On April 1, Sri Lanka — the current chair of the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) involving Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand — will be hosting its 17th foreign ministers meeting to finalise details for the fifth BIMSTEC Summit to be held later this year.
The BIMSTEC was formed under the June 1997 Bangkok Declaration with an aim of building regional cooperation among littoral states of the Bay of Bengal in six specific sectors: trade, technology, energy, transport, tourism and fisheries. However, even when it regularly held various senior-level official meetings it had held only three summit meetings till 2014. Till September 2014, it did not even have a permanent secretariat; this was later set up in Dhaka. Even then it continued with meagre staff and funding to have any real impact.
Its recent hyperactive reincarnation is attributed the South Asian Association for Region Cooperation (SAARC) becoming dysfunctional since its November 2016 summit was cancelled in the wake of India refusing to join it following the terror attacks at Pathankot and Uri. India is since seen as the force behind this regional drift from the SAARC to the BIMSTEC.
The fourth BIMSTEC summit in Nepal in August 2018 saw the Kathmandu Declaration expanding the group’s agenda to include cooperation in security and counter-terrorism, disaster management, connectivity, agriculture, poverty alleviation, science and technology, and culture.
That said, the military coup in Myanmar has seen BIMSTEC members falling shy of taking a clear position on this matter. With this, the organisation has hit upon a road block disrupting its progression and forward-looking strive.
Coup In Myanmar
Suddenly, the most important question facing the BIMTEC is how to deal with the Myanmar military leadership that has not just defied an overwhelming pro-National Democratic League mandate in the November elections, but also detained a popularly-elected leadership. Nominal sanctions and murmurs aside, Myanmar’s deeply-entrenched and well-resourced military remains unabated in its heavy-handedness towards nationwide protests. The death toll since the February 1 coup has crossed 420.
The heat of it has already been felt on host Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan foreign minister Dinesh Gunawardena has invited the wrath of social media with Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa urging his government to withdraw the invitation to the junta’s foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin. As Premadasa put it, Colombo’s invitation to him has “basically legitimised the military takeover”. Foreign Secretary Jayanath Colombage clarified the government’s position saying it was not for Sri Lanka but the BIMSTEC to expel any member, and that the Rajapaksa government has not taken any stance on the events in Myanmar.
Will the BIMSTEC ministerial meet debate the expulsion of Myanmar? Or will it ask individual member states to clarify their policy towards Myanmar’s junta? In hindsight, Myanmar’s military is more likely to dig in its heels and be gradually co-opted. The costs of such multilateral inaction will be way beyond simply underwhelming the BIMSTEC promoting liberal democratic agenda.
BIMSTEC over RCEP
On the positive side, even when the issue of the Myanmar military may linger on and dissipate over time, attempts to rekindle the positive spirit of the BIMSTEC will see its foreign ministers adopt their most ambitious $50 billion Master Plan for Transport Connectivity. This involves construction, expansion and modernisation of hundreds of projects to provide seamless connectivity around the Bay of Bengal.
This promises to bring enormous benefit for India’s Northeast, which has also witnessed a connectivity boom that could leapfrog into this larger regional grid and further strengthen India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act East’ policies.
Indeed, a hyperactive BIMSTEC has also triggered debates about expanding its membership to include new aspirant states such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. This is required if the BIMSTEC has to become a true cross-regional bridge.
Experts have even begun to see it as India’s alternative to not just the SAARC, but also to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). India not joining the world’s largest free trade area agreement has also pushed New Delhi into reinvigorating the BIMSTEC.Compared to raw deal India was offered in the China-led RCEP negotiations, the BIMSTEC promises to be far more mutually beneficial for India’s MSMEs, start-ups and technology transfers. The BIMSTEC promises to allow India to shape its eastwards regional engagements — without having to deal with China and Pakistan — to further strengthen its larger expanding engagement with the Indo-Pacific region.
Courtesy – Money Control