What BIMSTEC is about
The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is a unique regional organization that brings together seven member states surrounding the Bay of Bengal: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.
As stipulated in the Bangkok Declaration of 1997, BIMSTEC’s primary objective is to create an enabling environment for rapid economic development through identification and implementation of specific cooperation projects in the sectors of trade, technology, investment, industry, human resource development, tourism, agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and transportation.
Drawing its members from South and Southeast Asia, BIMSTEC constitutes a bridge between South and Southeast Asia and represents a reinforcement of relations among these countries. BIMSTEC, with a population of more than 1.7 billion and a combined GDP of $3.7 trillion, is one of the fastest growing regions in the world.
The Bay of Bengal being the key transit route between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean makes BIMSTEC increasingly relevant in shaping the geopolitical and geostrategic discourse in the region and beyond.
BIMSTEC has been evolving constantly to transform itself into an efficient platform of regional cooperation and integration in the Bay of Bengal region. Beginning with six sectors of cooperation, the number of sectors of cooperation under BIMSTEC has increased in the subsequent years to 14, covering such diverse areas as trade and investment, transport and communication, technology, tourism, energy, agriculture, fisheries, counter-terrorism and transnational crime, environment and disaster management, climate change, public health, poverty alleviation, culture, and people-to-people contact.
While the initial focus of BIMSTEC was to implement project-based cooperation, the organization gradually began to lay down the legal framework for cooperation, and build institutions, and curved its distinct identity as a grouping of Bay of Bengal nations.
BIMSTEC has concluded some landmark agreements like the Framework Agreement on BIMSTEC Free Trade Area (2004). In 2014, BIMSTEC established its permanent secretariat in Dhaka, which gave a formal structure to this regional forum. Four specialized centres are currently at various stages of operation.
Bangladesh as a founding member and the host country of BIMSTEC secretariat has an important role to play in advancing the BIMSTEC process. The BIMSTEC secretariat was inaugurated by PM Sheikh Hasina, which speaks volumes of Bangladesh’s commitment to BIMSTEC.
The stalled BIMSTEC FTA negotiations have resumed after a gap of three years at the behest of Bangladesh. Bangladesh has also decided to host the BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting on Culture later this year, and BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting on Tourism early next year. In order to enhance the visibility of BIMSTEC, the secretariat is keen to partner with the Foreign Ministry of Bangladesh to hold seminars and roundtables on specific issues relevant to BIMSTEC activities.
BIMSTEC received fresh impetus at the BIMSTEC Leaders’ Retreat held in Goa on October 16, 2016, when the leaders reiterated their political commitment to make the organization stronger, more effective, and result-oriented. Since then, efforts have been redoubled to conclude new agreements to enhance trade and connectivity, including Agreement on Cooperation and Mutual Assistance in Customs Matters, BIMSTEC Motor Vehicle Agreement, and BIMSTEC Coastal Shipping Agreement.
The Trade Negotiating Committee (TNC) and its working groups have resumed negotiations to finalize the constituent agreements of the Framework Agreement on BIMSTEC FTA. The 21st TNC meeting held in Dhaka in November 2018 reached agreement on a number of core elements related to the agreement on trade in goods, and its rules of origin and product-specific rules (PSR).
BIMSTEC recognizes that a well-established transport network is a prerequisite for reaping the benefits of a free trade area, including the promotion of trade and investment, as well as progress in other areas of cooperation such as tourism, people-to-people contact, and cultural exchange.
Most member states have taken initiatives towards implementation of the 167 projects worth around $50bn that were identified by the ADB-assisted BIMSTEC Transport Infrastructure and Logistics Study (BTILS) of 2014 in order to address the missing links to establish greater physical and economic connectivity between South and Southeast Asia.
BIMSTEC is currently developing the BIMSTEC Transport Connectivity Master Plan with a vision to promote seamless connectivity between and across BIMSTEC countries, through the use of different transport modes to achieve enhanced transport and trade linkages for faster and more inclusive growth.
BIMSTEC has been serving as an effective platform to facilitate regular exchanges among government officials and think tanks, thereby narrowing down differences and creating common grounds for cooperation.
BIMSTEC held four summits, 16 foreign minister level meetings, three national security chiefs’ meetings, and 19 foreign secretary level meetings. The 4th BIMSTEC Summit has further emphasized the need to hold regular meetings of various levels of institutional mechanisms. Efforts are underway to rationalize and consolidate BIMSTEC’s operational modalities and institutional structure. The fourth summit, agreed to adopt a BIMSTEC charter in the 5th BIMSTEC summit to be held in Sri Lanka, decided to explore the possibility of establishing a BIMSTEC development fund, and review and rationalize the existing 14 sectors of cooperation to eventually reduce their numbers to enhance focus of the organization.
As part of strengthening the BIMSTEC secretariat, the number of directors has been increased to seven, to be filled by one director from each member state.
The organization is increasingly aligning its activities with the efforts of its member states to meet the 2030 agenda for sustainable development. The 4th BIMSTEC summit reiterated its commitment to the eradication of poverty in the Bay of Bengal by 2030 in line with the SDGs. BIMSTEC is in the process of establishing closer collaboration with the UN, Asian Development Bank, and the World Bank in this regard.
Historically, the Bay of Bengal used to be a centre for global maritime trade, and a hub of commercial and cultural exchange. BIMSTEC is striving to restore the historical connectivity in order to promote trade and investment, tourism, people-to-people contact, and cultural exchange to contribute to the sustainable development of this region. With renewed political commitment and the urge to put in place focused institutional structure, BIMSTEC has generated new hope.
Indeed, the time for BIMSTEC has come, and the organization is poised to play a greater role in promoting peace, prosperity, and sustainable development in the Bay of Bengal region.
M Shahidul Islam is the Secretary General of BIMSTEC.