BIMSTEC And Regional Cooperation

Dr. Narad Bharadwaj

The convening of the 4th summit meeting of Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) in Kathmandu on 30 and 31 August can be a fresh opportunity for Nepal to contribute to reawaken the dream of regional cooperation in South Asia. Though BIMSTEC has little to boast about in its 21 years of existence in terms of substantial contribution towards addressing pressing problems of this region through cooperation, it has kept hopes alive. In this sense the upcoming summit might serve as a powerful platform for cultivating cooperative spirit and blow life into the regional body.

Regional forum
Set up on 6 June 1997 to create enabling environment for rapid economic development, acceleration of social progress and promotion of collaboration on matters of common interest among Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand, this regional forum has organised three summits so far. BIMSTEC had organised its 15th Ministerial Meeting in Kathmandu on 11 August 2017, though several other sectoral meetings over various thematic issues have been taking place from time to time.
BIMSTEC has caught the imagination as a new regional forum in the context of declining impact of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation(SAARC) which was established in 1985 with a view to promote regional cooperation among the countries of South Asia. Despite immense possibilities, SAARC could not trigger growth and prosperity in South Asia owing to irreconcilable differences and conflict of interest between India and her bête noir Pakistan. The 19th summit conference of SAARC, scheduled to be organised in Islamabad in 2016, was postponed due to strained relation between India and Pakistan. India has been accusing Pakistan of sponsoring terrorism, a charge which Pakistan is emphatic in its denial.
As a country, neutral to Indo-Pakistan rivalry, Nepal has been taking initiative to reschedule the 19th Summit of the oldest regional organisation though its date remains still undecided. In such situation the people of this region appear optimistic about the possibility of promoting BIMSTEC as an alternative platform for regional or even inter-regional cooperation. BIMSTEC has been in existence for more than twenty years with little impact on the socio-economic dynamics of this region. At the present context, it appears to have gained pace in channelising the potentials of its member countries in expediting the process of opening wider areas of cooperation.
Increased interest of India in this forum, non-participation of her rival Pakistan in this organisation and inclusion of Thailand and Myanmar the two strategically located Southeast Asian countries in this forum, has created positive ambience for BIMSTEC. In view of its coverage of geo-strategically important land mass kept alive by the Bay of Bengal, it is likely to emerge as a flourishing region of South and South-East Asia.
The importance of this organisation can be judged also from the fact that it proposes to serve an area where 1.5 billion people live. Initially it was envisaged for promoting cooperation in six core sectors of trade, technology, transport, tourism, energy and fisheries. Later, its areas of involvement were expanded in 2008 to encompass other eight sectors, including agriculture, poverty alleviation, public health, environment, climate change, counter terrorism, cultural exchanges and people to people contact.
The leaders of member countries have repeatedly pledged to make BIMSTEC strong and result- oriented. They have also identified sectors of cooperation which are broad and strategically important for addressing the most pressing development issues of the member countries. However, unless and until the projects to be implemented are not equitably distributed among the member countries and are not prioritised on the basis of urgency, impact and funding capacity identifying sectors of cooperation alone will have little meaning.
The forthcoming summit of BIMSTEC is, therefore, expected to come forward with projects of priority which are helpful in promoting integration of the region in terms of connectivity, promotion of free trade among the member countries, agricultural modernisation, mitigation of climate change and fight against international terrorism.
Bay of Bengal is a vital life line for more than 22 per cent of the global population which is settled in areas consisting of BIMSTEC countries. It is not only a source of the river systems criss-crossing this region, it is also an important element in sustaining the ecosystem of this part of the world. The cooperation among the countries located in this region, therefore, bears vital significance for mitigating adverse impact of climate change and creation of sustainable condition of life for 1.5 billion people living in this region.
South Asia and South-east Asia are vast territories relegated to developmental backwaters since centuries. The development and modernisation of the countries of this region pose uphill challenges. The formation of this inter-regional organisation is a bold initiative taken by the leaders of this region and reflects the farsightedness required to pull this region out of poverty.
BIMSTEC has the additional advantage of having countries like Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka which have been stakeholders to China’s iconic project called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). For reason of their interest being served by both BRI and BIMSTEC, they bear the potential of serving as an interface between these two grand development initiatives, which can be game changers in crafting economic prosperity for the entire Asian Continent.
It is yet another privilege that Nepal has had the opportunity to organise the crucial regional jamboree just when the tension prevailing in this region is the process of thaw. India and China have succeeded to move ahead to the future by putting behind their bitter past. The relation between India and Pakistan, too, are being managed with increasing honour from both sides to the rule of the games. Despite occasional eruption of hot spots both the countries are seen committed to peaceful resolution of persisting differences.
Prime Minister of Nepal KP Oli has been performing impressive balancing act in keeping together regions powers together for tapping their potentials in favour of co-existence, cooperation and collaboration. His regular interaction over the issues of concern and his convening capacity has created conducive environment to cultivate cooperative culture in the region.

New optimism
The activism and inclusion which BIMSTIC represents, has generated a new optimism in the sphere of regional cooperation. It is especially so, when SAARC has shown all signs of decay with little chance of its rebirth in the present situation of stalemate between India and Pakistan. If the upcoming summit is able to inject spirit of regional cooperation without getting embroiled in bilateral issues of member countries, it bears the potential of being an instrument of changing the destiny of the people of South and South-east Asia.

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