The opportunities of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh of the next BIMSTEC summit – OpEd – Eurasia Review

BIMSTEC or Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation has 7 members: India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka. The grouping is over 20 years old and was formed in 1997. The last summit was held in Kathmandu in 2018 with PM Modi and other member leaders present at the meeting. The BIMSTEC region has enormous prospects for economic cooperation.

Sri Lanka is the chairman of the group and had previously proposed to hold a virtual summit on December 9, which has now been postponed. According to media reports, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, better known as BIMSTEC, is likely to host a Heads of Government Summit in Sri Lanka on March 30 in a hybrid setting offering opportunities to both in-person and virtual participation.

Sri Lanka is a founding member of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). Since its establishment in 1997, Sri Lanka has been an active member of the Multilateral Forum. The archipelago first presided between 2002-2003, a period during which Colombo promoted political commitments from member states to strengthen sub-regional cooperation. In 2016, BIMSTEC members accounted for only 17.4 percent of Colombo’s total merchandise trade. On the other hand, Bangladesh maintains friendly relations with almost all neighboring nations. This allows the country to play a more important role in regional affairs.

Its imports from BIMSTEC accounted for only 23 percent of its total imports, and Sri Lankan exports to BIMSTEC members accounted for only 7 percent. Additionally, India contributes over 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s trade with BIMSTEC. Along with the slow progress of BIMSTEC, Sri Lanka’s cooperation with BIMSTEC members has grown instead of snails.

In this context, Sri Lanka was the President of BIMSTEC from 2018-2020. After which, Sri Lanka has the opportunity to ensure rapid cooperation among the member states of the Gulf region. During the fourth summit, former Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena stressed that BIMSTEC countries share common aspirations for growth, development, trade and technology, and that Sri Lanka will facilitate this platform. natural form for the implementation of regional connectivity and economic cooperation. Indeed, BIMSTEC has an important role to play in the regional commercial space. All member states, including Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, should reap the benefits and trade these regional benefits. The BIMSTEC region has enormous prospects for economic cooperation, much of which remains unexplored and untapped.

Five members of the seven-member international organization have already confirmed their participation in the summit, called by Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, according to media. The countries which transmitted their confirmation are Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

Bangladesh and India, the two other members of the regional group of countries of the Bay of Bengal, are expected to officially confirm their participation soon, as the host, Sri Lanka, outgoing chair of the group, quietly asked for everyone’s agreement. member countries. on holding the meeting on March 30, according to a media report.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is expected to join the summit, which will be held in Colombo. It remains to be decided whether she will travel to Sri Lanka or participate virtually in the meeting. Foreign ministers and foreign secretaries from BIMSTEC member countries are due to meet on March 28 and 29 respectively to facilitate decision-making at the summit on March 30.

Heads of government of BIMSTEC member countries are expected to approve a charter for the organization at the meeting after 24 years of travel. Member countries “have completed the negotiation of the BIMSTEC charter and it is expected to be signed” at the upcoming fifth summit with the participation of heads of government in Colombo, BIMSTEC Secretary General Tenzin Lekphell said in October.

The Colombo summit, the fifth meeting of heads of government, has been postponed twice in 2020 and 2021 due to the Covid pandemic. In addition to the BIMSTEC charter, three other legal instruments are expected to be signed at the summit. These are a BIMSTEC convention on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters, a memorandum of association on the creation of a BIMSTEC technology transfer center in Colombo and a memorandum of understanding on cooperation. mutual between diplomatic academies and training establishments in member countries.

Bangladesh, as a leading country for trade, investment and development, is strongly committed to strengthening BIMSTEC cooperation in this area. It is important to make all entities of the BIMSTEC process fully functional and operational. The BIMSTEC process requires concerted and faster efforts and more intense engagement between Member States. It is imperative to forge a more realistic partnership and common efforts to prosper together through harnessing the full potential of this region.

The summit is also expected to reconstitute and streamline 14 areas of cooperation into seven sectors, where each sector will be led by a member country. Foreign secretaries have met 21 times, foreign ministers 17 times, and heads of government four times since BIMSTEC was established 24 years ago in 1997, while security advisers have met three times since. 2017. Thailand is expected to assume the responsibilities of the BIMSTEC presidency at the fifth summit in Sri Lanka.

BIMSTEC has identified 13 priority sectors, including trade and investment, transport and communications, the fight against terrorism and transnational crime, energy, climate, agriculture, poverty reduction, tourism, public health and people-to-people contacts. Bangladesh is the leading country in three areas – trade, investment and climate, and has reiterated its full cooperation in this regard at successive ministerial meetings and summits of BIMSTEC.

According to the media, in the current structure of bilateral trade between these countries, we see that most of the members of BIMSTEC have experienced a considerable increase in bilateral trade over the years. A higher volume of exports was observed in the case of exports from Thailand to India (US $ 5.5 billion in 2015); Indian exports to Sri Lanka (US $ 4.4 billion), Bangladesh (US $ 3.4 billion) and Nepal (US $ 2.6 billion); and Myanmar’s exports to Thailand (US $ 3.3 billion) and India (US $ 1.3 billion). Overall, India and Thailand are two major economies – both in terms of export and import – while Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar are three major economies in terms of import. The bilateral trade record of BIMSTEC countries indicates that the current structure of trade is strongly influenced by geographic proximity, the relative size of economies and predominant trade routes.

BIMSTEC received more attention in the context of the advancement of cooperation in the region. In addition to high-level diplomatic engagements, substantial steps have been taken to cooperate in a wide range of areas. At the fourth summit meeting of BIMSTEC, held in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, in August 2018, member countries signed a memorandum of understanding on establishing a BIMSTEC network interconnection to strengthen energy cooperation. This should speed up the buying and selling of electricity between countries, including those that do not directly border, once the grid infrastructure across the country is in place. We expect tangible progress in the field of energy cooperation in 201923.

New ground is also opened in the area of ​​security, as evidenced by the successful hosting of the first-ever joint military exercise between India and other BIMSTEC countries in September 2018. Each of BIMSTEC’s 14 areas of cooperation is led by a particular country. . The security one is led by India and covers the fight against terrorism and transnational crimes. We hope India will continue to push for greater security cooperation, especially in the fight against terrorism. In addition, it is likely that over the next few years, member countries will commit to fully ratifying the conventions on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters and on cooperation in the fight against international terrorism.

The most significant breakthrough, however, should be in connectivity. Five of the seven BIMSTEC member countries share a border with India, which includes Asia’s busiest land customs checkpoint: the Petrapole-Benapole checkpoint between India and Bangladesh. Despite this, intra-regional trade only represents 5% of the group’s total trade; poor road connectivity is one of the main reasons. We expect progress in transport connectivity during the forecast period 2019.23 In particular, the two main agreements, the BIMSTEC Coastal Shipping Agreement and the BIMSTEC Motor Vehicle Agreement, which aim to facilitate trade and transport between member countries, are expected to be finalized within the next five years.

Despite the strong political push in favor of BIMSTEC, the organization still faces manpower constraints and limited resources. This problem will be partly solved by the increased commitment of member countries to financial and human resources. In addition, areas such as the negotiation of a free trade agreement – traditionally the subject of organizations that advocate regional cooperation – will remain on the back burner in 2019.23 Nevertheless, the importance of BIMSTEC will continue to grow, India relying heavily on it to advance its regional agenda. However, the upcoming BIMSTEC summit will ensure the creation of a common regional platform to solve some common regional issues. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, as regional actors, have a common agenda such as strengthening connectivity, growing trade, tackling covid-19, terrorism, climate change, resolution and meditation on the Rohingya refugee crisis between Myanmar and Bangladesh, etc. The upcoming BIMSTEC summit will provide benefits for all regional states including Myanmar and Bangladesh. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh should fully exploit their potential.

*Jubeda Chowdhury is a freelance writer with an MA in International Relations from Dhaka University.

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