BIMSTEC or Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation has 7 members – India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. The grouping is more than 20 years old and was formed in 1997. The last summit took place in Kathmandu in 2018 with PM Modi and other member-leaders attending the meet. BIMSTEC region has huge prospects for economic cooperation.
Sri Lanka is the chair of the grouping and had earlier proposed holding a virtual summit on 9th December which has now been postponed. According to the media reports, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, better known as BIMSTEC, is likely to hold a summit of the heads of governments in Sri Lanka on March 30 in a hybrid setting providing scopes for both in-person and virtual participation.
Sri Lanka is a founding member of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Co-operation (BIMSTEC). Since its inception in 1997, Sri Lanka has been an active member of the Multilateral Forum. The archipelago presided over for the first time between 2002-2003, during which time Colombo promoted member states’ political commitments to strengthen sub-regional cooperation. As of 2016, BIMSTEC members accounted for only 17.4 percent of the total trade in Colombo trade goods. On the other hand, Bangladesh maintains friendly ties with almost all the neighbouring nations. This allows the country to play a bigger role in regional affairs.
Its imports from BIMSTEC accounted for only 23 per cent of its total imports and Sri Lankan exports to BIMSTEC members accounted for only 7 per cent. Moreover, India contributes more than 70 per cent of Sri Lanka’s trade with BIMSTEC. In parallel with the slow progress of BIMSTEC, Sri Lanka’s cooperation with BIMSTEC members has grown in place of snails.
In this context, Sri Lanka has been the Chairman of BIMSTEC from 2018-2020. Following which, Sri Lanka has the opportunity to ensure rapid cooperation between the member states of the Gulf region. During the Fourth Summit, the former President of Sri Lanka, Maithripala Sirisena, emphasized that BIMSTEC countries share shared aspirations for growth, development, trade and technology, and that Sri Lanka would facilitate this natural platform for the implementation of regional connectivity and economic cooperation. Actually, BIMSTEC has an important role to play in the regional trade area. All member states including Sri Lanka and Bangladesh should reap the benefits and exchanges this regional advantages. The BIMSTEC region has huge prospects for economic cooperation much of which still remains unexplored and unexploited.
Five members of the seven-member international organisation have already confirmed their participation in the summit, called by Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, according tomedia reports. The countries that conveyed their confirmation are Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
Bangladesh and India, the two other members of the regional group of the countries around the Bay of Bengal, are expected to formally confirm their participation soon as the host, Sri Lanka, the outgoing chair of the group, sought concurrence of all member countries discretely about holding the meeting on March 30, media report said.
Prime minister Sheikh Hasina is expected to join the summit, to be held in Colombo. It is yet to be decided whether she will travel to Sri Lanka or join the meeting virtually. Foreign ministers and foreign secretaries of the BIMSTEC member countries are scheduled to meet on March 28 and 29 respectively for facilitating decision making at the summit on March 30.
The heads of the governments of the BIMSTEC member countries are expected to approve a charter for the organisation in the meeting after 24 years of its journey. The member countries ‘have completed the negotiation of the BIMSTEC charter and it is expected to be signed’ in the forthcoming fifth summit with participation of the heads of the governments in Colombo, BIMSTEC secretary general Tenzin Lekphell said in October.
The Colombo summit, the fifth meeting of the heads of the governments, was postponed twice in 2020 and 2021 due to the Covid pandemic. In addition to the BIMSTEC charter, three other legal instruments are expected to be signed at the summit. These are a BIMSTEC convention on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters, a memorandum of association on the establishment of BIMSTEC technology transfer facility in Colombo and a memorandum of understanding on mutual cooperation between diplomatic academies and training institutions of the member countries.
Bangladesh as the lead country for Trade, Investment and Development is strongly committed to strengthen BIMSTEC cooperation in this field. There is the importance of making all entities of the BIMSTEC process fully functional and operational. The BIMSTEC process needs concerted and quicker efforts and more intense engagements amongst the member states. It is imperative to forge more realistic partnership and shared endeavours to prosper together through exploitation of the full potential of this region.
The summit is also expected to reconstitute and rationalise 14 areas of cooperation into seven sectors, where each sector will be led by a member country. The foreign secretaries met 21 times, foreign ministers 17 times and heads of governments four times since the establishment of the BIMSTEC 24 years ago in 1997, while security advisers met thrice since 2017. Thailand is scheduled to take over the responsibilities of the BIMSTEC chair in the fifth summit in Sri Lanka.
BIMSTEC has identified 13 priority sectors, including trade and investment, transport and communication, counter-terrorism and transnational crimes, energy, climate, agriculture, poverty alleviation, tourism, public health and people-to-people contact. Bangladesh is the lead country for three areas – trade, investment, and climate, and has reiterated its fullest cooperation in this regard during the successive BIMSTEC ministerial meetings and summits.
According to media reports, in the current structure of bilateral trade among these countries, we see that most of the BIMSTEC members have experienced a considerable rise in bilateral trade over the years. A larger volume of exports was observed in the case of Thailand’s exports to India (US$ 5.5 billion in 2015); India’s exports to Sri Lanka (US$ 4.4 billion), Bangladesh (US$ 3.4 billion), and Nepal (US$ 2.6 billion); and Myanmar’s exports to Thailand (US$ 3.3 billion) and India (US$ 1.3 billion). Overall, India and Thailand are two major economies – both in terms of export and import – while Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar are three major economies in terms of import. The bilateral trade record of BIMSTEC countries indicates that the existing pattern of trade is heavily influenced by geographical proximity, relative size of the economies, and predominant trade routes.
BIMSTEC has received greater attention in the context of progressing cooperation in the region. In addition to high-level diplomatic engagements, substantial steps have been taken towards cooperation in a wide range of areas. In the fourth BIMSTEC summit meeting—which was held in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, in August 2018—member countries signed a memorandum of understanding on establishing a BIMSTEC Grid Interconnection to enhance energy cooperation. This is expected to expedite the buying and selling of electricity between the countries—including those not directly bordering each other—once the cross-country grid infrastructure is in place. We expect tangible progress to be made in the field of energy cooperation in 201923.
New ground is also being broken in the security arena, as evidenced by the successful hosting of the first-ever joint military exercise between India and other BIMSTEC countries in September 2018. Each of the 14 areas of cooperation under BIMSTEC is led by a particular country. That relating to security is headed by India and covers counterterrorism and transnational crimes. We expect that India will continue pushing for greater security cooperation, particularly on counterterrorism. Furthermore, it is likely that in the next few years, member countries will undertake full ratification of conventions on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters and cooperation in combating international terrorism.
The most significant breakthrough, however, is expected to be in connectivity. Five of the seven BIMSTEC member countries share a border with India, which includes the busiest land-customs checkpoint in Asia: The Petrapole-Benapole checkpoint between India and Bangladesh. Despite this, intra-regional trade accounts for only 5% of the grouping’s total trade; poor road connectivity is one of the main reasons. We expect progress to be made on transport connectivity over the 201923 forecast period. In particular, the two main agreements, the BIMSTEC Coastal Shipping Agreement and the BIMSTEC Motor Vehicle Agreement—which are aimed at facilitating trade and transport linkages between member countries—are likely to be finalised over the next five years.
Despite the strong political thrust in favour of BIMSTEC, the organisation still faces manpower constraints and limited resources. This will be addressed partly by member countries’ increased commitment towards financial and human resources. Furthermore, areas such as negotiating a free-trade agreement—traditionally the focus of organisations that advocate regional cooperation—will remain on the backburner in 201923. Nevertheless, the importance of BIMSTEC will continue to grow, with India relying heavily on it to further its regional agenda. However, the upcoming BIMSTEC summit will ensure to create a common regional platform to address some common regional problems. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh as regional stakeholders have some common agenda such as strengthening connectivity, growing trade, tackling covid-19, terrorism, climate change, resolving and meditating Rohingya refugee crisis between Myanmar and Bangladesh etc. The upcoming BIMSTEC summit will provide the benefits for all regional states including Myanmar and Bangladesh. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh should fully utilize the potential.
*Jubeda Chowdhury is a freelance writer with a Master’s Degree in International Relations from the University of Dhaka.