Nepal summit for strengthening BIMSTEC

This will be the first after the meeting of BIMSTEC heads of state in Goa on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in 2016.

The 4th summit of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) will be held in Kathmandu, Nepal on August 30 and 31. The meeting is taking place after a gap of four years, the 3rd BIMSTEC Summit took place in Nay Phi Taw in 2014. This will be the first Summit after the meeting of BIMSTEC heads of state in Goa on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in 2016. The Goa meeting gave a major thrust to BIMSTEC; the organisation considered performing less than potential. After the Goa meeting, activities of BIMSTEC grew manifold - meetings of the national security advisors are considered a major development, negotiation for strengthening regional connectivity progressed substantially. Considering the growth in activities a need for Summit was felt because direction from the top leadership is necessary for charting the future of this organisation. The Summit is crucial because it is the highest policy-making body of the organisation. In the upcoming summit along with discussing and defining policies for different initiatives under BIMSTEC, the leaders need to introspect on measures to strengthen this forum.

BIMSTEC, a bridge between South and South East of Asia, connects Himalayan ecology with that of Bay of Bengal giving a unique opportunity to its member countries to work together for a sustainable growth of the region. BIMSTEC members are primarily the countries dependent on the Bay of Bengal. Members are- Nepal, Bhutan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand. The region has 22 per cent of the world population, a large section of them are extremely poor. The BIMSTEC was established in 1997 in Bangkok with the aim of harnessing shared growth and prosperity through mutual cooperation in different areas of common interest. BIMSTEC has 14 focus areas of cooperation ranging from trade, tourism, health and education, climate change, agriculture, disaster management etc.

In spite of its wide scope, the members failed to take advantage of this unique platform. Reasons for the slow pace of growth include absence of focus on areas of cooperation, weak institutional mechanism, financial constraints, low visibility and doubts about its relevancy and etc. The major lacuna of BIMSTEC, however, is lack of consistency in the Summit. Long gap leads to deviation of attention and lethargy to rule in resulting loss of momentum. In its 2 decades, BIMSTEC leaders met only thrice at the summit level. Ensuring consistency of the Summit level meeting will be a key step forward.

In the upcoming Summit, leaders of the member countries must focus on giving a policy direction that would enable BIMSTEC to identify priority areas for cooperation to enhance the impact of the organisation. Further, the leaders should commit to the regularity of the Summit. Additionally, measures need to be taken in increasing interactions amongst the top leadership outside the Summit. A meeting of the leaders of member countries on the sideline of the annual UN General Assembly could be considered. This will reduce the gap in their meetings and contribute to a deeper understanding of each other's views on the issues and help in faster decision making in the BIMSTEC.

To make BIMSTEC further lucrative and there is a need for increasing its membership base. BIMSTEC should consider expanding its membership to Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, three major Asian powers. The inclusion of these countries will help the organization to control a greater area of influence and enhance its relevancy. Besides, BIMSTEC should consider forging tie-ups with other multilateral organizations in areas like manpower training, knowledge exchanges. Outreach to other multilateral forums helps BIMSTEC to learn from these organizations. Such a step in one hand will promote visibility and on the other could help to address financial constraints.

With Asia taking the centre stage of global geopolitics the Bay of Bengal has attained a new significance and grabbing attention of global powers. Considering the present situation, it is timely for the countries to claim their ownership to the region and BIMSTEC provides that platform. The countries under BIMSTEC can ensure a prosperity and peace for the region.

Optimism is high that the Kathmandu Summit will curve a new pathway for BIMSTEC.

(The author is a Senior Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation. Views expressed are strictly personal)

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