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Fast-Paced Progress: Igniting Regional Cooperation Within BIMSTEC – IMPRI Impact And Policy Research Institute

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Fast-Paced Progress: Igniting Regional Cooperation within BIMSTEC

Prabir De

A stronger Secretariat is a must to drive meaningful interactions among member-states.Trade and transit facilitations must be given top priority.

India recently seconded a senior diplomat to drive BIMSTEC, or ‘Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation’, as its fourth Secretary-General (SG). The incoming SG will have a challenging time to restore the momentum that can help the region deliver some fruitful outcomes before the full-fledged foreign ministers level meeting by middle of 2024 and a possible summit towards the end of 2024.

About BIMSTEC

BIMSTEC was set up in 1997 to foster economic and social development among member countries, namely, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. Its significance lies in the fact that it serves as a direct link between South Asian and South East Asian countries through intra-regional collaboration.

In the past, some important initiatives were completed, such as the BIMSTEC Agreement on Grid Inter-connection. There have been some key developments in recent years. BIMSTEC has introduced the BIMSTEC Charter in 2022. The BIMSTEC Rules of Procedure will be submitted at the 6th Summit for adoption. The BIMSTEC Maritime Cooperation Agreement (BMCA) is expected to be signed at the Summit; and the BIMSTEC Bangkok Vision 2030 is to be launched during the Summit.

Falling short

While the hits are plenty, there are misses, too. To cite some examples, BIMSTEC has decided not to go-ahead with the BIMSTEC Development Fund; negotiation of the BIMSTEC FTA is yet to be completed; and BIMSTEC grid connectivity and energy projects are yet to take off.

BIMSTEC Priorities

Global uncertainties are looming large, and the BIMSTEC faces several challenges. Regional understanding of global challenges may provide sustainable solutions. What are the priorities and wherefrom would the new SG start?

First, trade is one of the priority areas of the BIMSTEC. However, no meaningful progress has yet been made in the BIMSTEC FTA. BIMSTEC leaders have urged the Trade Negotiating Committee and its Working Groups to accelerate the finalisation of the FTA and its constituent agreements, including their annexure.

Second, the connectivity plan is ready, but the real implementation is yet to start. Since the BMCA is ready, the Secretariat may pick up the maritime sector (example, ports, IWT, and shipping) as low-hanging fruit to start with. Besides, trade and transit facilitations must be given top priority along with energy and digital connectivity.

Third, a stronger secretariat is a must to drive meaningful interactions among member-states.

Bangladesh is going to take over the chairmanship of BIMSTEC from Thailand once the 6th Summit is over. The postponement of the 6th Summit has slowed BIMSTEC integration. The first half of 2024 may witness elections in Bhutan, Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. Most likely, there will be further delay in holding the Summit. Will BIMSTEC then go the SAARC way or bounce back strongly? Making BIMSTEC tick is going to be the defining task of the new Secretary-General.

Prabir De is Professor at the Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS), New Delhi

The article was first published in The Hindu Business line as Accelerating regional cooperation in BIMSTEC On December 20, 2023.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Tanu Paliwal, a research intern at IMPRI.

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