Sensitising BIMSTEC Activities

Madhavji Shrestha

As the current chair of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), Nepal is tasked to hold its 4th Summit in Kathmandu before the end of the year 2017. The summit must be preceded by its ministerial meeting as an advance preparation to help prepare for the logical conclusion for the final declaration as has been customarily done. However, observers express doubt whether Nepal would be able to hold the summit as reportedly said, because Nepal is unavoidably pre-occupied with the implementing process of the new constitution. Under the provisions of the constitution, important elections to the provincial and national parliaments need to be held some weeks before the third week of January 2017. This means the holding of the summit would be naturally sidelined; maybe postponed. Nevertheless, the summit must be organized by the government of Nepal as a responsible and committed member of BIMSTEC.
The regional organization comprising five South Asian countries; Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Sri Lanka and two Southeast Asian countries Myanmar and Thailand was instituted on June 6, 1997 and its headquarters is housed in Dhaka, the Capital of Bangladesh with the senior diplomat, Mr.Sumith Nakandala of Sri Lanka as its first Secretary-General. Although this new regional organization has been two decades old, Nepal could join it only in February 2004 along with Bhutan. Its special BIMSTEC-BRICS Outreach Summit was also held on October 15-16, 2016 in Goa of India at the initiative of its Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The establishment of the regional organisation is useful- useful in the sense that the socio-economic advancement could be only achieved if there is mutual cooperation among countries of the adjacent regions. Recently in a visible way, people could see how the emerging interdependence has grown by leaps and bounds due to the irreversible globalising process. No country, however powerful and influential they might be, could achieve its desired progress and prosperity in autarky.
For the weaker member of the international community like Nepal, the need and importance of the regional organisation is very great to get along with the desired development for the socio-economic uplift of its society. Nepal’s positive and active involvement is indeed preferable in so far as it could gain advantages and benefits through participating in various developmental and cooperative activities and programmes. Naturally complimentary and supplementary process in association with other members of the organisation would happen if the willingness and commitment to materialize the objectives and goals of the organisation could firmly stand to work and achieve as inspired and directed  by various decisions and declarations made by its leadership. The previous three summits held first in Bangkok, Thailand in 2004, second in New Delhi, India in 2008 and third in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar in 2014 have well prepared guidelines to go ahead for the regional integration activities and programmes.
It is to be noted that the areas of cooperation among its member countries encompass 14 significant matters that need to be undertaken as regional actions for promoting regional advance in various arenas of regional concerns.
The second ministerial meeting held in Dhaka on November 19, 1998 decided 6 areas of cooperation among member countries while the eight ministerial meeting prescribed the other 8 items as organisational programs for cooperation. All these 14 areas of cooperation include the essential matters related to the socio-economic uplift, trade, transport, infrastructures, energy, investment, poverty alleviation and people-to-people contact as also very challenging concerns like climate change, terrorism and transnational crimes etc. The areas of cooperation for their implementation and other concomitant actions are divided and given responsibility to the respective member countries depending on their capability and availability of necessary resources. Nepal is tasked to carry forward the programmes of the poverty alleviation. Most probably, the responsibility allocated to Nepal indicates that its government has appeared to have achieved something concrete in reducing the percentage of the poverty-grilled people in the country to the low level of around 21 percent of the total population.
The programmes for actions and activities of BIMSTEC look like those of SAARC, which is more than a decade older than BIMSTEC. Its peripheral activities are seen in Nepal in some way. But Nepal has yet to feel the outcomes of its association with and involvement in BIMSTEC, although 13 years have passed and Nepal is currently holding its chair since two years ago. It is the people at the grassroots level that they must feel and experience the windfalls of memberships of the regional organisation.
Experts and interested persons should note with care that BIMSTEC is the product of mainly its two important member countries. In early nineties of the 20th century, the then Indian government announced the policy of “Look East” ( now Act East ) signaling clearly that India should move on to initiate effective steps for forging closer relations with the members counties of ASEAN. Thailand on its part took steps to formulate the policy of “Look West” in mid-nineties of the same century to have greater relations with SAARC. The interests of two big members of BIMSTEC coincided, and the result is the establishment of BIMSTEC in June 1997. Along with India and Thailand all other original members are littoral states with easy access to the high sea of the Bay of Bengal, which is the northern chunk of the huge Pacific Ocean.
The two late comers, Nepal and the tiny Bhutan do not enjoy the facilities of the easy access to the high sea. Hence, for Nepal and Bhutan, the question of trade and transit and other contacts and dealings beyond the sea are highly crucial to grow and flourish in an independent way with their own choice of options. For the tiny Bhutan, India can and may provide whatever it needs. But for Nepal, the requirements are high and multi-faceted to meet the demands of 30 millions of people living and working in its territory. India, albeit very big in size and resources, cannot fulfill the needs of the Nepali population because of its own needs of huge masses of its population. To make the regional cooperation effective in its realistic sense, Nepal as the host of the upcoming ministerial meeting and summit must make visible approach to make essential facilities for easy access to the sea as all times legally and morally binding for all its member countries. If successfully done, this will be the signature achievement of Nepal in hosting the summit. Experts on the BIMSTEC affairs have pointed out that two members India and Thailand are the biggest beneficiaries of the organisational activities due to their geographic location and the stage of development, while other littoral states may receive tangible benefits, whereas to the non-littoral states benefits may not accrue as desired.
Of late, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal have figured up in what is known as BBIN connectivity. For Nepal, this connectivity would be limited in its access and facility. Therefore, why Nepal should not initiate to get the BBIN connectivity projects to get it merged with the transportation and infrastructure programmes of BIMSTEC for the larger and wider expansion of the physical connectivity among all seven member countries? This should be way of getting greater advantage and access for both the littoral and non-littoral states. Both initiatives must come from Nepali high delegation as the proactive chair country of the organisation. They should not and need not shrug off from their duty as the host presiding over the procedures and process of the ministerial and summit meetings.
BIMSTEC has included the Asian Development Bank as its economic partner for development programmes and activities. The assistance of the lone ADB would not suffice the huge cooperation and assistance needs of BIMSTEC. Necessary step should be taken to involve the cooperation and assistance of the World Bank, whose extensive experience and asset would definitely be a great advantage for this South and Southeast Asian regions connecting bridge-like organisation BIMSTEC. Exploration also needs to be done how far and in what way the help of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank could be obtained to materialise the BIMSTEC developmental and integration activities. Political and diplomatic consideration should come up to move forward in this respect.
Nepal and its diplomats have already earned knowledge and experience working with the process of BIMSTEC during the past 13 years. These assets would certainly push main organisers of Nepal to bring forth practicable ideas and experimented ways of doing businesses for success to achieve for all participating member countries in the forthcoming 4th Summit to be held in Kathmandu in a few months to come. Let the success achieved in Kathmandu be a beaconing light house to guide the future course of the BIMSTEC process.

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