The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) launched in 1997, is an ambitious effort to integrate the countries around the Bay of Bengal.
The Bay of Bengal region has striking commonalities in culture and religion. It has had very close trade and cultural relations from ancient times until the advent of European hegemony over the area in the 16th. Century.
But re-integrating the Bay of Bengal in a similar fashion in the 20th. and 21st. centuries has been an unenviable task because of changed political conditions.
The rise of self-conscious nation-states; an upsurge in ultra-nationalisms and jingoism; the raising of border barriers due to the new found fear of cross border terrorism; and increasing competition for scarce resources; have made international cooperation for the common good a very difficult task.
One might point to regional groupings like the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to say that integration is not necessarily difficult in today’s competitive world. But ASEAN does not face the kind of divisive issues that South Asian organizations face.
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is virtually moribund because two of its most populous and advanced members – India and Pakistan – are sworn enemies eager to scuttle each other’s moves. To add to this, the present government of Bangladesh and Pakistan seem to have irreconcilable differences over the founding of Bangladesh. The last SAARC summit which was to be held in Pakistan, could not be held because of an Indian and Bangladeshi boycott. Of the eight countries in SAARC, six have had serious problems with India which is seen as being a bully.
In fact, India was not in favor of SAARC when it was mooted by Bangladesh President Ziaur Rahman in 1980. SAARC was seen as a ploy by Bangladesh to trap and contain India. However, since the tide was in favor of Zia’s idea, India joined SAARC but it has never fostered the grouping. On the contrary, it has been trying to form other alliances and to have direct bilateral ties with South Asian and South East Asian countries to achieve its economic and strategic goals.
Strategic interests invariably play a role in a country’s attitude to a regional grouping. In an interview to the New Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, former Indian Ambassador Ranjit Gupta recalled that India had refused to join ASEAN when Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew invited it in 1967 and again in 1980. This was because India saw ASEAN through the prism of the Cold War. ASEAN was seen as a pro-West group when India was pro-Soviet. It was P.V.Narasimha Rao’s liberal reformist government in the early 1990s which made India cosy up to ASEAN and become a Full Dialogue Partner in 1995.
BIMSTEC, now comprising Bangladesh, India, Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand, was mooted by Thailand in 1994.
Initially, Bangladesh and Myanmar were kept out of it because India had problems with these countries. Bangladesh was then under Khaleda Zia, with whom India had serious differences. Myanmar was under a military junta and therefore ideologically unacceptable. But eventually, in 1997, Myanmar and Bangladesh were admitted as India had begun to interact with the junta in Myanmar, and Bangladesh had come under the pro-Indian Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
For India, BIMSTEC has been more attractive than SAARC, because it automatically excludes Pakistan by virtue of the latter’s geographical positioning. India is keen that BIMSTEC is kept under its control. BIMSTEC brings together all the countries in South Asia which India needs to control. It fits in with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Look East” policy to expand its interests in South and South East Asia using both Buddhist and economic diplomacy.
BIMSTEC also helps India contain China whose sudden rise to power as an economic and military giant has aggravated tension in Indian minds because Indians are still smarting under the drubbing they got in the 1962 Indian-China war. A dispute over the long border still persists. India is convinced that China is in the process of encircling it by cultivating its neighbors with unmatchable economic assistance.
India would like to make BIMSTEC a success to give its members an alternative to China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) project of infrastructural development which is being pushed through with big dollops of aid.
On the face, BIMSTEC is very promising. It encompasses 1.5 billion people and countries with a total gross GDP of US$ 2.7 trillion with an average growth rate of 6.5%. Integration will make it one of the most prosperous regions in the world.
Headquartered in Dhaka with a Secretary General in place, BIMSTEC has divided its activities into 14 sectors with each country designated as the Lead in specified sectors. Expectedly, India is the Lead in the sector covering counter-terrorism, transnational crime, telecommunications and transport.
Although it had been a goal since 1997, it was not until 2014 that BIMSTEC set up a Secretariat in Dhaka and appointed a Secretary General, the distinguished Sri Lankan diplomat, Sumith Nakandala. A tireless proponent of cross-border outreach, with enviable experience in promoting cross cultural interaction, Nakandala said recently that if the Bay of Bengal region was integrated in ancient times, it could be re-integrated now too.
Listing BIMSTEC’s achievements he said: “Analysts tend to offer differing views on this. But irrespective of such controversies, we have certain landmarks to be contented about. One is the conclusion of BIMSTEC Convention on Suppression of terrorism. The other is the finalization of BIMSTEC Transport, Infrastructure and Logistics Study [BTILS] conducted by the Asian Development Bank. The ADB has also offered its technical assistance in strengthening the Secretariat.”
“We have rightly identified the priorities. They are infrastructure and connectivity in our region. In terms of energy security, BIMSTEC was able to finalize the Trans Grid Connectivity which will pave the way for sharing power in the region. The BIMSTEC Energy Centre in Bangaluru is in operation. As for BIMSTEC Free Trade Area, we are making progress very consciously.”
However, 20 years after its founding, BIMSTEC, like all other institutions in South Asia, is still beset with difficulties. The BIMSTEC Free Trade Agreement was signed in 2004, but is yet to be implemented. The economies of the countries in South Asia are so protectionist that free trade is almost an unattainable objective. Non-Tariff Barriers and provincial autonomy reduce the advantages of tariff concessions. The bureaucracies in South Asia are chronically anti-free trade. They use the power in their hands to make money on the sly.
So-called national interests also stand in the way. In a recent seminar held in Dhaka, a former Director of the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority said that when India discusses connectivity with Bangladesh, it means getting benefits only for India. Sudip Dey, President of the Kolkata Customs Agents Association said that mutual fear blights any prospect of free movement of goods. Unless the fear psychosis goes, cooperation can only be a dream, he said.
Dwelling further on fear psychosis, Adm. Dr. Jayanath Colombage, a former Chief of the Sri Lankan Navy, who is now a researcher in the Pathfinder Foundation, highlighted the plight of visa seekers. He pointed out that while he was able to get a five-year multiple entry visa to the US, he was given only a four day visa to come to Bangladesh for the seminar.
“How can we have connectivity when visa regimes are like this?” he asked.
The Admiral wondered how integration and joint development would be possible when the South Asian and the Bay of Bengal region are so politicized and militarized.
However, there is a word of cheer for Bangladesh from three Bangladeshi economists, whose research shows that Bangladesh’s international trade has gained since BIMSTEC came into existence.
In their paper entitled: “Bangladesh and BIMSTEC” Mohammed Shahidul Islam, Rajib Kanti Das and Mohd. Musa, say that in 1994-95, before BIMSTEC, Bangladesh’s trade with BIMSTEC countries was to the tune of Taka 2390 million. But in 2007, after BIMSTC had come into being, it shot up to Taka 21,600 million.
Before BIMSTEC, Bangladesh’s trade with BIMSTEC countries was only 1.5% of the country’s global trade. After BIMSTEC, it became 2.6 %.
If country wise export from Bangladesh to BIMSTEC countries are considered, it is found that there was an export growth on an average 4% to Bhutan, 67% to Myanmar, 3% to India and 74% to Nepal before initiation of BIMSTEC. But after inception of BIMSTEC, there were export growth on average 41% to Bhutan, 67% to Myanmar, 30% to India and 86% to Nepal.
So, it is concluded that the export performance of Bangladesh with member countries has increased after functioning of BIMSTEC.
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The total import of Bangladesh from BIMSTEC countries was Taka 41420 million on an average per year before its inception while the average amount of import from BIMSTEC countries was Taka 12,3680 million on an average after BIMSTEC came into being.
The country wise growth of import before BIMSTEC were 66%, 25%, 17%, 835%, 24% and 2% from Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand respectively while these were 26%, 19%, 65%, 116%, 16% and 22% after foundation of BIMSTEC correspondingly. The average import growth has decreased after BIMSTEC came into being – a fact which is considered as being good for Bangladesh.
The cooperation between BIMSTEC security agencies in fighting terrorism, has been enhanced with the meeting of the National Security Advisors of the member countries in New Delhi.
However, regional disputes like the one between Bangladesh and Myanmar are a hindrance. Bilateral agreements, which member countries enter into for greater benefits, stand in the way of collectives like BIMSTEC.
Though inspiring speeches are made at meetings, follow up action is inadequate due to an absence of political commitment. There is a relentless pursuit of individual nationalistic goals, not collective regional goals.