Frpm left: Myanmar First Lady Cho Cho, Nepal First Lady Radhika Shakya, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, Nepalese Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, Myanmar President Win Myint, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Bhutanese Chief Justice Dasho Tshering Wangchuk, and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina pose for a group photo during the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) summit in Kathmandu on August 31, 2018. Photo: / AFP / Pool / Navesh Chitrakar

Until very recently, the acronym BIMSTEC had not been too commonly encountered. It lacked visibility even in the region where it originated, that is, South and Southeast Asia. But of late, it seems to have shifted gears and is expected to address with vigor the aspirations of the seven Asian nations that constitute its membership.

The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation matured to its present format on the edifice of BIST-EC, or Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation, founded in 1997. Myanmar joined the group soon after. The organization expanded to include Nepal and Bhutan in 2004 and was renamed BIMSTEC.

BIMSTEC, it’s often argued, was an answer to the limitations that South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation faced. SAARC, a regional body, was bogged down too often by bilateral issues between its member states, leading to confrontationist stances, impeding the progress of otherwise quite plausible agendas. Fortunately, BIMSTEC, though a multi-regional initiative that links South and Southeast Asian countries, is a congregation of countries that are friendlier.

However, BISTEC also stagnated, mostly because of a lack of commitment of the member states.

These countries have a total population of more than 1.2 billion, or one-fifth of our world. A very substantial percentage of this populace live below the poverty line. They aspire to better standards of living and stability in the region.

BIMSTEC picked up pace once the Indian government upgraded its “Look East” foreign policy to “Act East.” The recent BIMSTEC meet in Nepal did witness cohesion and resolve among member countries to progress on issues more quickly. It isn’t that it was a milestone event that chronicled substantial progress in various areas, but there was a welcome display of a newfound commitment and readiness to shed the sluggishness that has characterized BIMSTEC in the past.

As the biggest country in the partnership, India’s involvement and commitment make a decisive difference. A look at the summit declaration provides considerable evidence.

The issue that is most unambiguously addressed in the joint declaration issued after the meet is terrorism. This is an issue that is also of relevance to most of the members. The communiqué unequivocally condemns terrorism of all kinds and makes a strong reference to state-sponsored terror.

To quote, the declaration says the member states “affirm that the fight against terrorism should target not only terrorists, terror organizations and networks but also identify and hold accountable states and non-state entities that encourage, support or finance terrorism, provide sanctuaries to terrorists and terror groups, and falsely extol their virtues.”

This was perhaps the strongest condemnation of terrorism ever in a multilateral meet in the Asian continent. However, an agreement on combating terrorism alone will not lead to BIMSTEC becoming a dynamic forum. Indicators of such a realization are available to some measure in the joint declaration.

Among the foremost requirements of BIMSTEC is adequate staff at its secretariat in Dhaka. The declaration noted the decision to establish a permanent working group. It also tasked the BIMSTEC Secretariat to define “a long-term vision and priorities for cooperation, clearly delineating roles and responsibilities of different layers of institutional structure and decision-making processes.”

The member states also decided to establish and contribute to a BIMSTEC Development Fund. Obviously, India will need to take the lead role should it want the fund to have adequate capital to pursue BIMSTEC-approved activities.

At the Nepal meet the member states also gave priority to multi-modal transport linkages among the member countries, a fundamental requirement to boost trade and commerce. Among other priorities listed are areas of information technology and early establishment of a BIMSTEC power grid.

A BIMSTEC technology-transfer facility has been proposed in Sri Lanka. Should this initiative evolve as a dynamic establishment, technology at affordable costs will benefit the less-developed member countries.

The declaration also emphasized the early materialization of a BIMSTEC free-trade agreement that also involves agreements on trade in goods and customs cooperation. This is perhaps the most important issue that this group has to address.

Most BIMSTEC countries have China breathing down their necks and look to India to provide an anchor in the face of Chinese pressure. There is a requirement for these countries to evolve a common response on issues that are vexing for most  of BIMSTEC’s member states.

BIMSTEC’s future course will largely depend on the group being able to develop better connectivity and trade. The group has the potential to enhance trade substantially and thereby improve the quality of life of their people.

BIMSTEC’s other advantage lies in commonality in culture. Enhancing people-to-people contact would certainly bind the group more tightly together. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited its members to an International Buddhist Conclave in 2020. With most member countries having substantial numbers of Buddhist practitioners, such a conclave would definitely find favor among the member states.

India, as the largest country in the group, will have to walk the talk in consonance with its Act East policy. India will also have to undertake the lion’s share of funding.

BIMSTEC has the advantage of contiguity of borders between some of the states. With an improvement in connectivity, trade and commerce would be able to flow better. Modi in his address at the meet in Nepal emphasized connectivity, trade and commerce. That is the priority for BIMSTEC today.

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S K Chatterji

Brigadier S K Chatterji (Retired) served in the Regiment of Artillery of the Indian Army and is a prolific writer.