By Sugeeswara Senadhira
Later this week, Sri Lanka will host the fifth Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) summit in the backdrop of member nations struggling to shake-off the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The summit would provide the leaders of the seven members – India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, and Sri Lanka – to finalise the much delayed BIMSTEC Charter and initiate tangible measures for economic cooperation. They are also expected to give the final approval to the BIMSTEC Master Plan for Transport Connectivity and the Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters.
While the virtual summit meeting scheduled for Wednesday will be more of a formality, the meeting of Foreign Ministers and senior officials from today will have the tough task of finalising the three drafts for regional cooperation in agreed areas.
As the regional grouping marks its silver jubilee this year, BIMSTEC leaders will utilise this summit to review the progress of programmes implemented during the last 25 years.
Transport connectivity is one of the top priorities of the seven South and Southeast Asian BIMSTEC members. The leaders will examine the possible geo-economic challenges on the lagging trade and investments front, the opportunities to deepen regional development and cooperation in areas such as transportation infrastructure, maritime and environmental spheres and the ways and means of expanding areas of cooperation with extra-regional powers such as Australia, Japan, China, the United States, or the European Union by establishing mutually beneficial partnerships.
During Sri Lanka’s tenure as BIMSTEC Chair, the organisation successfully finalised the BIMSTEC Charter, which was dragging on for more than two decades. Furthermore, the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Mutual Cooperation between Diplomatic Academies/Training Institutions of BIMSTEC member states, and deliberating sectoral and institutional matters were also reached during the period.
The MoU on establishing a BIMSTEC Grid Interconnection and BIMSTEC Technology Transfer Facility in Sri Lanka was also signed during Sri Lanka’s chairmanship.
Although BIMSTEC was established more than a decade after the founding of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the former has gained more importance and traction when the progress of SAARC got stalled following heightened frosty ties between India and Pakistan. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a special place to BIMSTEC during the BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) summit in Goa in 2016 by organising a BIMSTEC Outreach Summit on the sidelines giving an opportunity to the regional leaders to interact with BRICS leaders. Once again in 2019, Modi gave a public display of his affinity to BIMSTEC by inviting heads of government and states of member-countries for his oath-taking ceremony for second term.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa expressed his commitment to explore ways and means of ensuring that regional cooperation efforts through BIMSTEC translate into meaningful and tangible benefits that would directly impact the people of the region.
When BIMSTEC Secretary General Tenzin Lekphell called on President Rajapaksa during his last visit to Colombo, the President assured that
Sri Lanka has focused on facilitating the strengthening of the institutional framework and structures of BIMSTEC through the completion of the BIMSTEC Charter.
For BIMSTEC’s future activities, specific areas need to be shared between member countries and the area of relevance to Sri Lanka in addition to maritime connectivity are science, technology and innovation, President Rajapaksa said.
BIMSTEC was formed on 6 June 1997, in Bangkok, initially began with only Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand as members. Later, Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan joined in. It aims to boost economic growth and social progress among members across sectors like trade, technology, energy, transport, tourism, public health, counter-terrorism, environment, people-to-people links and climate change. The regional grouping has a combined population of 1.6 billion, or 22 per cent of the world total, and a combined gross domestic product of over USD 3 trillion. The significance of BIMSTEC is, it is strategically placed between the SAARC and the 10-member ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and it has most countries bordering the Bay of Bengal, the largest bay in the world.
As BIMSTEC members are littoral countries around the Bay of Bengal, maritime transport is crucial to them. Hence, its maritime master plan outlines the need to develop newer ports, expand the existing harbour infrastructure to handle increased capacity, invest in modern container handling, among other things. There is also reference to boosting inland waterways, expanding the aviation sector, development of low-cost carriers, increased access to international travel among member countries, improved freight services, etc. For trade facilitation, need has been cited for developing inland clearance depots at border posts, rationalisation of documentation for trade, development of national single windows and increased customs automation.
Another area of potential cooperation is technology and innovation, a subject of interest to Sri Lanka. During the Covid-19 pandemic created a disruption in the field of technology and increased digitalisation across the globe, it became a blessing in disguise as it had created opportunities for smaller nations to explore low-cost innovative measures to facilitate e-banking, e-commerce, e-marketing, and the creation of digital value chains.
A research paper published by Observer Research Foundation in India said countries such as Sri Lanka explored new initiatives for online education, and e-channeling for health amongst other digital initiatives and suggested that BIMSTEC could take steps to speed up regional cooperation in this field.
Most analysts believe that Master Plan for Transport Connectivity, which will get the approval at Colombo Summit this week, will help boost trade and economic ties and people-to-people connect in a big way, thus making BIMSTEC a productive bloc for regional cooperation. BIMSTEC activities could then lead to other agreements, like the Free Trade Agreement, the Motor Vehicles Agreement, and the Coastal Shipping Agreement.