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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2619

Agenda for Bimstec Summit in Kathmandu

By Ratan Saldi - Syndicate Features

The fourth summit of regional grouping, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, BIMSTEC, opens in Kathmandu today, the 30th of August. Nepal is the current Chair of the seven-member organisation. The two-day summit will see member states kick start some of the proposals that have been under discussion for the past two decades.

Bimstec took shape in June 1997. It was only in February 2004 it decided to hold a summit every two years. Yet the grouping of Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Srilanka, Thailand and India has seen just three summits thus far. So does this mean Bimstec has failed? It will be unfair to jump to reach such a conclusion. Though there were no summit level meetings, officials of the seven nations are in regular interaction. In fact they have been meeting at regular intervals. Anyhow summit is not the only barometer.

NATO is virtually dead. So are many other groupings of European nations. Nearer home, Gulf Cooperation Council, GCC, and South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, SAARC, are plagued with tensions. BBIN that comprises Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal is just ticking.

Well, BRICS and SCO are a different story. BRICS represents fast growing economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, of which India and Pakistan became full members only last year, is also quite active. Then there is the BRI, Border and Roads Initiative of China.

China is pursuing economic diplomacy through BRI in Africa, South Asia and East Asia. Also in the Indian Ocean region where it has a “String of Pearls’. It has acquired Hambantota port in Sri Lanka on a 99- year lease and is actively pursuing a proposal to build a port in the Maldives; China is also involved at the Chittagong port of Bangladesh.

This virtual diplomatic hegemony of China has given an impetus to Bimstec nations to invigorate their grouping; they are resolved to tap the vast potential of their geographical contiguity, being on shores or in close proximity of the Indian Ocean.

In a way this process was set in motion at the end of third Bimstec Summit in the Myanmar capital, Nay Pyi Taw, held in March 2014. Two years later, top Bimstec leaders met on the sidelines of Brics summit in what was BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach meet in Goa; they reviewed the spade work the officials had carried out and gave directions to speed up formulating concrete proposals for placing before Kathmandu summit.

The most important of these proposals is Power Grid Inter-connectivity for exchange of electricity. It is no more than buying and selling of electricity among member states.

MOU has already been approved by the Committee on Energy cooperation. Inking the deal would mark a historic step in regional cooperation in this part of the world. Some Bimstec nations have excess power which could be transmitted through cross border lines. To the great relief of other Bimstec nations in perennial power shortage.

Says Nepal’s Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali, “At a time when questions are being raised about the future of the multilateralism, we hope that this Summit in Kathmandu would prove to be an important one in the history of Bimstec.”

In a media interaction he also said that the leaders would dwell on developing and opening Buddhist Circuit. Bimstec Tourism Conclave is another idea in the works.

Bimstec leaders had signed a framework agreement at Phuket (Thailand) in 2004. Yet Free Trade Agreement (FTA) to for promoting cross country trade remains a distant dream. The Kathmandu summit may take a close look at the issue particularly the non-tariff barriers that have become a hindrance. This hope stems from the reality check that everybody wants tariff barriers and protectionist tendencies to be dismantled for hassle free trade and business.

When they got down to business for the first time, Bimstec leaders had identified as many as 14 items. According to Gyawali, the list ranges from trade, investment, transportation and communications to energy, tourism, agriculture and terrorism. Present thinking is that many items on the agenda is a sure recipe for diffused attention.

In fact India drew attention to the flipside of the Bimstec approach at the third summit. And made out a case for focus on five priority areas for close cooperation; these are energy, connectivity, trade and economic cooperation, security and people to people exchanges. In the run up to the Kathmandu, officials and Ministers discussed the proposal at length; and achieved near unanimity on the action plan.

Another stress point before the Kathmandu summit would be connectivity as without hindrance-free land and sea connectivity greater flow of trade and economic cooperation cannot be achieved. Thailand has readied a concept paper. Titled, ‘Bimstec Master Plan on Transport Connectivity’, the plan will come up for deliberation by the leaders both in their plenary and retreat.

Amongst Bimstec nations, India has land connectivity with Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar. Bangladesh and Nepal have achieved road connectivity through India’s Siliguri corridor under the BBIN (Bangladesh-Bhutan- India- Nepal) Motor Vehicles agreement signed in 2015. Bhutan is yet to ratify the accord.

Coastal connectivity will enhance trade among five Bimstec nations - India, Srilanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand. Sea routes offer cost effective and speedy movement of cargo.

Tourism, environment, security and anti-terrorism are some other areas of common concern on which Bimstec leaders must reflect. Agriculture and health care are also priority sectors as countries in the region have low indices in these areas.

The outcome of Kathmandu summit will be keenly watched since it has given fresh lease to the hopes of mutually beneficial economic and social development in priority sectors. The K P Sharma Oli government has much at stake in the success of the summit in a manner of speaking. Bimstec is the first major regional conference Kathmandu is hosting after Nepal became a Federal Democratic Republic with a new constitution in place.

- Asian Tribune -

Agenda for Bimstec Summit in Kathmandu
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