BIMSTEC-ISSUES AND CHALLENGES

GS 2: IR – GROUPINGS AND AGREEMENTS INVOLVING INDIA/INDIA’S INTERESTS

Source: The Hindu dated14/04/2021
https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/bimstec-needs-to-reinvent-itself/article34313033.ece

Context : Recently, the foreign ministers of BIMSTEC (the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) met in a virtual conference. This is the first ministerial since the globe has been hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Outcomes of the meeting

  1. Cleared the  draft for the BIMSTEC charter, recommending its early adoption.
  2. Conveyed their support for the Master Plan for Transport Connectivity, which will be adopted at the next summit in Sri Lanka.
  3.  Members also aim to sign 3 more agreements in the next summit
    • Agreement on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters
    • MoU on cooperation between diplomatic academies of member states
    • Memorandum of association for establishing a technology transfer facility in Colombo

BACKGROUND

  • BIMSTEC was established as a grouping of four nations — India, Thailand, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka — through the Bangkok Declaration of 1997.
    BIMSTEC was expanded later to include three more countries-Myanmar,Nepal and Bhutan.

INDIA and BIMSTEC

  • Initially, BIMSTEC didn’t hold much geopolitical weight. This can be reflected by only just three summits in the first 20 years of its formation.
  • However, BIMSTEC suddenly received special attention as India chose to treat it as a more practical instrument for regional cooperation, as SAARC continues to remain defunct.
  • BIMSTEC Leaders’ Retreat, followed by their Outreach Summit with the BRICS leaders in Goa in October 2016, gained international attention.
  • During the 4th summit in Kathmandu(2018),it framed an ambitious plan for institutional reform to include economic and security cooperation.
  • At the second swearing-in of the Indian Prime Minister in May 2019, the leaders of BIMSTEC, not SAARC, were invited as honored guests.
  • Today the shared goal is to aim for “a Peaceful, Prosperous and Sustainable Bay of Bengal Region

RELEVANCE OF BIMSTEC

  • Connectivity – A study by Asian Development Bank has identified 167 projects which can boost connectivity. However, the grouping has to date only focused on 66 of them.
    ExamplesINDIA– MYANMAR-THAILAND Trilateral Highway(can be used to explore the possibility of having a BIMSTEC MOTOR VEHICLE AGREEMENT)
Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project
  1. Reduces distance from Kolkata to Sittwe by approximately 1328 km and will reduce the need to transport goods through the narrow Siliguri corridor
  2. KMMT is hailed as “Future gateway to South East Asia”.
  • Energy
    1. MOU on Grid Interconnection signed in 2018 and came into force in 2019
    2. BIMSTEC Energy Centre is being setup in Bengaluru making India a regional hub.
  • Synergy with other regions: Better BIMSTEC connectivity can help to improve relations with other regions likesouth-east Asia. 
    • For instance, the BIMSTEC master plan will also promote synergy with other connectivity frameworks such as the ASEAN master plan on connectivity 2025.
  • Security
    1. BIMSTEC Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters.
    2. BIMSTEC Convention on Cooperation in Combating International Terrorism, TransnationalOrganised Crime and Illicit drug trafficking
    3. Members of the grouping face several traditional and non-traditional security challenges. In this regard, National Security Advisors of member countries have met thrice since 2017
  • Tourism
    • Buddhist Tourist Circuit and Temple Tourist Circuit within the region

CHALLENGES

  • Indian dilemma – The connectivity platform might open the door to China selling its ambitious OBOR initiative.
  • India’s engagement with them has been mostly episodic and ad hoc- A slow pace is observed in working. For instance, it took almost 17 years to establish a permanent secretariat.
  • Stalemate on Agreements: The Free Trade Agreement (FTA), coastal shipping agreement, and motor vehicle agreement have undergone numerous negotiations. But so far no consensus is developed over them.
  • Resource Deficit: Lack of adequate financial and manpower resources is impairing the performance of the body. In 2017-18, India’s annual contribution was about Rs.2 crore which was 32% of BIMSTEC’s  total budget.
  • Preference to other organisations: Countries like Myanmar and Thailand show more enthusiasm towards ASEAN and neglect the vision of BIMSTEC.

What needs to be done?

  • Forge practical cooperation in six areas, to start with: trade and investment, connectivity, energy, tourism, counter-terrorism, and Blue Economy.
  • Security challenges must be addressed through a realistic programme, but the grouping’s principal focus must remain on social and economic development.
  • BIMSTEC needs to produce a few visible results or successes in the short term. Concluding the protracted negotiations for a FTA in goods, and later, services, and investment, is the way forward. Without an appropriate FTA, the grouping will continue to be perceived as an empty shell.
  • The organisation has to develop consensus on long-pending agreements like the BIMSTEC coastal shipping agreement and motor vehicles’ agreement.
  • India needs to shed the Big brother attitude and work in tandem with other members.
  • BIMSTEC members have to finalise the Visa Facilitation agreement expeditiously. This will help strengthen the interest of the common man in regional groupings.

Way forward

Amb. Rajiv Bhatia once said that It is wise to learn walking before trying to fly,in the context of BIMSTEC. India should make sure that the group delivers success in at least the focus areas in the short term.

With the silver jubilee of the BIMSTEC approaching in 2022, more concrete and fruitful initiatives like adopting the Master plan for Connectivity will be a good step forward .

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