Can BIMSTEC revitalize regional cooperation?

By Ritu Raj Subedi
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, August 28, 2018
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A woman passes by the welcome board placed on street just ahead of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) Summit in Kathmandu, Nepal on Aug. 25, 2018. [Photo/Xinhua]

Even after 21 years since its establishment, The Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is still struggling to find its feet. 

The sub-regional group of seven nations from South Asia and Southeast Asia -- Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand -- risks facing the fate of the Southern Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) that has become dysfunctional thanks to the bitter rivalry between two nuclear powers -- India and Pakistan.

However, BIMSTEC member states seek to add vigor and dynamism as their leaders are gathering for its 4th summit held in Kathmandu on Aug. 30-31, with the theme "Peaceful, prosperous and sustainable Bay of Bengal." 

"We have set five priority areas that include connectivity, investment, trade, tourism, poverty alleviation, mitigation of climate changes and control of cross-border crimes for discussion in the Summit," Nepal's Minister for Foreign Affairs Pradeep Gyawali said, adding, "We want to develop BIMSTEC as an effective mechanism to lead the people of the region towards prosperity."

As the chair of both regional organizations, BIMSTEC and SAARC, Nepal has onus to activate them as it ushers in an era of stability following decades of political transition.

The BIMSTEC Summit offers an opportunity for the communist-led majority government to boost the country's image abroad and execute independent foreign policies that Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli describes as one of the key characteristics of his administration. This will be the biggest international event hosted by Nepal following the formation of its new government. 

Although the Summit should have been held two years ago, Nepal did not show a willingness to do so as its relations with its southern neighbor, India, had gone sour. India had imposed a blockade on Nepal, showing reservation about the contents of Nepal's new constitution. Now relations with India have improved substantially and the summit is taking place amidst hope and enthusiasm.

BIMSTEC is a bridge between South and Southeast Asia, and landlocked nations like Nepal and Bhutan naturally aspire to engage with Southeast Asian nations through roads, railways and transmission lines, thereby improving their trade, tourism and people-to-people relations. 

Here, the objectives of BIMSTEC are well in sync with China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that focuses on the connectivity, trade, investment and people to people relations across the continents.

However, critics argue that India has pushed BIMSTEC strategically as an alternative to SAARC to isolate Pakistan. In October 2016, India invited six BIMSTEC countries to attend the BRICS Outreach Summit in Goa. 

Following a terrorist attack in Uri, India pulled out of the 19th SAARC Summit scheduled in Islamabad in 2016. Since then, SAARC is not a priority for India. Despite Nepal's efforts to revitalize SAARC, it is not done so with success. Pakistan has urged Nepal to play a constructive role in holding the 19th SAARC summit.

If India attempts to use BIMSTEC as a geopolitical tool only to corner its tough neighbor, the bloc's overarching objectives are unlikely to be met. In fact, BIMSTEC has already been weighted down with numerous goals (at least 14 areas of cooperation) but there is little or no implementation of them.

For instance, BIMSTEC member states have yet to conclude the negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) started in 2004. Even if the FTA is made a priority, aiming to increase the intra-regional trade from current 7 percent to 21 percent, it will still be a challenge due to the involvement of seven nations, according to interlocutors. 

Despite this, there are many positive attributes that inspire the countries to cooperate and achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. Ecology and Buddhism are two crucial factors that unite the people of BIMSTEC nations. The Bay of Bengal is the source of monsoons, the lifeline of their agriculture growth. Rain-producing clouds form over the Bay of Bengal and are dispersed across the region, bringing cheers to their farmers.

But it is Buddhism that brings together the people in region. Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand are Buddhist nations while Nepal is the birthplace of Buddha. In India, Buddha received enlightenment and propagated his philosophy that spread to China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Japan via Nepal.

Nepal's former prime minister Sushil Koirala had proposed developing a ‘Buddhist Circuit' by connecting the important Buddhist sites in South Asia and Southeast Asia during the 3rd BIMSTEC Summit in Myanmar in 2014. It is high time the BIMSTEC leaders worked to realize the concept of a "Buddhist Circuit" to promote socio-cultural bond among their people 

Moreover, they should show their political will and commitment to evolve BIMSTEC into a vibrant organization on par with ASEAN or the European Union. Only then will they be able to fulfill their promises.

Ritu Raj Subedi is an associate editor of The Rising Nepal.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of

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