‘Collective commitment of political leaders of member states rejuvenates BIMSTEC’

Member states of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation have been to finalise some crucial agreements on connectivity, trade and investment for the prosperity of the region. As the initiative marks its 20th year of establishment, member states have agreed to elevate the visibility of regional collaboration. BIMSTEC leaders have underscored the need to collectively combat the common challenges of poverty, terrorism, human and drug trafficking, climate change, and developing BIMSTEC as a vibrant region. Since the establishment of BIMSTEC Secretariat in 2014, the collaboration process has gathered pace. The 15th ministerial meeting of BIMSTEC was held recently in Kathmandu following the BIMSTEC-BRICS Outreach Summit in October 2016 in India. Pushpa Raj Acharya of The Himalayan Times caught up with Sumith Nakandala, former secretary general of BIMSTEC, to learn about the progress so far and the way forward in ensuring shared prosperity for the BIMSTEC member nations. Excerpts:

It has been 20 years since BIMSTEC was established, but there has been no real outcome. What should BIMSTEC members do to change its image of a talking shop?

We are 20-years-old now and our progress is modest. I think one of the main reasons for the slow progress was absence of the Secretariat because it is the main coordinating body. After the establishment of the Secretariat in 2014, we are now in the process of achieving number of things. I don’t agree that BIMSTEC is just a talking shop. We’ve had certain achievements. There are agreements on counter-terrorism and mutual legal assistance. We have concluded the BTILS (BIMSTEC Transport Infrastructure and Logistics Study), which will be developed into a BIMSTEC connectivity master plan later on. Likewise, the Memorandum of Understanding on BIMSTEC grid interconnection has been finalised and forwarded to put the initials of the member nations during the energy ministers’ meeting. I do agree that achievements have not met the expectations in certain areas. But that was basically due to lack of necessary leadership. But things have looked up recently. For instance, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi convened the BIMSTEC-BRICS Outreach Summit in Goa in October, it gave enough political momentum and push to rejuvenate the whole BIMSTEC process.

BIMSTEC leaders have stressed the need for deepening rather than widening cooperation. Could you elaborate?

We have widened the areas of cooperation from eight to 14. Now what we need to do is to consolidate our gains. If you ask me what the key sectors are, I think counter-terrorism is the first. Likewise, connectivity, energy, agriculture, transfer of technology, mitigating climate change risks and disaster risk reduction are important. These are the areas in which we have to focus on and that’s exactly what we are doing at the moment. In regard to counter-terrorism, the national security advisors met for the first time in March this year in New Delhi, following the Goa meeting. The national security advisors meeting came up with a detailed plan of action on how to deepen the cooperation within BIMSTEC member states on security aspects. Then we have held a number of dialogues on agriculture sector and we have also proposed ministerial meeting on agriculture to revive the agriculture sector of the region. A ministerial meeting on poverty alleviation will be held in Colombo in December. We are also in the process of finalising the Connectivity Masterplan. These are the key areas where we are focusing. Such regional organisations take some time to mature and align, and it also depends on the world economic scenario. We can take the examples of European Union, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), among others. It is clear that we cannot prosper without regional cooperation. Trade, investment, technology transfer, services are very important. But the only regret for the BIMSTEC is that we have not been able to conclude the agreement on Free Trade Area (FTA) in the last 20 years. I want to stress that BIMSTEC FTA must be finalised as soon as possible.

As you mentioned, the FTA pact has not materialised since long. So, how can we expect other crucial agreements, like grid interconnection and technology transfer, proposed under BIMSTEC to be finalised soon?

Grid interconnection has already been finalised and it will be signed during the energy ministers’ meeting, which is scheduled to be held in Nepal early next year. Technology transfer centre will be established in Colombo. We need to hold another round of meeting, and Sri Lanka has proposed November for the same. I think all these agreements will be ready by the next summit, which will be held in Nepal next year. For the FTA, we have to hold trade negotiation committee meeting for the tariff concession, reducing trade barriers within member states, among others. I think we have to sit for a few rounds to conclude it. However, necessity to revive and fast track (expedite) BIMSTEC FTA has been understood by leaders in Goa and even ministerial meeting has shown keenness. Overall, we are on the right track. The collective political commitment is there.

Connectivity is one of the key areas to achieve regional prosperity. There is a proposal for BIMSTEC Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA), which has been envisaged as a multi-modal regional connectivity initiative between seven member states. However, the proposal was not been submitted during the 15th ministerial meeting. Could you please tell us why?

At the moment, there is a MVA in place among Bangladesh-Bhutan-India and Nepal (BBIN). It is in the ratification process in Bhutan, after which it will come into effect. BIMSTEC MVA will certainly enhance connectivity and facilitate in boosting intraregional trade. Considering the dismal intraregional trade and investment in BIMSTEC, leaders have agreed for the MVA and its draft has been circulated among the member states for discussion.

BIMSTEC member states are at different stages of socio-economic development. What kind of support can developed member states provide to some least developed countries, like Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar for their graduation to the league of developing nations?

This is why the regional initiative has been formed; it is for the shared prosperity of the region. We need to develop certain infrastructure as foundation to move ahead. Regional cooperation is a must to improve the living standards of the people, fight poverty, to provide better education, healthcare. It is for the collective development. However, regional cooperation alone cannot uplift the status of LDCs. Each nation needs to take the necessary steps for domestic capital formation, like through foreign direct investments (FDIs), investments in manufacturing, services among others. Still, this is the package that we are, in fact, looking at — to see what can be done.

We about the areas of sustainable development, how can the member states cooperate with one another to achieve the goals, which range from eradicating poverty to mitigating the risks of climate change and achieving environmentally-sustainable development targets?

Reduction of poverty is basically related with empowerment of people. There are a few things that member states

can do. How do you increase the domestic capital formation, employment, empowerment, especially of women, create favourable industrialisation, modernise agriculture. These are combined goals. Member nations are also mindful that by 2030, they have to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Most of the member countries have developed their domestic framework for achieving the SDGs, and I think regional cooperation is very important for this. And BIMSTEC provides the ideal platform for that. Two major economies in the BIMSTEC are India and Thailand. We need to learn, exchange information and transfer technology, encourage FDI within the region. We are also talking about agreement on investment within the region. The nature induced disaster can also revert the progress made in development, as we saw from the devastating earthquake that struck Nepal in April 2015. We have to develop durable infrastructure eyeing all the possible disasters, to minimise the loss of lives and property. Climate change also causes nature-induced disasters, and we have to look into it and collectively work on mitigating and adapting to the risks posed by the climate change.

BIMSTEC leaders have said that institution is most important to expedite the BIMSTEC process. As you have served as the first secretary general of BIMSTEC, what would you advise for strengthening the institutions?

We have started a lean and mean Secretariat. Now we have three directors and the new secretary general will assume office soon. BIMSTEC is a member-driven organisation and members have a greater say in developing institutions, developing programmes and supporting the Secretariat, and that is happening. The Secretariat is located in Dhaka, with full support from the government of Bangladesh and they are committed for regional cooperation. Some of the institutions under the various areas of cooperation, like energy centre, cultural centre, technology transfer centre, environment centre have been proposed in different member states. I think we will continue to grow further from the collective effort of the member states.