Bangladesh is not benefitting from its policies so far
When one glances at the map that brings together the Bimstec (Bay of Bengal Initiatives for Multi-sectoral, Technical and Economic Co-operation) countries, it is easy to see the logic behind it, not just economically, but politically.
In essence, it’s an alternate form of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), the regional grouping that essentially went nowhere due to the gut-animosity between India and Pakistan, and a blow-hot-blow cold Bangladesh.
India has been excellent in pursuing its look-east policies, successfully drawing in the mouth-watering trade prospects with the granary countries Thailand and Myanmar, and also drawing Bhutan and Nepal into the fold. Given the transliteration of Bimstec, it was odd that Bhutan and Nepal were included, given their connection (or lack of) with the Bay of Bengal. But that is politics.
In the 21 years or so of its existence, it was recently decided that the Bimstec permanent secretariat will be set up in Bangladesh. The stakes were different then, and are poles apart now.
India’s plan to expand and grow its economy depends on greater connectivity and market access. From the One Road One Belt China policy to plans for the Asian highway, all moves appear to be heading for investment in road connectivity, thereby reducing the risk and time of ocean transport.
India has largely succeeded in obtaining river, road, and railway transit facilities from Bangladesh -- something it desperately needed to draw under its wing the economic transformation of the seven-sister states, thereby negating any separatist movements. Nepal and Bhutan had their own interest of passage to seaports out of the control of India, and Thailand and Myanmar were seeking to tackle separatist movements causing monumental headaches.
Bangladesh will benefit from this series of events, provided the policies are fair -- of which there remains minimal evidence. It has received little in response to the generous lifting of transit barriers, and has contrarily landed up with trade-dumping tariffs that contribute further to a hopelessly lop-sided balance of trade. For example, Bangladesh is now the second largest source of remittance for India -- to figure out what happens the other way hasn’t quite been established yet.
Bangladesh reached out to Myanmar long before anyone was willing to give them the time of the day. Unfortunately, even though nearly a million refugees are currently camped and cramped together in Cox’s Bazar, the Rohingya issue does not even make the agenda of Bimstec deliberations -- but somehow, counter-terrorism cooperation does. Armies of the countries are running joint exercises at no small expense to cooperate in counter-insurgency.
Nepal has distanced itself without stating its concerns, but Bangladesh with more-than-convincing reason has taken part. If economic cooperation is to come at the expense of existentialism, one wonders what the fuss over Saarc is all about.
In the future, Bimstec has huge promise not least fuelled by the blue economy. Where discussions will go though in all this is getting greyer by the day.
Mahmudur Rahman is a writer, columnist, broadcaster, and communications specialist.