The idea of Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) as a sub-regional grouping comprising nations of South and Southeast Asia was a move to break the constructed notions of regions. The notions of “South Asia” and “Southeast Asia” have come to blur the multi-layered relations and linkages among the nations in the northeast of the Indian Ocean, tied together through history, geography and culture.
The BIMSTEC initiative was in that sense an effort to re-connect and re-integrate the historical as well as contemporary interactions and linkages of a region that has often been looked upon as two demarcated regions.
Imaginary political boundaries of the littorals of the Bay of Bengal and the constructed regional notions had long kept nations of the littorals apart. To some extent, bilateral engagements was limited to governments for decades and formation of regional groupings such as Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) had also reinforced these notions of demarcated regions.
For the founding South Asian nations (India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh) of BIMSTEC, it was a move to “look beyond” South Asia. The factors that prompted these countries to view the move as looking beyond South Asia testify how strongly these regional notions have come to shape and influence the way we conceptualise our region.
Inversely, what the countries is in South Asia were trying was to deconstruct the constructed notions of regions and to re-discover the linkages and relations that had long existed and continues in several ways and manners. The question is: To what extent has BIMSTEC achieved to re-shape and re-connect the littorals of the Bay of Bengal? And what impact did it have on South Asia?
Geographical realism has dictated this new approach. While from an ideational perspective, it may be argued that the formation and existence of the sub-regional group called BIMSTEC has to a large extent changed the way regions are perceived in South Asia. This change in perception has however not translated on the ground. Part of the problem lies in the fact that BIMSTEC has not been able to move beyond governmental walls with little involvement of the society. While top-down governmental initiatives are important, it is the society that determines the success or failure of any national and transnational initiatives. Despite the huge potential to redefine the economic geography of the littorals of the Bay of Bengal, the level of economic interactions remains much below its potential.
Thus injecting new dynamism in BIMSTEC would need not only strengthening connections within the member-states of BIMSTEC but also in bridging with other regional and sub-regional forums. Synergising the grouping’s existing and planned projects with projects of other regional and sub-regional groupings needs to be explored. There are a few sectors where such synergies are not only desirable but also necessary– such as transport, trade, and energy (all of these are part of the fourteen priority sectors identified for cooperation by BIMSTEC).
In land and sea transport, the Trilateral Highway project between India-Myanmar-Thailand could be extended to include Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan and also synchronise it with other ongoing and planned land and sea transport projects such as the Kaladan Multi-Model Transport and Transit Project being developed by India in cooperation with Myanmar.
Other land transport projects such as the BCIM Economic Corridor being planned to connect Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar and the India-Mekong Economic Corridor being pursued by India and the Mekong Countries could be also brought within such a regional network.
In the energy sector, BIMSTEC has already conducted feasibility study and established task force on trans-gas pipeline and trans-power exchange. These initiatives could be tied to initiatives of the sub-regional forum South Asia Sub-regional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) comprising India, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh. The advantage of this is that all the member-states of SASEC are also members of BIMSTEC.
In the trade and investment sector, despite the establishment of the BIMSTEC Free Trade Area Framework Agreement in 2004, there has been little concrete progress in finalising agreement on trade within the BIMSTEC. The joint declaration of the third BIMSTEC summit held in March this year only reiterated the need to expedite the progress of finalising agreement on trade in goods.
Since all BIMSTEC members are members of regional organisations such as SAARC and ASEAN, they can take advantage of the various regional economic arrangements in which they are already linked to each other.
But most importantly, BIMSTEC needs to be brought down to the people from the high governmental meetings. Activate people-centric initiatives to ensure engagement and involvement of the society in projects developed under BIMSTEC. This can start by simply involving people in the borderlands and coastal areas. For relations that are most active and diversified are those among people living in the borderlands. In fact, rather than initiating new projects, streamlining some of the already existing socio-economic linkages could go a long way in strengthening and sustaining the BIMSTEC.
(The writer is a Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)
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