The Secretary (East) of the Ministry of External Affairs, Preeti Saran, has emphasised the new found importance of BIMSTEC in India’s foreign policy thinking as this is a grouping where India’s Act East and Neighborhood First policies intersect.
Her keynote address at the day-long conference on ‘BIMSTEC@20: The Way Forward’, organised by Observer Research Foundation on December 6, echoed the government’s line on shifting focus from SAARC to BIMSTEC as the prioritised regional grouping – a group free from the political complications of SAARC and one that offers more centrality to technological cooperation and infrastructure development.
Preeti Saran said “20 years was an opportune time to evaluate the progress of the grouping and look at the future prospects”. The regional grouping with a combined GDP of 2.5 trillion promises a lot but delivers little.
The conference, on December 6, was the culmination of ORF research and studies done over the past year in revitalising the conversation around this grouping. ORF conducted research on the various fronts where BIMSTEC can actualise the economic and resource potential of the Bay of Bengal region. The conference discussed regional cooperation on security, economics and resource development.
Sunjoy Joshi, Chairman, ORF, struck a chord with the audience when he opened the conference by outlining the enormous possibilities of BIMSTEC, a grouping that integrates people from the coastal nations of the Bay of Bengal to the Himalayas. The biggest asset for the grouping, Mr. Joshi added, was the, “common trust and heritage that binds us all together, cemented by common history and destiny”. Geraldine O’ Callaghan of DFID, UK supported Joshi’s sentiments of the opportunities offered by shared prosperity. She necessitated that issues such as poor connectivity and intraregional cooperation, risks of climate change and scarce resources need to be addressed directly by the grouping. These perspectives demonstrate that much is expected from India in regard to BIMSTEC as it occupies the central role in the organization. India’s failure with SAARC has been much criticized and BIMSTEC therefore offers a chance at redemption to show the world that India is truly capable of being a regional power that provides economic and technological support to its neighbors and carries them along in its trajectory to higher economic growth.
The first session, chaired by Dr. Harsh Pant, Distinguished Fellow, ORF, focused on strengthening regional cooperation for greater security in the region. The session had four panelists: Adm. Jayanath Colombage, (Director, Centre for Indo-Lanka Initiatives, MMBL—Pathfinder), Dr. Khin Zaw Win (Director, Tampadipa Institute), Dr. Shaheen Afroze, (Director Research, BIIS), and Dr. K. Yhome, (Senior Fellow, ORF). The conversation revolved around both hard security issues such as cross-border terrorism and maritime competition in the Indian Ocean Region and on soft security issues such as human trafficking and environmental degradation.
The Rohingya crisis in the Rakhine state of Myanamar brought up by Dr. Win was a burning issue among the panelists in this session. The way forward was the need for more cooperation on security issues, which have usually remained outside the ambit of the BIMSTEC till now. In the absence of a coherent and united security posture in the region, issues likes the Rohingya crisis in Rahine state throws up challenges that the grouping should ideally be adept at dealing with and providing resolutions between two if its member states. Dr Afroze opined that BIMSTEC requires to adopt “burden sharing” mechanism in order to resolve world’s fastest growing humanitarian crisis. The deficiency of focus on security is reflected by contrasting views on how the Bay of Bengal region deals with an increased presence in Chinese warships. Adm. Colombage outlined the need for a unique security mechanism to address maritime security issues and for more cooperation among regional navies.
The second session, chaired by Pinak Chakravarty (Distinguished Fellow, ORF, and a former ambassador), concentrated on the reinvigoration of regional growth through trade, connectivity, and investment. The session had five panelists: Estiaque Bari, (Senior Research Associate, CPD), Bangladesh, Dr. Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhary, (Fellow, ORF Kolkata), Sujeev Shakya, (Founder & CEO, BEED), Nepal, Dr. Prabir De, Coordinator, (ASEAN-India Centre at RIS) and Dr. Nisha Taneja, (Professor, ICRIER). Notable advances made by BIMSTEC in this space was the BIMSTEC coastal shipping agreement and the BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement. Yet, a lot more is needed from the grouping if it has to attract foreign investments and form a cohesive economic consortium. The idea of a free trade agreement (FTA) under BIMSTEC has been doing the rounds for quite a while, but there needs to be more political will from the member countries to reach that destination.
Dr Anasua remarked that the way forward for BIMSTEC was to take up the theme of regional connectivity in a robust manner and integrate waterways and highways. The informal trade channels that exist presently offer a crucial insight into how these irregular but successful trade corridors can be brought under the ambit of the grouping. The challenges of poor connectivity, lack of cooperation among banks, CABOTAGE laws and complex agricultural trade inhibit the region from turning opportunities to outcomes. The banks of these respective countries need to come to the same table and discuss cross-border banking arrangements to facilitate the flow of trade in the region.
The final session, chaired by Dr. Vikrom Mathur, Senior Fellow, ORF, was centered on regional cooperation on human development and natural resource management. The session had five panelists: Dr. Aaron Savio Lobo, (Advisor and Coordinator for Goa & Tamil Nadu, CMPA), Md. Kamruzzaman, (Research Associate, CPD), Dr. Dipak Gyawali, (Director, Nepal Water Conservation Foundation, Nepal), Tshering Dorji, (Journalist, Kuensel, Bhutan), Dr. Suthikorn Kingkaew, (Lecturer, Thammasat Business School International Business). The ecology does not have set jurisdictional boundaries and therefore there is a certain need for the countries to cooperate on issues such as overfishing, water resource management, efficient utilization of natural resources and combating climate change.
The way forward is to introspect our current practices and explore sustainable alternatives. Suggestions came in from across the table and ranged from introduction of indigenous technology by Dr Dipak Gyawali to practicing aquaculture by Dr Suthikorn Kingkaew to increasing human interaction to better develop understanding among the youth of the region by Kamruzzaman. Panelists noted that the area is highly prone to natural disasters and needs a concerted BIMSTEC HADR platform on information sharing and disaster preparedness.
The problem remains that too little has been contributed to the BIMSTEC from the countries themselves and outside the seven desk officers assigned to deal with the grouping from the respective foreign offices, there is little concern or knowledge about BIMSTEC in the public fora. Human contact and knowledge exchanges are extremely crucial if BIMSTEC has to break the slumber it currently finds itself in.
Tariq Karim, former Bangladesh high commissioner to India, emphasised that the political will of the negotiating parties on the areas of convergence will decide how successful BIMSTEC will be. An argument consistent with all the sessions of the conference was that BIMSTEC is being touted by India because it found cooperation in SAARC to be politically impossible, therefore there needs to be an effort to find a juncture where economics and politics intersect. Pooled sovereignty was the need of the hour during a time when identities are putting up barriers. Ambassador Karim concluded that, security is omnidirectional and multi-faceted, trade and connectivity should be handmaidens with each other, and human development will take place only through natural resource management.” BIMSTEC needs to realise all of this in its way forward.
This report is prepared by Tuneer Mukherjee, Junior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation