The COVID-19 pandemic brings unprecedented challenges to the world including BIMSTEC countries. While the pandemic was initially a health crisis, it is fast becoming an economic crisis with humanitarian dimensions.
Although the crisis has affected the whole world, responses have remained largely national, with the role of regional and international organisations remaining marginal. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the inadequacies of the existing international and regional organisations to tackle calamities of such magnitude, now or in future. All of these organisations may have to undergo changes and adjustments to remain relevant in the post-COVID-19 era.
BIMSTEC was established to strengthen economic and physical connectivity in the region through more trade, investment, travel and exchanges by leveraging geographical advantage and available resources. Side by side, BIMSTEC promotes common action to address vulnerabilities including climate change, natural disaster, drug trafficking, terrorism, transnational crimes and communicable diseases. In the most recent meeting of BIMSTEC Foreign Secretaries held in Colombo on Mar 3 2020, areas of BIMSTEC cooperation have been consolidated into seven, each to be led by one Member State: Trade, Investment and Development led by Bangladesh; Environment & Climate Change led by Bhutan; Security together with counter-terrorism, disaster management and energy led by India; Agriculture & Food Security together with fisheries led by Myanmar; People-to-People Contact including culture and tourism led by Nepal; Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) including health led by Sri Lanka; and Connectivity led by Thailand.
BIMSTEC’s approach is to identify and implement development projects in the agreed areas of cooperation to bring additional benefits to the people of the region without substituting for the existing regional cooperation initiatives. With increased visibility and recognition of BIMSTEC, development partners including ADB, World Bank, UNDP, EU and other organisations are showing keen interest to support BIMSTECs project-based development cooperation. Member States have recently mandated the Secretariat to enter into a partnership with regional and international organisations for the implementation of BIMSTEC projects.
As the pandemic increasingly transforms itself into an economic crisis, the areas of cooperation identified by BIMSTEC appears to be equally relevant in the post-COVID-19 era; the only difference is that we will need to do the same work in a better way and at a faster pace.
Post-COVID-19 contours of BIMSTEC
Regional connectivity – physical and economic – is at the heart of BIMSTEC mandate. Like most countries of the world, BIMSTEC countries’ initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic was to restrict trade, travel and other forms of connectivity. It is heartening to see that they are increasingly opening up trade and transport connectivity to restore essential supply chains. In the post-COVID-19 periods, it will be important to resume all kind of connectivity initiatives in a way that can handle future disruption by a pandemic or other disasters in a better way.
In the area of transport connectivity, BIMSTEC with the support of ADB support completed BIMSTEC Transport Infrastructure and Logistics Study (BTILS) of 2014, which identified 167 projects involving a cost of around $50 billion in order to address the missing links to establish greater physical and economic connectivity between South and South East Asia. Many of the projects in that study have already been completed or are in the advance stage of completion.
As a sequel to the earlier study, BIMSTEC and ADB are currently developing the “BIMSTEC Transport Connectivity Master Plan” to address the remaining missing links and bottlenecks to have transport infrastructure ready for seamless connectivity surrounding the Bay of Bengal region and beyond. 261 projects of construction, expansion and modernisation of existing transport infrastructure involving an estimated cost of $120 billion have been identified in the draft Master Plan. Renewed emphasis has been given to develop a resilient regional transport connectivity system with particular focus on coastal shipping, waterways and railways. ADB is also carrying out analytical studies on three key priority areas, namely, financing for transport connectivity, trade facilitation and tourism promotion. The Work Bank has shown interest in supporting waterways connectivity in the BIMSTEC region. Discussion is ongoing with development partners to undertake a BIMSTEC Grid Interconnection Master Plan Study to establish a regional electricity grid to facilitate energy trade.
The COVID-19 crisis has underlined the need to develop an uninterrupted supply chain for food, medicines and other essential commodities. Trade facilitation measures including simplification of customs procedures will be very important to retain and further solidify supply chain in the region. BIMSTEC’s intra-regional trade, which is only 6% today, can and should be increased significantly. It will be necessary to expedite the conclusion of the pending BIMSTEC FTA and Customs Cooperation Agreement to increase trade volume within the region. BIMSTEC has begun to work with the OECD on two projects namely Support for Investment Policy Cooperation and Support for Enterprise Policy Cooperation in the BIMSTEC region to remain competitive and attract investment in the post-COVID-19 scenario.
Tourism and hospitality industry has become a big casualty of COVID-19. In this regard, BIMSTEC countries may promote regional tourism. BIMSTEC has undertaken a study on Tourism Promotion with Technical Assistance of ADB. It will also be important to ensure more effective and predictable ways to handle the movement of people including those engaged in business, medical treatment, cultural and religious tourism.
In the post-COVID-19 period, public health is expected to get renewed attention in the work of BIMSTEC. To begin with, Member States may enhance cooperation to produce skilled manpower in the health sector. Establishment of the regional value chain for pharmaceutical industries is also another area that may need renewed attention; with strong pharmaceutical industries in the BIMSTEC countries, especially in Bangladesh, India and Thailand, this seems achievable.
Evidently, the COVID-19 will not be the last calamity to befall our region. The economic gains registered by BIMSTEC countries are constantly being threatened by natural disasters, climate change, pandemics, poverty and economic disparity. Our collective resilience to these challenges will have to be raised through joint action. BIMSTEC Leaders have already given directions to develop plans of action to address climate change, disaster management and blue economy, which we intend to follow up in the right earnest.
By all indications, the economic impact of COVID-19 pandemic will not go away within a short time. This may drastically increase the number of poor if we cannot create jobs for the returnee migrant workers and the vast workforce supported by the informal sector. This will be a time for the BIMSTEC Member States to create economic activities through more intra-regional trade, transaction and tourism. This will also be a time for the Member States to invest more to ensure human security. In all likelihood, the current crisis would render the global governance weaker, and regional organisations like BIMSTEC will need to take up greater responsibility for regional recovery and rehabilitation.
Courtesy – BDNews24