May 2, 2022

BIMSTEC: Evolution and Its Future

Written By: Shamsher M. Chowdhury

As BIMSTEC enters two and a half decades of its existence, it is time to take stock of BIMSTEC’s achievements and chart the organisation’s future course and direction. In order to make a realistic assessment of BIMSTEC’s standing in the region, it is relevant to assess how other regional/sub-regional organisations are conducting their business to promote cooperation in the South and South East Asia region.

ASEAN has developed extensive legal and institutional framework to carry out its broad mandate covering political, economic, security and socio-cultural issues. However, the once strong regional forum is showing strains at the seams. SASEC (South Asian Subregional Economic Cooperation) with its skeleton structure and limited mandate, has been able to complete 46 development projects worth over US$ 9 billion with the ADB assistance since 2001. SAARC, with all its initial promise, has continued to struggle, primarily due to political issues between some key members.

In a competitive environment of various forms of regional cooperation initiatives in this vital and strategically important region, an effective, visible and result-oriented BIMSTEC offers an opportunity for a rule and institution-based cooperation. BIMSTEC needs to expedite developing legal framework of cooperation in core areas like trade, investment, connectivity and education. Establishing a sound financing mechanism for project-based cooperation is of paramount importance. Strengthening of the Secretariat with necessary skills and financial resources is another area that requires the attention of the Member States. In this context, the decision of the government of India to donate US$ 1 million for the BIMSTEC Secretariat is a most welcome and timely move. The adoption and signing of the BIMSTEC Charter at the 5th BIMSTEC Summit in Colombo on 30 March 2022, will create the necessary legal frame work for strengthening multi-sectoral cooperation and the organisation’s relevance within the organisation, and hopefully even beyond.

For BIMSTEC to move forward effectively, it is important to be guided by the consideration that sustained and steady progress should take precedence over form as one cannot afford to lose the momentum that is being generated. It is a fact that BIMSTEC is receiving attention as an important building block of the emerging Indo-Pacific region and it can play a much greater role in shaping the future socio-economic architecture of this region.

A Result Oriented BIMSTEC

According to the Bangkok Declaration of 6 June 1997, BIMSTEC was created with the desire “to establish a firm foundation for common action to promote sub-regional cooperation in the areas of trade, investment, technological exchange and other interrelated areas in a spirit of equality and partnership and thereby contribute towards peace, progress and prosperity in their common region”. Beginning with a sub-regional initiative with four Member States, BIMSTEC has become a promising regional organisation comprising seven countries of the Bay of Bengal region: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

BIMSTEC leaders are now pledge bound to work collectively towards making the organisation stronger, more effective, and result oriented.

One of the founding principles of BIMSTEC is to “constitute an additionality, to not be a substitute for bilateral, regional or multilateral cooperation involving the Member States.” During the last 25 years, five summit meetings have been held. In addition, there was the BIMSTEC Leaders’ Retreat in Goa, India, on 16 October 2016. This was a creative and thoughtful initiative. The Annual Ministerial Meeting held at the level of external affairs/foreign ministers of member states is the body responsible for coordinating and providing overall policy guidance on all BIMSTEC matters. The Ministerial Meeting had been held regularly. Sadly, the Covid pandemic did act as a major impediment to holding the meetings in person.

Senior Officials’ Meeting (SOM) is the most important layer of BIMSTEC’s existing institutional mechanism. This body undertakes the preparatory work for the Ministerial Meeting and follows up its decisions between the sessions of the Ministerial Meeting. In practice though, different mechanisms have evolved over a period of time which is unique to each sector. Trade and investment sector has a full-blown institutional structure with Trade and Economic Ministers’ Meeting, Senior Trade and Economic Officials Meeting, Trade Negotiating Committee (TNC) and a host of working groups under TNC are engaged in various areas of FTA negotiations. In some important sectors like transport and communication, counter-terrorism and trans-nationalcrime (CTTC) and agriculture, functions are conducted by working groups/expert groups without the existence of Ministerial or Senior Officials Meetings. Although deliberation on counter-terrorism and trans-nationalcrime (CTTC) has been upgraded to the level of nationalsecurity chiefs with effect from 2017, most member states do not appear to have a nationalsecurity chief in the real sense of the term. Furthermore, issues like CTTC, illicit drug trafficking, human trafficking etc. fall under the jurisdiction of Home Ministry of most member states.

The Bangkok Declaration also stipulated that BIMSTEC maintain close and beneficial cooperation with existing international and regional organisations with similar aims and purposes. Other than limited cooperation with ADB for conducting study in the transport sector and for the secretariat infrastructure, no serious attempt in this regard has been made. Common dialogue forum amongst BIMSTEC and various other regional, multilateral organisations/funding institutions could push the cause of BIMSTEC and give it much needed and greater visibility. The increasing global attention towards the emerging Indo-Pacific community is expected to present before BIMSTEC an opportunity to attract external funding for the region’s common infrastructure development.

Status of BIMSTEC Centres/Institutions

During the last 25 years, BIMSTEC has taken initiatives to establish a number of centres and institutions, the most important one being the establishment of a permanent secretariat in Dhaka. The others include the BIMSTEC Energy Centre (BEC), the BIMSTEC Weather and Climate Centre, BIMSTEC Cultural Industry Observatory (BCIO), BIMSTEC Technology Transfer Facility (TTF), BIMSTEC Tourism Information Centre, BIMSTEC Tourism Fund, BIMSTEC Centre for Poverty Alleviation. Operations of these centres/institutions have been hampered by lack of appropriate financing mechanism.

SAARC’s experience shows that the creation of centres and institutions alone do not necessarily help enhanced and effective regional cooperation. Some of the centres created by SAARC have become ineffective or are non-performing.  Even the experience of ASEAN has been mixed as far as the creation and running of centres is concerned. In the case of BIMSTEC, a more cautious approach is advisable because a proliferation of centres/institutions may lead to additional financial burden for member states, constitute expansion of the secretariat in various forms and locations, and give rise to problem of coordination of BIMSTEC activities.  One solution could be that the existing centre(s) located in the lead country of a sector can be declared as BIMSTEC Centre whose coordination and administration will remain with the nodal ministry while a part or whole of the service produced by the Centre will be dedicated to the benefit of all member states of BIMSTEC. This will spare the organisation from creating new administrative structures and funding arrangements.

Enhancing Visibility of BIMSTEC

The last two and a half decades has shown that BIMSTEC’s visibility remains relatively low, both within the region and more so, beyond. The Goa Leaders’ Retreat of 2016 was a high-profile event that brought BIMSTEC to the attention of the international community. Sustained political commitment on the part of member states and some immediate achievements that can bring visible benefit to the peoples of this region will contribute meaningfully in changing the picture. The establishment of BIMSTEC Network of Policy Think Tanks (BNPTT) is a welcome initiative to reach out to scholars and opinion builders. A forum for the media of the member countries could play a major role in assuring greater awareness among the population. Establishment of BIMSTEC Parliamentarians’ Forum, establishment of BIMSTEC Network of Universities, facilitated movement of businessmen and tourists, introduction of BIMSTEC scholarships by public/private universities, special visa arrangements for travel within BIMSTEC countries, holding of BIMSTEC cultural festivals could be some effective means to enhance the visibility and relevance of BIMSTEC among the citizens of the member states.  The Covid pandemic has highlighted the crucial importance of enhanced cooperation on the health sector, both in the preventive and curative regime, as much on the research domain. Enhanced cooperation and collaboration in this sector could bring tangible benefits.

Recommendations

In order to make BIMSTEC stronger, more effective and result-oriented, the following recommendations could be considered:

Recommendations on developing legal framework of cooperation

  1. Redouble efforts to complete the initial phase of laying down legal framework to carry out cooperation in core areas like trade, investment, connectivity, security and energy.
  2. Declaration or other non-binding form of documents may be resorted to when member states are not ready to enter into formal agreement on a specific subject.

Recommendations on project-based cooperation

  1. Identify and implement development projects in such areas as agriculture, fisheries, technology, public health, tourism, climate change, blue economy etc.
  2. Encourage pluri-lateral project implementation arrangements with the provision that those member states that did not initially join such arrangement, may do so at a later stage.
  3. Develop guidelines for financing project-based cooperation

Recommendations to rationalise institutional mechanism

  1. As the pivot of BIMSTEC institutional mechanism, SOM may hold special meetings, as and when necessary, in addition to the existing two meetings per annum.
  2. Harmonise, to the extent possible, all sectoral institutional mechanism, and hold sectoral meetings regularly and at the designated level.
  3. Upgrade Counter-terrorism and Trans-National Crime (CTTC) sector mechanism to the level of Home Ministers.
  4. Empower National Focal Points to effectively coordinate BIMSTEC matters at the national level.
  5. Review the role and function of Lead Country

Recommendations on rationalisation of sectors of cooperation

  1. Reduce the number of sectors by merging interrelated sectors where appropriate.
  2. Merge Environment and Disaster Management and Climate Change as one sector.
  3. Merge Agriculture and Fisheries as one sector with emphasis on food security.
  4. Include Human Resource Development as a stand-alone sector of cooperation

Recommendations on financing of BIMSTEC activities

  1. Develop guidelines for financing studies/projects with BIMSTEC’s own resources.
  2. Develop guideline for funding project-based cooperation with external funding.
  3. Introduce program budget for BIMSTEC with Member States’ own resources.
  4. Authorize the Secretary General to explore extra-budgetary resources from external sources and private sector in line with approved guidelines

Recommendations on establishment of BIMSTEC Centres/institutions

  1. Keep the number of centres/institutions limited so as not to create additional financial burden for member states.
  2. Wherever appropriate, existing centre(s) in the Lead Country may be declared as parallel BIMSTEC Centre, with the nodal ministry doing necessary coordination without creating new administrative and financing mechanism.
  3. Hold the next meeting of BIMSTEC Joint Working Group, as soon as possible, to develop guidelines for the operational structure and financing of BIMSTEC Centres

Recommendations on enhancing visibility of BIMSTEC

  1. Establish BIMSTEC Parliamentarians’ Forum.
  2. Establish BIMSTEC Network of Universities.
  3. Introduce BIMSTEC business visa scheme.
  4. Introduce BIMSTEC scholarships by various universities.
  5. Introduce BIMSTEC visa mechanism.
  6. Establish a BIMSTEC media forum.
  7. Hold BIMSTEC cultural festival regularly.
  8. Strengthen BIMSTEC Secretariat.

As the BIMSTEC process enters the second half of its third decade, concrete and visible progress on various sectors of cooperation must be made to uphold the organisation’s credibility and relevance. With the support of the Member States, it is reasonable to expect the following to be achieved in the short and long term future:

  • Continue work of Trade Negotiating Committee (TNC) with greater urgency to ensure progress on FTA negotiations.
  • Continue the work of the JWG to make progress on guidelines for BIMSTEC centres/institutions.
  • Conclude Agreement on Cooperation and Mutual Assistance in Customs Matters.
  • Conclude BIMSTEC Coastal Shipping Agreement.
  • Conclude MOU on BIMSTEC Grid Interconnection.
  • Focus on effective execution of the Technology Transfer Facility(TTF).
  • Make progress on BIMSTEC Motor Vehicle Agreement.
  • Make progress on Trade Facilitation Agreement.
  • Make progress on Agreement on Trade in Goods.
  • Make progress on Agreement on Trade in Services.
  • Monitor the effective implementation of the BIMSTEC Convention on Cooperation in Combating International Terrorism, Transnational Organised Crime and Illicit Drug Trafficking.
  • Focus on effective implementation of the recently signed BIMSTEC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal matters.
  • Hold meetings of two newly created sub-groups under Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime sector.
  • Ensure visible progress of the BIMSTEC Master Plan on Transport Connectivity.
  • Initiate BIMSTEC Grid Interconnection Master Plan Study.
  • Establish a forum for Parliamentarians as part of generating people-to-people contact.
  • Finalise Terms of Reference for BIMSTEC Network of Policy Think Tanks.
  • Create an Eminent Persons’ Group (EPG).
  • Resume discussion on BIMSTEC Business Visa Scheme and BIMSTEC Travel Card.
  • Initiate discussion on communications connectivity (e.g., broadband connectivity) as a sub-sector of Transport and Communications sector.
  • Put in place formalised structure for Blue Economy as a sector/sub-sector with identification of Lead Country/Chair Country, Terms of Reference, relevant project identification and financing etc.
  • Continue meetings of BIMSTEC National Security Chiefs.
  • Hold BIMSTEC Cultural festival on a regular basis in the member states.

Challenges and Conclusion

The recently concluded 5th BIMSTEC Summit meeting held in Colombo after a Covid enforced two-year delay and conducted virtually, was a significant step forward. The theme of the Summit gathering was “Towards a Resilient Region, Prosperous Economies, Healthy People”.

The key takeaways from the summit meeting included the signing of three important agreements, viz, the BIMSTEC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters, the BIMSTEC Memorandum of Understanding on Mutual Cooperation in the field of Diplomatic Training and the Memorandum of Association on Establishment of BIMSTEC Technology Transfer facility. The Summit also witnessed the Adoption and signing of the BIMSTEC Charter. This particular instrument would facilitate putting in place a set of rules, a framework and long-term goals for the organisation. This will help streamlining the operations of BIMSTEC and at the same time allow the organisation to enhance its potential.

The ‘Master Plan for Transport Connectivity’ was also adopted at the Summit. This lays out a guidance framework for connectivity-related activities in the region in the years ahead.

There can be no denying that setting up legal frame works and related institutions gives BIMSTEC necessary structures. The challenge that remains for the member countries is reaching the goals and dividends from BIMSTEC to the population in the region. There is a perceptible sense of scepticism among the current generation about the full usefulness of institutionalised regional collaborative bodies in delivering tangible benefits. The stagnation of SAARC and a not so cohesive ASEAN has served to reinforce such suspicions. Many see larger benefits being derived from deliverable bilateral, or sub-regional, arrangements. The ever-growing Bangladesh-India multimodal connectivity arrangements, for example, serves as a strong case in point. The same can be said about the emerging power and energy grid connectivity between Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Bhutan. It must, however, be noted that BIMSTEC does not intend to be an alternative to bilateral arrangements, instead it can complement such arrangements

For BIMSTEC, the challenge is heightened by the fact that it is a trans-regional organisation when one looks at the land mass and the demographic composition it covers. Its major geographical cementing element is the massive water body, the Bay of Bengal, arguably the largest Bay on planet earth. Hence the importance of leveraging the blue economy potential the Bay offers in promoting business linkages, focussing on trade and investment. Geo-politically, this maritime linkage has the potential to place BIMSTEC, as a body, and the member countries individually, in the much larger and strategically important Indo-Pacific and the Asia-Pacific theatre. This is all the more significant in an emerging multi-polar Asia and a shifting global order where ostensive national and strategic goals are being often pursued in a military form and with an equally military intensity.

However, at the end of the day, one wants to see and feel the tangible economic benefits and commercial opportunities that BIMSTEC can bring home. This is best achieved in an atmosphere of cohesion, compromise and concession. Ensuring such an atmosphere and achieving this triple goal poses the biggest challenge for BIMSTEC. It is, nonetheless, a work in progress and with the right political commitment, this should be achievable.

Building Brand BIMSTEC is also a major challenge, especially when one has to navigate through the growing marshes of scepticism, as mentioned earlier. It must be remembered that BIMSTEC is NOT a factory manufactured product whose brand value could be built through flashy commercials on the television screens. It is much more of an abstract form which needs to take a concrete shape. In building Brand BIMSTEC, three areas can play a major, and perhaps a decisive role. These are namely, multimodal connectivity leading to movement of people, goods and services throughout the region, educational linkages and sustained civil society and media interactions.

While connectivity is getting the needed focus, it is in the area of systematic and institutionalised educational linkages and civil society and media interactions that has to take a sustained form. A more specific approach in the field of educational linkages can be achieved by instituting something like a BIMSTEC Scholarship programme. Under this scheme, each member country will offer six graduate or post-graduate scholarships every year to aspirants from the other member countries. The fields of study can be varied but the procedures and the educational standards has to be uniform. Over a period of time, recipients of such scholarship programme can emerge as the best Brand Ambassadors for BIMSTEC. Investment in this field will not be wasted exercise.

In the prevailing situation, activities of civil societies have seen a significant growth, as has the outreach and role of the media. Sustained interactions between and among them within the BIMSTEC members will contribute immensely to building Brand BIMSTEC. Civil society groups and the media usually are not confined by forms; they can create their own. This enables them to enhance their scope and mode of work in a more flexible manner and without interference. In the end, they can contribute in a major way to promoting BIMSTEC in the region. Much, of course, will depend on how much freedom they are allowed to carry on their desired tasks. Needless to say, within BIMSTEC, civil society and media freedom is not granted in a uniform manner. Nevertheless, even if it remains limited to a majority of the member countries, the message of BIMSTEC can be spread to a larger section of the population in the region. Creating a BIMSTEC Network of Policy Think Tanks (BNPTT) can be a good starting point but the exercise need not be limited to its scope.

The Goa retreat of BIMSTEC leaders in October 2016 was a shining example that in a changed world, gatherings of leaders in an air of informality can be highly productive. This is worth replicating. As stated earlier in this essay, BIMSTEC is a continuous work in progress, but it is a promising undertaking. The task now is to remain focussed and look at the larger canvass that the Asia-Pacific region offers in a fast-changing world. It is perhaps also time to consider widening BIMSTEC’s membership to include the Maldives, and even Malaysia and Indonesia. This will further resonate the calls for a focus on the potential of blue economy.

Author Brief Bio: Shamsher M. Chowdhury, Bir Bikram, graduated as a Regular Commissioned Army officer in 1969. He took active part in the Bangladesh War of Liberation in 1971. For his bravery in the battlefield the Government of Bangladesh conferred on him the gallantry award Bir Bikram. In December 1974, the service of Shamsher M Chowdhury, BB was transferred to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a career Foreign Service Officer. Mr. Chowdhury served as the High Commissioner of Bangladesh to Sri Lanka, Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany, Vietnam and the United States of America.He was Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh from 2001 to 2005.

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