New Delhi: Ahead of the fourth summit of a regional economic grouping straddling South Asia and South-East Asia, member nations are seeking a higher profile for the body and its revitalization through concrete steps like a free trade pact and improved connectivity. The envoys of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Thailand, speaking at a conference in New Delhi last week called for increased “visibility" for the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, known by its acronym BIMSTEC, and seen as having the potential to emerge as a building bloc of the economically vibrant Indo-Pacific region.
Nepal is to host the fourth summit of the group on 30-31 August, which is to be attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and others. BIMSTEC, formed in 1997, has seven member countries—Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand and Sri Lanka. It is home to 1.6 billion people, or nearly 22% of the world’s population, and has a combined gross domestic product of $2.8 trillion.
Despite the impressive statistics, the grouping has little to show for its 21 years of existence. Leaders of the seven countries have met only thrice—in 2004, 2008 and 2014—at the summit level to push the regional forum forward. The bloc received an impetus when members were invited to a BRICS outreach forum in Goa in 2016. The invitation to the BRICS outreach meet was seen as a signal that India was prioritizing the grouping over the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, or Saarc, progress in which has been hobbled by tensions between India and Pakistan.
India called off attendance at the Saarc summit that was to have been hosted by Pakistan in 2016 after terrorist attacks on a string of military installations in that year.
According to Syed Muazzem Ali, Bangladesh high commissioner to India, “progress in (BIMSTEC) in the past has been cautious and slow". The challenge before the grouping at present was to hasten the “progress of interregional cooperation in this era of globalization".
BIMSTEC established a secretariat in Dhaka in 2014 but “visibility of BIMSTEC needs to enhanced in a region where a few other (groupings like) Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), SAARC" and others are operating, he said. This “is a prerequisite for an effective BIMSTEC," he said. Ali also called for acceleration of trade and investment among the grouping. “India should invest more in its neighbourhood," following the examples of the US and China “which have undertaken trade and investment projects in their own neighbourhood," Ali said.
In her remarks, Chitranganee Wagiswara, Sri Lanka’s high commissioner to India, noted that BIMSTEC had the advantage of having a number of rising economies in the region but it was one of the least integrated parts of the world. Wagiswara echoed views expressed by Bangladesh high commissioner Ali who had termed it “disappointing" that BIMSTEC had not been able to conclude a free trade pact despite the idea being mooted in 2004. Wagiswara called increased connectivity linkages in the region describing it as a “the key that opens opportunities in other areas." She also called for the necessity of increasing awareness of BIMSTEC as a grouping stating that “even within the BIMSTEC nations, the organisation is not very well known."
In his remarks, Thailand’s ambassador to India Chutintorn Gongsakdi, welcomed the new lease of life that BIMSTEC had received with India’s renewed interest in the grouping. Urging the need to build a “competitive identity" for BIMSTEC, the Thai envoy also stressed that BIMSTEC members should reduce the number of areas of focus from 14 to five to ensure the success of the grouping.