India’s neighborhood first policy was announced by the National Democratic Alliance which intensified India’s efforts of regional cooperation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy is to engage with the international by revitalizing regional cooperation through SAARC, IORA and lately through sub-regionalism via BIMSTEC. Originally, the BIMSTEC was known to the world as BIST-EC when in 1997 Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand joined to form an Economic Cooperation. Myanmar was initially an observer state but obtained membership towards the end of 1997.
By 2004, Nepal and Bhutan had also joined the BIMSTEC which came to be known as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation. Keerthisinghe writes, ‘objective of the BIMSTEC was to synchronize the ‘Look West’ policy of Thailand and ASEAN with the ‘Look East’ policy of India and South Asia’. Today, the spotlight is on Sri Lanka which is the chair of BIMSTEC from 2018-2020. Sri Lanka already hosted three Working Committee meetings and under the new administration of president Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka will host the 5th BIMSTEC summit in September 2020. Post rationalization of the different sectors of cooperation, it was decided that Sri Lanka will lead the country for Science, Technology and Innovation.
What to expect at the 5th BIMSTEC Summit
Around 1.5 billion people in the world which amounts to 22% of the global population lives in the Bay of Bengal region. The region has a combined GDP of 2.7 trillion with a sustained economic growth averaging at 6.5%. In the year 2020 as Sri Lanka gears up to host the 5th BIMSTEC Summit, the world will move into the second phase of COVID-19. There will be a lot to discuss regarding the economy and health than other areas of cooperation.
The South Asia Economic focus had estimated that regional growth in South Asia will fall between 1.8 to 2.8 % in 2020. The World Bank estimates Myanmar’s GDP will decrease to 2-3%. Similarly, Thailand will also experience growth decline and economic contraction to -3.0% to -5.0%. In all BIMSTEC countries, commonly affected industries are tourism, small and medium enterprises and informal workers or daily wage earners. The BIMSTEC areas of cooperation that will be on spotlight are likely to be health, trade & investment, tourism, agriculture, fisheries and poverty alleviation.
|1. Trade & Investment/Sub-sector||Bangladesh|
|2. Technology/Sub-sector||Sri Lanka|
|4. Transportation & Communication/Sub-sector||India|
|8. Cultural Cooperation/Sub-sector||Bhutan|
|9. Environment and Disaster Management/Sub-sector||India|
|10. Public Health/Sub-sector||Thailand|
|11. People-to-People Contact/Sub-sector||Thailand|
|12. Poverty Alleviation/Sub-sector||Nepal|
|13. Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime/Sub-sector||India|
|14. Climate Change||Bangladesh|
The COVID-19 crisis has triggered certain global changes in production and consumption and for countries to become more self-sufficient. Apart from adopting lockdown and social distancing as preparedness measures to fight the pandemic, food security issues have been a top concern. Most BIMSTEC countries have rural agrarian economies with small-holder farms and common barriers to agricultural production ranging from issues of land ownership, lack of market awareness, and lack of access to smart technologies and poor agricultural policies.
Public health policies will also be at the discussion table as South Asia grapples with a serious issue of socioeconomic inequities whereas access to healthcare is concerned. This is why regional initiatives must be taken to increase commitment to Universal Health Coverage (UHC). Although countries such as Sri Lanka with its free healthcare system has been commended on its COVID-19 management efforts by the WHO and access to healthcare, the situation is not uniform across the rest of the BIMSTEC region. For example: Myanmar is the world’s second worst country for quality of healthcare and scores 0.138/1 on the WHO health systems performance index. Therefore the policy-makers of the region must address critical issues such as health financing which is key to reach Universal Health Coverage and Sustainable Development Goal 3.
At the 5th BIMSTEC Summit, the BIMSTEC charter will be adopted by the member states which is key to reinvigorate the organization to address pressing issues at the sub-regional level. This provides a unique opportunity to share success stories and lessons from other regions on various cross-cutting issues. In the case of COVID-19, Bhutan is a success story as its healthcare system is publicly financed with a detailed preparedness response document and application of technology to track cases such as contact-tracing app Druk Trace. Bhutan’s real GDP growth rate has also dropped to 2.2–2.9 percent but the Royal Monetary authority has stepped up to provide microloans for agriculture, waive interest on loans, and provide working capital to incentivize the sector. Thailand was ranked by the John Hopkins University as Asia’s 6th most prepared country in dealing with the pandemic and will lead the Public Health Sector. However there are serious concerns of corruption in the Thai monarchy i.e. Prayut Chan-o-cha will use his extensive powers to censor and stifle dissent in the country.
With the global ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement and apprehension against the police, even BIMSTEC countries will have to take measures to prevent police violence and democratic backsliding. Police crackdown on Frontline Socialist Party of Sri Lanka recently sets a bad precedent as the BIMSTEC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters will also be discussed at the summit.
How does sub-regionalism help Sri Lanka?
In 2019, BIMSTEC signed a MOU on Establishment of BIMSTEC Grid Interconnection and BIMSTEC Technology Transfer Facility. At the fourth meeting of the BIMSTEC Expert Group on the Establishment of BIMSTEC Technology Transfer Facility, it was discussed that the facility will be established in Sri Lanka and that states must contribute to the legal framework to govern the facility. Sri Lanka has a unique opportunity to discuss innovation in the application of technology across various industries spanning agriculture, business, healthcare and education.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created disruptions in the field of technology, increased digitalization, use of e-banking, e-marketing for business, creation of digital value chains, online education, e-channeling for health, block chain, artificial intelligence and the internet of things. The use of unmanned aerial vehicles or drones are being recognized for its multi-purposes such as maritime security, to make deliveries, to monitor conflict areas etc.
The Global Innovation Index ranks Sri Lanka in the 89th place, India in 52nd and Thailand in 43rd. Sri Lanka has a long way to go in this field especially since Sri Lanka’s current production mix and 98% of its exports are based on simple technology according to the Economic Complexity Index compiled by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Although Sri Lanka’s literacy rate is at 92%, computer literacy is at 27.5%. Sri Lanka needs to move away from bureaucratic blowdowns to introduce e-governance, e-registration of businesses, and a multi-stakeholder approach with increased role for private sector to implement the National Digital Economy Strategy which was specifically made for the government by the McKinsey Group.
It is only then that Sri Lanka can provide a normative leadership in this sector and also learn from countries such as India and Thailand that has performed better whereas innovation is concerned. Therefore sub-regionalism through BIMSTEC is a key opportunity to amalgamate case studies on all these areas of cooperation. Sri Lanka’s Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology, and Innovation will have to bring in local, regional and international experts to drive this agenda.
*Ms. Nathasha Fernando is a graduate of International Studies and Law from The University of Kelaniya and University of London International Programmes. She writes to various international platforms and is a francophone writer at OBOREurope. Her views are her own and does not represent those of the institute.