BIMSTEC, turning reality into ritual
Published : Wednesday, 12 September, 2018 at 12:00 AM Count : 159
Does it prove to say that bilateralism is becoming more enviable success over the much talked about regional integration or so to say cooperation, particularly when we see South Asia from the ambit of regional cooperation? Even trilateral efforts get fruitful construct, not to speak of bilateralism. Not only political diversity, mistrust among the states and their anchoring with diverse regional and global big and would be big powers for individual interest predominates the determining of the fate of regional cooperation.
After the cancellation of the SAARC summit in Islamabad in 2016 for political reason, the leaders of South and South East Asian seven countries, see BIMSTEC to some extent to be a forum at least to ventilate common concern over poverty, connectivity, climate change, market integration, power cooperation and fighting against terrorism etc. repeatedly without having no information of a bit of success. It has become a ritual congregation with main thrust going to bilateral meet on the side line. Fourth summit held in Kathmandu will not be off the trend due to frustrating history of regional efforts in South Asia.
On the other, bilateral and trilateral get boost. One has to see India building a multi modal transport project on the Kaladan River in Myanmar and a highway connecting north eastern state of Manipur to Thailand through Myanmar. India was already engaged in several bilateral connectivity projects with Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. These countries also signed the Asian railway and road connectivity network. Before the SAARC motor vehicle agreement (MVA) was proposed, the connectivity network in eastern South Asia was already put in place.
The fourth summit was held in Kathmandu after a lapse of four years. The last summit was held in Naypyidaw in Myanmar in 2014. It was started its stride in 1997 in Thailand. In 2017, it has completed 20 years of its journey. So fourth summit in 20 years does not give any hopeful message for an organization. Since its journey BIMSTEC has been fighting to take off as its member states were anchoring with other regional organizations that were seen as viable at that point of time.
Though BIMSTEC has reinvented itself over the period of time after it was established as Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Srilanka, Thailand economic cooperation. As these countries focused on economic cooperation in the eastern South Asia and were emphasizing on connectivity as a vehicle of development, the idea to include Nepal and Bhutan into the BIMSTEC fold gained ground.
These two countries joined the organization in 2004. Though the countries of the region were keen to forge close economic ties, it lacked political will. Apparently it seems that in between SAARC, ASEAN, and BIMSTEC is perhaps losing its ground. Since SAARC and ASEAN are getting more priority as regional cooperation organizations. Delay in establishing secretariat that is in 2014 in Dhaka and appointing secretary general from Sri Lanka fuelled the perception for its having less priority. But its sudden rise is linked by many analysts to the failure of Kathmandu SAARC summit to conclude the much awaited SAARC Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA) and later cancellation of Islamabad summit for political reason.
But we argue differently. After the cold war era, the unipolar world led by US hegemony is determining the shape of World relations for its own geo-political and economic interests. Regional cooperation and its shaping is determined accordingly. At times, emerging regional powers become factors in its functioning and that is the result of synergy effect of emerging power relation with big power. Emerging these powers' regional polarization many a time goes against the interest of small member states of the region. Rohingya issue for Bangladesh is one of the glaring example. China's support to Myanmar has emboldened her to breach all humanitarian norms for the solution of Rohingya issue.
Do we have any sustainable expectation from BIMSTEC where already its 4th summit has been over in Nepal with the adoption of some agenda which are as usual and not beyond any tradition and are not showing any breakthrough to their urgent implementation. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina immediate after coming from summit addressed a press conference on BIMSTEC. But cent percent questions she faced from journalists were on national issues. We do not know to what extent the stalemate of SAARC would go. Not as either SAARC or BIMSTEC, but the latter has got some emphasis due to moribund SAARC. But the desired level of collaboration has evaded the BIMSTEC so far and prevented it from becoming a result-oriented and meaningful platform for regional cooperation. This raises the question about BIMSTEC regarding its life span.
When it began 21 years ago, it brought in a big agenda of fourteen priority areas for cooperation including connectivity, trade, energy, tourism and the BIMSTEC Free Trade Area. All these were expected to have a multiplier effect on trade and investment in the region. It should not gulp all at a time than what it can. One national daily wrote, the last two decades have seen little tangible results in any of these areas. It took seven years for the BIMSTEC countries to sign the framework agreement for a Free Trade Area and the negotiations for the main deal are on for the last 13 years. "Not that an FTA is the panacea for developmental problems facing the BIMSTEC. Besides, given the asymmetry in their size and economic potential as well as the presence of domestic trade and industry lobbies in the member countries against free trade, it is certainly not easy to rush to a BIMSTEC FTA.
That is why suggestions have been made from time to time to reduce the number of thrust areas of cooperation from fourteen to five to six-connectivity, power, security, climate change and trade, so that more time can be given to produce doable results. At this moment we cannot say how far Kathmandu summit went in line with that spirit. But one breakthrough it made by coming up with some concrete agreements on coastal shipping that would open up access to landlocked Bhutan and Nepal to the Bay of Bengal through Bangladesh and India and the Motor Vehicles Agreement. A Motor Vehicle Agreement under the SAARC ambit has been held up since 2014 due to Pakistan's refusal to sign on.
Indeed we are dreaming for a doable regional effort to address poverty, climate change and fighting terrorism in any form. But effectiveness of bilateralism is welcoming more.
The writer is a freelance contributor