Leaders of the BIMSTEC on Wednesday called for a greater cooperation among member countries, recognising that the regional grouping could be the bridge for connectivity, prosperity, and security.
The silver jubilee summit marks an important milestone. Amidst uncertainties around international order and success of other regional associations, the Bay of Bengal initiatives seems to be a realistic path for economic growth.
The BIMSTEC region has more than 20 percent of the world’s population and with a combined GDP of USD 3.8 trillion, BIMSTEC has the potential of becoming the engine of economic growth. If the potential could be reaped through reinforced momentum, all the eight members could benefit from the economic integrations. If the generous rhetoric at the hybrid (virtual) summit can be translated into actions, the Bay of Bengal region seems to be the way forward in the region.
Like Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said, trade and investment are at the core of BIMSTEC cooperation, but the intra-region trade has seen only negligible improvement since its inception 25 years ago. Leaders do not want BIMSTEC to head down the path of other regional associations where power play and politics of a few member countries dominate the summit, blinding other priorities.
A good example in the same region is the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation, the oldest association. With the regional body embroiled in problems albeit sincere commitments from most members and its institutions, the association is not living up to the expectations when it was founded. BIMSTEC, many say, could to be the way forward.
Under the umbrella of the regional initiative for multi-sectoral and economic cooperation, member countries could benefit from bilateral engagements both at national and at business level. There is a lot of emphasis on free trade agreements, but as governments and those in the business know, free trade are not as free as signed on paper. There are hurdles even to move goods between two countries. It may be a cliche, but when we talk about connectivity, it is literally easier to travel or trade with regions beyond the Bay of Bengal or South Asia than within member countries.
Some of the member countries have bigger hurdles as they are either land-locked like Bhutan or sea-locked like Sri Lanka. We talk about transport connectivity- land, sea and air, yet our region is the most disconnected region. For energy rich Bhutan, it is difficult to export electricity to energy-starved Bangladesh. Many members are still struggling to reap the benefit of the geographical closeness or the commitment to boost connectivity.
However, BIMSTEC still seems to be the practical and realistic regional body for cooperation in the Bay of Bengal region. There had been commendable teamwork among member nations and several agreements had been signed or finalised to enhance regional strategic and economic integration. The growing collaborations in various fields- education, industries and business chambers is a testament of realistic cooperation in education, trade and investments, communication and information technology.
What we have to remind ourselves is to implement and live up to the spirit of the lofty plans and commitments made at yearly summits.