New Delhi: India on Thursday called for greater interlinkages among members of a grouping, straddling South Asian and South-East Asia in trade, transport and digital connectivity as the bloc looks to set its mark as a major growth engine in the Indo-Pacific region.

Member states of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) should join hands to combat terrorism and drug trafficking, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at the fourth summit of the grouping in Kathmandu.

Bimstec, formed in 1997, has seven members—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. However, the bloc has held summit-level meetings only thrice before the current Kathmandu summit, putting a question mark on its relevance.

In Kathmandu, Modi underlined India’s commitment to the grouping. The Bay of Bengal region was situated “at the confluence" of India’s neighbourhood policy vis a vis South Asia, and New Delhi’s Act East policy is geared at closer cooperation with the dynamic economies of South-East Asia, he said.

“In today’s interconnected world, we have to walk together," Modi said. “I believe that there is a big opportunity for connectivity—trade connectivity, economic connectivity, transport connectivity, digital connectivity, and people-to-people connectivity." India, he said, was willing to host meetings that would lead to pacts on coastal shipping and motor vehicle movement among member states.

To cement cooperation among member countries, Modi proposed that India hold humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercises among the armed forces of the seven countries, as well as a meeting of the army chiefs of Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand and Sri Lanka in Pune next month.

Indian foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale later said the summit would seek to put the bloc on a firm institutional footing with a charter being put in place. The grouping will also look at institutionalising a meeting of home ministers of all member states.

Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli stressed on the need for the “early conclusion of the agreements on trade in goods, trade in services, investment, mutual assistance in customs matters, dispute settlement and trade facilitation", which he said was “the need of the hour to enable Bimstec to effectively move forward".

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