By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
By inviting leaders of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) Member States for his swearing-in ceremony in New Delhi on 30 May, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has signalled that he will focus on this South and South East Asian organisation during his second term.
BIMSTEC comprises seven countries; five from South Asia, namely, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka; and two, Myanmar and Thailand, from Southeast Asia.
Five of its members are Rim countries of the Bay of Bengal and two (Bhutan and Nepal) are landlocked countries, which nevertheless depend on the Bay of Bengal for access to maritime trade.
When he took office for the first time in 2014, Modi invited the leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) for his inauguration. The signal sent was that his focus would be on SAARC and that he would make it work.
Realising that SAARC was being held hostage to India-Pakistan relations, which had been bad throughout, the Indian Prime Minister made several moves to enter into a détente with Pakistan. But he stumbled on the old stumbling blocks.
On the face of it, BIMSTEC is very promising. It encompasses 1.5 billion people. It has countries with a total gross GDP of US$ 2.7 trillion. The average growth rate is 6.5 per cent. Integration will make it one of the most prosperous regions in the world.
And as far as India is concerned, BIMSTEC does not have Pakistan, which it considers an irritant.
Headquartered in Dhaka, with a Secretary General at the helm, BIMSTEC has divided its activities into 14 sectors, with each country designated as the ‘Lead’ in specified sectors. India is the Lead in the sector covering counter-terrorism, transnational crime, telecommunications, and transport.
But though founded in 1997, it was not until 2014 that BIMSTEC set up a Secretariat and appointed a Secretary General. The first Secretary General was the distinguished Sri Lankan diplomat, Sumith Nakandala. The second and current Secretary General is M. Shahidul Islam from Bangladesh.
Listing BIMSTEC’s achievements, Nakandala, who is now Additional Secretary Bilateral Affairs in the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry, said that SAARC had achievements to its credit.
“One is the conclusion of BIMSTEC Convention on Suppression of Terrorism. The other is the finalisation of the BIMSTEC Transport, Infrastructure and Logistics Study (BTILS) conducted by the Asian Development Bank. We have rightly identified the priorities. These are infrastructure and connectivity in our region. In terms of energy security, BIMSTEC was able to finalise the Trans Grid Connectivity, which will pave the way for sharing power in the region. The BIMSTEC Energy Centre in Bengaluru is in operation. As for BIMSTEC Free Trade Area, there is progress,” he said.
Research done by three Bangladeshi economists shows that Bangladesh’s international trade has gained since BIMSTEC came into existence.
Bangladesh has gained
In their paper entitled: ‘Bangladesh and BIMSTEC,’ Mohammed Shahidul Islam, Rajib Kanti Das, and Mohammed Musa, say that in 1994-95, before BIMSTEC, Bangladesh’s trade with BIMSTEC countries was to the tune of Taka 2,390 million. But in 2007, after BIMSTEC had come into being, it shot up to Taka 21,600 million.
Before BIMSTEC, Bangladesh’s trade with BIMSTEC countries was only 1.5 per cent of the country’s global trade. After BIMSTEC, it became 2.6 per cent.
The study concluded that the export performance of Bangladesh with member countries has increased after BIMSTEC came into being.
The total import of Bangladesh from BIMSTEC countries was worth Taka 41,420 million on average per year before BIMSTEC’s inception. But after BIMSTEC came into being, the average amount of imports from BIMSTEC countries was worth Taka 123,680 million on average.
In its 22-year existence, BIMSTEC has encountered many roadblocks. The BIMSTEC Free Trade Agreement was signed in 2004, but is yet to be implemented because member countries have been revisiting it. But if implemented, inter-BIMSTEC trade could go up from the current potential of US$ 40 billion to US$ 240 billion, Secretary General Shahidul Islam said.
The economies of the countries in South Asia are so protectionist that free trade is almost an unattainable objective. In the case of India, Non-Tariff Barriers and provincial autonomy reduce the advantages of tariff concessions. The bureaucracies in South Asia are chronically anti-free trade.
So-called national interests also stand in the way. A former Director of the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority has said that Nations bargain for unilateral benefits and not shared benefits.
Sudip Dey, President of the Kolkata Customs Agents Association, has said that mutual fear blights any prospect of free movement of goods. “Unless the fear psychosis goes, cooperation can only be a dream,” Dey said.
Dr. Jayanath Colombage, a former Chief of the Sri Lankan Navy, who is now a researcher in the Pathfinder Foundation, said getting visas is a major stumbling block.
Except for India and Bhutan, other BIMSTEC countries are part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). India has been boycotting the BRI, saying that it is not transparent and that it creates huge debts in countries which welcome its investments – debts which could lead to acquisition of key assets like harbours and airports. With India at BIMSTEC’s helm, China could see BIMSTEC as a challenger in the countries which are part of the BRI.
The cooperation between BIMSTEC security agencies in fighting terrorism has been enhanced. But a move by India to organise a BIMSTEC military exercise was opposed by Nepal, which said that BIMSTEC is an economic and developmental organisation, and not a military one.
Regional disputes like the one between Bangladesh and Myanmar over the Rohingya Muslims are a hindrance to BIMSTEC. Bilateral agreements, which member countries enter into for greater benefits, also stand in the way of collectives like BIMSTEC.
Though inspiring speeches are made at meetings, follow up action is inadequate due to an absence of political commitment and leadership. There is a relentless pursuit of individual nationalistic goals, not collective regional goals.
Thailand has proposed that India provide the much-needed leadership to BIMSTEC. Indian Prime Minister Modi appears interested in doing precisely that. It is hoped that he will live up to expectations, and that BIMSTEC will not go the SAARC way.