Agreement: The government is looking at the sub-regional grouping of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) as an alternative to the dysfunctional SAARC for better economic cooperation.

Despite setbacks, the government is determined to ratify the BBIN Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA), which it says will open gates for cooperation in other areas.

The government insists that the sub-regional grouping is not just about the motor vehicle agreement. It believes that the MVA is the precursor to cooperation in other fields including connectivity, energy, trade and ICT.

Home minister Dawa Gyaltshen on Monday told the National Assembly that the other members could go ahead and implement the agreement even if Bhutan does not ratify it. The House was deliberating the objections of the National Council (NC) against the MVA. The upper House last month voted against its ratification.

The MVA allows for cross-border movement of passenger, personal and cargo vehicles on authorised routes within the sub-region.

“This is the first agreement we have initiated. We don’t know whether we can be part of other areas of BBIN economic cooperation if the country does not ratify this agreement,” he said.

Foreign minister Damcho Dorji said that BBIN MVA is important as Bhutan is a landlocked and developing country. Bhutan is the only country that hasn’t ratified the agreement.

The government is of the view that Bhutan will miss an important opportunity to not only be an active member of BBIN but also miss out on the economic benefits of regional cooperation if it doesn’t ratify the agreement.

The four countries want to deepen cooperation among themselves economically and on security. The MVA is considered the benchmark for sub-regional cooperation involving the four countries within SAARC.

The four countries have already agreed to deepen cooperation in energy and railways.

The BBIN MVA is the re-packaged version of the SAARC motor vehicles agreement that was proposed during the 18th SAARC summit held in 2014 in Kathmandu, Nepal. The SAARC motor vehicles agreement couldn’t materialise when Pakistan refused to come on board.

The BBIN MVA was inked in June 2015 in Thimphu by the transport ministers of BBIN. The agreement is an initiative of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Speaking on November 15 in the NC, the foreign minister said: “Now economic cooperation will mostly take place within BBIN … We want to start with the MVA.”

Lyonpo Damcho Dorji said SAARC didn’t function as desired. “BBIN have already agreed to bolster cooperation in energy and railways,” he said.

The 19th SAARC summit that was scheduled for November 15 and 16 in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad was cancelled. “We don’t know when the summit will be held,” Lyonpo said.

“Cooperation among BBIN is important because SAARC could not function effectively due to lack of good relations between India and Pakistan,” Lyonpo Damcho Dorji said. He also cited trade barriers as issues impeding economic progress in the SAARC region.

Thirty-one years since the establishment of SAARC in 1985, 18 summits and numerous high-level meetings have been held and cooperation in a number of fields have been forged. The vision of SAARC was to strengthen economic and security cooperation.

“However, not much has been achieved in terms of economic cooperation,” said the foreign minister, comparing SAARC with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has made signifucant strides. “When ASEAN made a lot of progress, SAARC couldn’t.”

Intra-ASEAN trade amounted to more than USD 545 billion (B) in 2015, according to statistics posted on ASEAN’s website.

Lyonpo said SAARC is large in terms of economic size and geographical area, but that intra-SAARC trade was much less when compared to that of ASEAN. He said intra-SAARC trade accounts for only five percent of their total trade.

A report by the NC’s legislative committee states that alongside the BBIN discussions, there is already a parallel discussion happening on the MVA among India, Myanmar and Thailand. “This parallel development is aimed at enhancing connectivity in the South East region, which is the key aspect of India’s Look East Policy,” the report states.

Meanwhile, transport is the only area of cooperation that has been unpopular in Bhutan. Cooperation in other areas has been encouraged. In fact, activities within the banner of BBIN are already taking place.

Last month, former economic affairs minister and opposition MP Khandu Wangchuk attended a discussion titled “Advancing the Agenda on BBIN Energy Cooperation” organised by the Delhi Policy Group, a think tank in India. Deeper understandings of the need, opportunities and challenges for the sub-regional cooperation on energy development were reached.

A three-day BBIN trade fair and business forum was held in July in Silliguri, West Bengal where business and political leaders from all the member nations were present.

However, serious concerns against ratifying the agreement have been raised by NC and the opposition.

While cooperation in other areas may benefit the country, the NC is of the view that the MVA will not generate significant and tangible benefits to Bhutan. The NC fears that ratification of the agreement poses several environmental and security risks in the immediate and long-term future.

Observers say that Bhutan should negotiate for an active BBIN membership in other areas of cooperation, even if it scraps the MVA. The MVA, which the NA passed during the last session, is expected to be voted on by a joint sitting at a future date.

MB Subba