Event ReportsPublished on Dec 07, 2019
Kolkata Colloquium 2019: Reimagining BIMSTEC

Even though the Bay of Bengal is known for its turbulence, no regional mechanism yet exists in the Bay for collective disaster mitigation. However since the 2016 BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach Summit there has been resurgence of initiatives for reintegration amongst BIMSTEC members opined M. Shahidul Islam, Secretary General of BIMSTEC while delivering the Inaugural Keynote at the Kolkata Colloquium 2019 on Reimagining BIMSTEC. Organised by Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in collaboration with Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Centre for New Economic Diplomacy and Department for International Development, U.K. the Kolkata Colloquium was a two-day international conference held on 28 and 29 November 2019 at The LaLiT Great Eastern Hotel, Kolkata, India. As the first of ORF Kolkata’s flagship annual event, it hosted fifty one participants from BIMSTEC member countries and beyond ranging from academics, thinkers, policy makers, journalists to other important stakeholders.

Although established 22 years ago in 1997 and lying mostly idle, the resurgence of strategic and economic interests in the Bay as part the Indo-Pacific has caused the BIMSTEC, a sub-regional grouping of the Bay littorals, to gain traction.  Gauging the significance of this opportune moment the Colloquium sought to explore the brand value of BIMSTEC, its opportunities for wider collaboration through a “BIMSTEC Plus” and the prevalent narratives within the organization. The Colloquium started with an Inaugural session, followed by 4 business sessions and 4 special panel discussions throughout both the days. It also hosted 3 interactive sessions, 1 media workshop and concluded with the Valedictory session.

Setting the tone of the Colloquium, the Inaugural Session put forth the idea that in a world in which the Trans-Atlantic consensus itself is faltering it is important to reverse from regressing into bilateralism and use BIMSTEC to enhance multilateral collaborations. However the organization lacks both resources and capacity and this can only be overcome when the members have stronger commitment to. BIMSTEC is yet to be prioritized by its members but a polycentric government approach, clear identification of agendas and economic engagement can bring the organization into limelight within the Indo-Pacific.

Progressing with the Colloquium the opening panel on Connecting nations within BIMSTEC discussed the importance of hard and soft forms of connectivity in rejuvenating BIMSTEC. It was pointed out that for multi-modal connectivity to succeed there is need for better coordination amongst the different ministries and agencies. The session concluded on the note that there exist political and economic partitions amongst littorals which are continually reaffirmed with an inward looking mindset that inhibit the growth of the organization.

Moving on from land to Maritime connectivity and significance of the Bay of Bengal the first business session of the day discussed how the Bay was gaining strategic salience situated at the intersection of the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. As the east-west shipping route passes just below the Bay, the maritime space is traversed by numerous shipping lines. Presently only Sri Lanka has been able to effectively tap into this maritime traffic owing to its efficacy of ports. Overall to improve maritime connectivity BIMSTEC members must engage in improving infrastructure and undertake a holistic view of finances. Finally it was put forth that before reimagining BIMSTEC it was important to reimagine the Bay itself as a ‘Bay of Hope’ rather than a ‘Bay of Fear’.

As one of its highlights the Colloquium featured a Conversation with Bertil Lintner (Correspondent Asia Times, Hong Kong) moderated by Suhasini Haidar, Diplomatic Editor, The Hindu, New Delhi, India, to understand the role of media in BIMSTEC. He pointed out that problems of anonymity of social media posts and censorship of journalism have undermined media connectivity in the region. Delving deeper into the theme in the subsequent media workshop on BIMSTEC: Media’s Assessment, speakers deliberated on the media’s role in promoting BIMSTEC amongst the citizens of its member countries. While arguments were made that the media has a responsibility to promote BIMSTEC, a prominent counterargument arose that BIMSTEC was “dead”, and left very little for journalists to report on.

In the special panel discussion on RCEP and BIMSTEC: Can the two tango?, it was argued that although India has refrained from engaging in RCEP, rather than receding into isolation India must cultivate the platform of BIMSTEC to nurture economic ties with its members and Malaysia and Indonesia which have an interest in the Bay. The Bay can be utilised to serve as a bridge between RCEP and BIMSTEC.

The last session of the day was a special panel discussion on Future of BIMSTEC within the geostrategic narrative of the ‘Indo-Pacific’. The panellists explored the possible role of BIMSTEC in the geopolitical narrative of the Indo-Pacific, analysing cooperation within BIMSTEC countries for security purposes and resource sharing geared towards the expansion of such activities.

The second day began with the Interactive session on Global warming, climate change, disaster management and BIMSTEC with Jayanta Bandopadhyay, Visiting Distinguished Fellow, ORF, Kolkata, India and Sugata Hazra, Director, School of Oceanographic Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India. Discussions illustrated how increase in green house gas concentration is changing monsoon patterns which affect the fertile Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin of the Bay of Bengal region. It also increases the frequency of natural disasters in the Bay. Both the speakers agreed that the region has numerous common ecological concerns and as a bloc the BIMSTEC nations can work towards collective mitigation.

Proceeding with this theme the second business session of the Colloquium on Climate change, disaster management and BIMSTEC drew to attention to how it was important to realise the convergence between the geo-political, geo-economic and the geo-physical factors if BIMSTEC is to make any headway.  It was highlighted that the merchant navy must be involved in disaster management and the organization must also work towards the creation of a regional disaster management framework.

Moving from environment to economics the third business session focused on Enhancing trade: Engaging members in BIMSTEC. Speakers deliberated on the possibility of a BIMSTEC Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and the other drives that can create congenial environment for trade and investment.  It was however pointed out that due to asymmetric economies and differing challenges realization of an FTA was difficult.

While contemplating future possibilities the Colloquium, paying due attention to historical linkages across the Bay, conducted its last business session on Historical and Cultural Linkages within BIMSTEC. This sub-regional orgainsation, as argued by the speakers, is a unique and exclusive platform that can revive the age old linkages that once formed the lifeblood of trade and connectivity in the Bay. However the tendency to digress from local language and issues pose the greatest hindrance in the pathway towards achieving such cooperation.

Once again reverting to Assessing the Media: BIMSTEC in Perspective, the panel discussion on media of the Colloquium noted that the interest areas of media are meetings of BIMSTEC, trade negotiations and infrastructure projects. It is not the job of the media to promote any grouping and hence suggestions were given to highlight BIMSTEC especially through collaborative activities like football, cultural festivals and exchange of academics and experts in think tanks The Colloquium featured an  Interactive Session on Media with Soe Myint, Editor-in-Chief and Managing Director, Mizzima Media Company, Myanmar and Chandni Jayatilleke, Group Editor Business, Lake House, Colombo, Sri Lanka, chaired by Subir Bhaumik, former BBC Correspondent, Kolkata, India. It was argued that dailies of BIMSTEC members do not emphasise regional coverage and hence BIMSTEC recedes into background. It only surfaces during major events or crisis situations.

The Colloquium concluded with the Valedictory Address by C. Raja Mohan, Director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He remarked that a narrower focus and broader context appears necessary to reimagine BIMSTEC.  In the context he highlighted that BIMSTEC as an institution will be successful if initiatives are undertaken by countries with functionalist models.

The event report has been compiled by Sohini Bose, Junior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata with inputs from rapporteurs.

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