Stressing the importance of the involvement of each member of the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) initiative, a young thinkers conference in Kolkata concluded that the BBIN will be only as successful as the members make it.
At the one and half day conference, ‘Young Thinker’s Conference BBIN: Opportunities and Challenges’ on November 8 & 9, organised by Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata, in collaboration with the British Deputy High Commission, Kolkata, the participants felt that with the surfacing of new ideas, new avenues of cooperation must be explored when older endeavours tended to stagnate.
They also felt that each country’s sensitivities and perceptions must be taken into account to move ahead towards the envisioned goal of common prosperity. Delivery and execution of mutually agreed terms at an individual and sub-regional level must be the top priority for all the member countries.
British Deputy High Commissioner to India Alexander Evans said understanding the hidden barriers to engagement will help one promote the BBIN better.
The BBIN Initiative is one of the most pragmatic and strategic sub-regional collaborative frameworks which binds together the expectations and interests of all the four countries and its people to form a developmental cluster.
Young minds from these four countries were engaged together at the conference to address different facets of this sub-regional enterprise. The discussions of the panels on each of the given themes are presented below.
Connectivity and business opportunities
If greater trade and business is to be achieved, the opinion of each member country must be equally valued. An enhanced connectivity infrastructure with better access to sea ports is also important to boost trade. Therefore to implement BBIN seamlessly, the underdeveloped parts of the sub-region must be linked to the well-connected zones. Further, BBIN countries must establish connectivity with Southeast and East Asian markets as well.
In the case of Bhutan, for example, once it establishes good connectivity with its BBIN neighbours, regional markets for improved trade relations can be explored. This will foster its own sustainable economic development.
The BBIN region is also a goldmine for human resources. The energy of the youth must be harnessed through structured intervention so as to generate collective prosperity.
Greater connectivity will also bring with it greater security ramifications. Hence, there is need for introspection amongst the BBIN countries to discuss both existing and emerging security challenges and explore necessary areas for cooperation. Whereas on the one hand, smooth movement of goods and people has to be ensured, on the other hand unauthorised movement of the same must be restricted. Security concerns such as migration and trafficking as well as cyber security issues have to be addressed too. Such security issues need not halt the progress of the BBIN; a high level of mutual trust and a positive approach to issues and problems of security will take mutual co-operation forward.
The way ahead
A combination of expanding multilateralism with a commitment to economics of sustainability must be the guiding star of the BBIN in future. If trade, security, culture and people to people interactions flourish, BBIN will thrive in the sub-region. Putting people at the forefront of such initiatives will ease free movement of passengers, goods and services and take BBIN to the next level. In India, Kolkata can operate as the hub of engagement for BBIN network. The time is ripe for the objectives of the BBIN to be institutionalised in a fair and just manner so that they can come under one umbrella of trust.
Opportunities of cooperation and risks of conflict
The long-term success of BBIN depends on how well challenges and risks are managed through consultation and dialogue amongst the member countries. However, lack of policy harmonization, insufficient infrastructure, divergent perspectives of the member states, institutional weaknesses, limited access to finance and technological bottlenecks are major impeding factors inhibiting sub-regional integration.
The neighbourhood policies of the BBIN countries will be determined by how successfully these countries can construct a collective identity for themselves and consequently locate themselves in the world. Opportunities can come through the absorption and upholding of ideas that contain the values of multiculturalism. This can encourage creating smart educational hubs within the framework of multilayered discussions. Effective trading zones such as the one through Haldia Dock, the Ports of Chittagong and Mongla in Bangladesh will foster sub-regional integration to fulfill developmental aspirations. We must look beyond the BBIN-MVA agreement and decipher such areas of cooperation which are more quickly realizable on the ground, such as, intra-BBIN tourism.
Drivers of trade facilitation
Intra – regional trade must be boosted so as to overcome the trade deficit which all the BBIN countries currently face. Lack of digitalisation of documents often becomes a hindrance in trade transactions. The legal framework of each member country affecting the BBIN trade must be analysed for it determines the overall economic outcome. Development of a common legal framework must be encouraged and such frameworks must be designed for every domain of trade that comes under the purview of BBIN.
Role of BBIN as a sub-region in Asian politics
There must be a realisation that the process of coming together is inevitable for the collective growth of the four countries. The implications of regional politics and the influence of extra-regional powers such as China with her the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative require the formation of a collaborative mechanism amongst the BBIN countries to ensure peace and stability in the sub-region.
BBIN, though it was conceptualised as a continental connectivity network, should not limit the platform to solely connectivity over land. It has a lot of potential to expand its connectivity to the maritime domain through its collaboration with the BIMSTEC. This requires harnessing the true potential of the Bay of Bengal. Any hegemonic overbearing in the sub-region will be restricted when benevolent national interest is practiced in consortium with one another.
The conference concluded on a note of bonhomie and hope.
(This report is compiled by Pratnashree Basu, Junior Fellow, Sohini Nayak and Sohini Bose, Research Assistants, ORF, Kolkata)