s OBOR group. It fits into India’s ‘neighbourhood first’ and Act East Policy. It should also connect South Asia and South East Asia through its eight North-Eastern States and is a good opportunity for India to become the bridge. The ethnic similarities between North East and South-East Asia and the cultural symmetry through the huge influence of Buddhism from Nepal to Myanmar, spreading across the entire BIMSTEC region except Bangladesh should help the growth of BIMSTEC as a regional body.
These in turn, should help India’s profile in the region vis-a-vis China and in the rest of the world. However, it will depend upon New Delhi’s diplomatic ability to steer this group into a viable and durable organisation. It has to live up to the title of the Nepal Summit, “Towards a peaceful, sustainable, and prosperous Bay of Bengal Region”.
BIMSTEC was created on 6 June 1997 by the Bangkok Declaration and comprises seven members from South and South-East Asia – India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar. Since its inception, it has had three Summits – 1997 in Bangkok, 2008 in New Delhi and 2014 in Myanmar and the 4th one, 2018 in Kathmandu. In addition, it has had a Leadership Retreat in 2016.
It has 14 sectors for cooperation with two more added in Nepal. All these 16 sectors are proposed to be grouped under five pillars, a proposal which came from Thailand. These are: connectivity, trade and investment, people-to-people contacts, science and technology, and security. The Thai Prime Minister was bold and brave enough to suggest that BIMSTEC should be a free trade zone by 2021.
One of the measures for success of any Summit is the nature and quality of deliberations, the atmosphere of trust and goodwill, and the number of Agreements signed. The first two criteria were good enough, but the third one raises concern. Out of several legal instruments, only one was signed: the Grid-connection. There were other concerns too. The Free Trade Agreement, pending finalisation for long, ended with a lame commitment to its early conclusion.
Myanmar president reminded the Summit that the BIMSTEC Energy Centre set up in 2009 was awaiting early operationalisation. The secretariat, skeletal as it is, is starved of funds. The regularity and periodicity of the Summits too is not fixed. The leaders were enthusiastic enough to make it an annual affair, but ended with commitment to timely meetings. If BIMSTEC could meet again in 2019, that will be treated as a success.
To be fair, the individual zeal and political will exist among the members, but the instruments have to be created and nurtured. No wonder, Nepal Prime Minister K.P.S. Oli urged the Summit to move on from deliberations to delivery, to translate promises into performance. The impatience was visible as the opportunity is great, while the stakes are high.
On an appreciative note, one could see the progress made in the Summit and let us list these. First, it was decided to draft a charter for BIMSTEC, as it has been running on the mandate of Bangkok Declaration and the Leaders’ Retreat. Second, a permanent working committee is to be set up, Rules of Procedure are to be codified. Third, additional finances have been committed to run the secretariat. This will strengthen the group and facilitate its growth. Fourth, in order to meet the recurring deficits of finances, a BIMSTEC fund is to be created, which will maintain the core activities. Fifth, it was decided to raise BIMSTEC presence in the international fora, which would mean BIMSTEC being active as a regional body.
Notably, the big drivers for BIMSTEC are connectivity and counter-terrorism that will lead the region towards peace, progress and prosperity. There would be a collective effort to eliminate hunger and reduce poverty, in line with SDG – 2030. There will be greater cooperation in trade and investment, which will contribute to growth and development for 22 per cent of the world population and a 2.8 trillion economy.
On both connectivity, and countering terrorism, BIMSTEC is unanimous, which is a happy-augury in the region. It has a long way to go, but it is marching along compared to its inching towards greater cooperation in the first decade of its formation.
Importantly, Prime Minister Modi took full opportunity to deepen India’s relations with Nepal which have been frayed of late. His tweet said it all: ‘our deliberations were wide ranging, covering multiple aspects of India-Nepal relations in order to deepen our economic, trade and cultural ties’. Along with Oli, he inaugurated the Nepal-Bharat Maitri Dharmashala – a symbol of India-Nepal Friendship.
However, Modi will have to stretch out a bit more to repair the strain in India-Nepal relations caused by the short-sighted approach of his government. A lot of water has flown down the Ganges since he first made a euphoric visit to Nepal. (INFA)