Prime Minister Narendra Modi participated in the 4th BIMSTEC summit held in Kathmandu on August 30-31. The group is known more by its acronym which stands for Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation. BIMSTEC began as a group of four countries—Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand—in June 1997 to engage in economic cooperation. Six months later Myanmar joined and a ministerial meeting was held to give the group a firmer basis. The first summit took place in July 2004 when Nepal and Bhutan joined the group and it took its present name.
BIMSTEC is not in the public imagination of India. Not many, including professional diplomats, would readily recall, if asked, its full form and the glue that binds it. Its secretariat, located in Dhaka, clarifies that the seven countries which lie in the littoral and adjacent areas of the Bay of Bengal constitute a contiguous regional entity. Is BIMSTEC is more than that? Is it a natural and viable regional entity? Only if it is so, would it have a future and become meaningful to its member states.
The conception of geographical spaces, of the way of looking at a map, depends primarily on a person's outlook derived from, among other factors, location. Thus, in imagining a region, people in island states or living in coastal areas almost naturally take the seas and oceans into account while others focus on land. North Indian imperial dynasties, prior to the British period, had no idea of the importance of the seas. This is not the case today. Hence, for India regional groupings are both those that coalesce around land and those around the seas and oceans. Thus, BIMSTEC countries constitute a natural region. This is notwithstanding that two of its seven-member countries, Nepal and Bhutan, are Himalayan countries, far away from the Bay of Bengal. Their logical outlet to the seas is the Bay of Bengal; hence, their inclusion.
BIMSTEC's progress in the past twenty-one years has been slow. It has identified fourteen sectors for cooperation. These stretch from agriculture to trade and investments, culture, tourism and people-to-people contact to energy and public health. There is also a focus on cooperation on counter-terrorism. In these two decades some cooperative structures have been established but there has been no major or eye-catching venture. Now the leaders seem to show a greater sense of purpose. This is clear from the desire in the Kathmandu summit to define a "long-term vision and priorities for co-operation" and work out rules of procedures for the BIMSTEC mechanisms. The leaders also decided to set up a Permanent Working Committee on administrative and financial matters. Besides they now seek to "enhance the visibility and stature of BIMSTEC in international fora by, inter alia, forging common positions, as appropriate, on issues of common interest…".
Two other decisions taken in the summit can have a major impact on the group. The first is to examine the possibilities to establish a BIMSTEC Development Fund which would among other things finance projects. India would have to take the lead and provide the major part of the Fund's finances. The second decision relates to Thailand's proposal to re-work the group's sectoral co-operation around five pillars. A more focussed approach would be beneficial provided the priorities of the smaller countries are given greater attention. In this context Modi's suggestion on enhancing connectivity is noteworthy.
Emphasising that in today's inter-dependent world no country could walk alone Modi said, "I believe the biggest opportunity is Connectivity—Trade connectivity, Economic connectivity, Transport connectivity, Digital connectivity and People-to-People connectivity". In addition to these areas, power connectivity through meshing in the grids of the different countries would be in the interests of many countries. Nepal has been reluctant to develop its hydro-power resources if electricity only went to India. Through BIMSTEC mechanisms it will go to Bangladesh and beyond and this may diminish Nepal's inhibitions.
BIMSTEC's integration and progress would be of special importance to India's north-east states. For many decades their development was hampered by an absence of connectivity both east and west. Myanmar was in self-imposed isolation and Bangladesh did not allow movement of goods and peoples via its territory from West Bengal to the north-east. While free movement through Bangladesh may still be some years away with the changes in Myanmar greater connectivity between the north-east and Myanmar, Thailand and other ASEAN countries is now going to take place. This is a welcome development indicative of a more confident India.
While BIMSTEC is being put on the fast-track and there is every prospect of its member-states getting more integrated, the prospects of such a development among all countries in India's western neighbourhood with the rest of south Asia seem remote. Here too an integration of sorts is taking place through the China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor. However, this cannot be a substitute for the integration of south Asia. Nor can it lead to purposeful interaction between south Asia and central Asia with Afghanistan acting as a bridge or as President Ashraf Ghani says a roundabout.
In the closing BIMSTEC summit session Nepali Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli wisely pointed to the need to purposefully implement decisions. Regional organisations especially of developing countries can only be credible if the peoples of its member states see them contributing to their welfare. Leaders and managers of BIMSTEC should remember this obvious truth if they wish to BIMSTEC a vigorous organisation.