Public Diplomacy Public Diplomacy

BIMSTEC: Building bridges between South Asia and Southeast Asia

March 01, 2014

By Manish Chand

A rainbow bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia, the summit of leaders of the BIMSTEC grouping in Myanmar promises to be an important milestone that could entwine this dynamic region closer in an intricate web of shared dreams and prosperity. Home to over 1.5 billion people, the seven-nation grouping boasts a combined GDP of $2.5 trillion and comprises vibrant economies that are carving their destiny in a renascent Asia.

Founded in 1997, the third summit of the BIMSTEC in Myanmar’s capital Nay Pyi Taw March 4 will mark a defining moment in the grouping’s evolution by setting up a permanent secretariat in Dhaka. For India, which has played a proactive role in nurturing this nascent grouping, the summit in Myanmar in which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will participate, will be especially gratifying as it has pledged to contribute a third of the annual expenditure of the BIMSTEC secretariat in Dhaka.
images/1341.jpgHeads of State/Government at the First BIMST-EC SUMMIT, 2004

In the scrambled alphabet of geopolitical groupings, BIMSTEC is an imaginative experiment in promoting regional cooperation and connectivity. Conceived as a bridge-builder between the SAARC and the ASEAN, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation started off as the Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand Economic Cooperation Group in 1997. Myanmar joined in 1997, while Nepal and Bhutan joined in 2004 when the first summit was held in Bangkok. India hosted the second summit of BIMSTEC leaders in 2008 and has been in the forefront of a host of pioneering initiatives in kindred areas, including connectivity, tourism and disaster mitigation. "BIMSTEC is an expression of India’s Look East Policy of the 1990s, coinciding with Thailand’s Look West Policy,” says Sujatha Singh, India’s foreign secretary.
images/1341.jpgHeads of State/Government at the BIMSTEC SUMMIT, 2008

For New Delhi, the BIMSTEC is an integral part of its ongoing efforts to map out new pathways of geo-economic cooperation among countries in the region, which it sees as part of its extended neighbourhood. Apart from the overarching vision of regional connectivity, what animates India’s proactive role in BIMSTEC is the larger national goal of transforming north-eastern states by opening up fresh avenues of win-win opportunities. In fact, BIMSTEC, according to Sujatha Singh, could be a potential game-changer for the north-eastern India’s quest for prosperity. The states of India’s northeast have shown a marked economic vibrancy, with the region clocking economic growth of 10% a year, which is faster than the country’s average of about 5% a year.
images/1341.jpgThe 13th BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting, Nay Pyi Taw

Over the years, the BIMSTEC has been steadily expanding its agenda. The grouping has identified 14 priority areas in which India is the lead country in four focus areas, including transport and communication, tourism, environment and disaster management, and counterterrorism and transnational crime. Promoting connectivity tops India’s priority. India has been vigorously promoting railways, roadways, and dialogue on maritime and multimodal transport. Building upon the BIMSTEC Transport Infrastructure and Logistics Study in December 2013, the grouping will finalise a short list of priority projects for regional connectivity by the middle of this year in New Delhi for implementation with assistance from the Asian Development Bank. Forging people-to-people contacts through tourism and cultural exchanges is another core goal of the grouping. New Delhi also hosts a BIMSTEC Information Centre for promoting tourism, an area bristling with potential given that all countries comprising the grouping are known for a stunning array of tourist attractions. India offers 1200 ITEC scholarships which are helping build closer people-to-people linkages. RIS, a leading Indian thank tank, also helped organise the BIMSTEC Network of Think Tanks.The tsunami in December 2005, which unleashed mayhem and destruction across some of the countries in the region, prompted India to take the initiative to forge regional mechanisms of cooperation in the sphere of environment and disaster management. The collective efforts culminated in setting up a Tsunami Warning Centre for data sharing. India’s Ministry of Earth Sciences is establishing the BIMSTEC centre on weather and climate in Noida, a satellite township close to the Indian capital.

Besides geo-economics, a host of cross-cutting threats has prompted the seven-nation grouping to deepen their security and strategic cooperation. In counterterrorism, India has taken the lead in negotiations and the grouping is now close to finalising the BIMSTEC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters. The Convention on Combating International Terrorism, Transnational Organised Crime, and Illicit Drug Trafficking was signed in 2009. The counter-terror cooperation got a boost with the setting up of four subgroups with lead shepherds in intelligence sharing at Sri Lanka. In combating the finance of terrorism, the lead shepherd is Thailand, and in the area of legal and law enforcement, including the prevention of illicit trafficking in narcotics, the lead shepherd is Myanmar.

India has also been more than willing to back initiatives by other member countries in diverse areas, including energy, public health and agriculture. For example, India’s Ministry of Power is establishing a BIMSTEC Energy Centre in Bengaluru, which could stimulate the development of regional energy resources and grids. In the area of public health, India has set up a network on traditional medicine for BIMSTEC partners and is seeking a more robust engagement in the field of generic pharmaceuticals.

Agriculture is another promising area for intra-regional cooperation within BIMSTEC. In this context, India has offered support for cooperation on biotechnology, seeds and control of trans-boundary diseases and linking of agricultural institutes.

Looking ahead, the finalisation of a free trade area (FTA) between BIMSTEC members could be a potential paradigm changer for accelerating trade and investment in this extended region. Expanding business links and economic cooperation will be a key theme for discussions among leaders of the BIMSTEC in the Myanmar capital.

Besides the establishment of the permanent secretariat, the third summit will also culminate in a string of significant decisions, including the signing of the MoA on the BIMSTEC Centre on Weather and Climate in India, signing of an MoA on cultural industries and setting up an observatory in Bhutan. The trip to Myanmar will also see the Indian prime minister engage Myanmar leaders in bilateral talks, which are expected to galvanise multi-layered relations between the two countries.

Fittingly, the theme of the third BIMSTEC summit is harmony and prosperity which resonates with collective dreams and aspirations of over 1.5 billion people. The summit in 2014 could go down in history as the year when the BIMSTEC shed its earlier diffidence and pioneered a host of initiatives that will cement the seven-nation grouping a powerful force for good in the region.

(Manish Chand is Editor-in-Chief of India Writes,www.indiawrites.org, a digital magazine and journal focused on international affairs).



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