Vol. 5 Num 70 Thu. August 05, 2004  

BIMSTEC should be more than a small blip

The new grouping will now be known as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation. This is not the first time that the name of the grouping has undergone a change. Once, in December 1997, when Myanmar was inducted into the fold of the newly born grouping, it changed from BIST-EC, representing the four founding members Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, to BIMST-EC, to include Myanmar.

The name change displays several things rather than what some may attribute as the inability of our leaders to give this nascent organisation an appropriate appellation. The number of members has gone up to seven from the original four. This demonstrates the group's avowed policy of open regionalism in order to allow all regional states sharing contiguous boundaries, land or sea, with the present members, to become members of this grouping.

Although the acronym does not represent the two new members, Bhutan and Nepal, it puts to rest minds of those that consider not only the acronym too inelegant but would also like to see the essence of the Bay of Bengal Community reflected in it. But more than elegant, the new grouping has become more eclectic in terms of the region it represents as well as the areas that the new grouping would cooperate in, for the economic development of the region.

Admittedly, many critics would rush to judge the new grouping based on the experiences of SAARC in what SAARC has, and more importantly has not, been able to achieve. One thing that BIMSTEC has been mercifully spared is the potential negative impact of intra-region political acrimony we experience in SAARC.

A notable aspect of BIMSTEC is that the founding states, as well as those that have joined it subsequently, have been driven entirely by economic considerations to do so. It is hoped that politics would be guided by economics in defining the future relationship among the BIMSTEC member states that would hasten the economic integration of the region. It needs hardly any

emphasis that in the age of globalisation, with its many negative consequences that the developing countries are bound to suffer from, countries like Bangladesh can achieve some degree of immunity through economic integration at the regional or sub-regional level. Equally important is the fact that close economic cooperation would, more likely than not, keep discordant issues at arms length.

There are some special features that make one very hopeful of BIMSTEC fulfilling its potential. BIMSTEC includes members of two very important regional groupings, SAARC and ASEAN, which would form a bridge between these two regional organisations. One hopes that the experiences of the BIMSTEC countries would stand it in very good stead.

Analysts also aver that it would be wrong to characterise BIMSTEC as a sub-regional grouping. A small regional grouping is a more appropriate definition of BIMSTEC, they assert. Needless to say, a region has a great deal more exploitable potentials than a sub-region.

Another very important feature of the grouping is its "three plus one" policy, which allows any three of its members along with a fourth to undertake a project where the rest are not willing to participate. This again, according to analysts, is an attempt to remove the handicaps of SAFTA.

Perhaps the most important feature of this organisation is the recognition of the private sector as the vehicle of all developmental activities and of economic growth in the region. One can also take heart from the five operating principles enunciated by the members of the

grouping that lay down the basic premise of how the grouping ought to move in its attempt to bring about more economic integration.

The ultimate objective of BIMSTEC is a free trade area in the region. Bangladesh was a late signatory to the Free Trade Agreement (FTA), perhaps out of its concern for the negative impact that the free trade regime would have for its manufacturing sector. One is not certain whether its concerns have been or will be addressed and an adequate compensation measure offered to Bangladesh. But the "two tracks" principle to be employed in effecting tariff cuts relative to developing countries and least developed countries would allow Bangladesh a

breathing space to offset any negative impact that this would have.

For Bangladesh the new grouping has some very important connotations. The impact of FTA must be absorbed without creating harmful effect for our manufacturing sector. In this regard experts insist that trade liberalisation must result in more trade creation rather than trade diversion, which results in loss of welfare. This grouping, with almost 1.8 billion people, has a great poten-

tial for development through economic cooperation, in particular in the six core areas.

BIMSTEC, conjoining two regional groupings, makes the prospect even more consequential for all those countries that have made "Look East Policy" a cornerstone of their foreign policy. For Bangladesh it opens up new opportunities to implement its own Look East Policy. This would of course entail our opening up and joining the surface communications network that will develop as a corollary of the many cooperative programmes that are likely to be implemented, as well as sharing of the natural resources that this new grouping enjoins upon us.

In spite of its economic bias, that

other issues have also come within the ambit of considerations of BIMSTEC, like terrorism, an exclusively security issue, is of great significance. The BIMSTEC members have decided to actively cooperate in the ongoing international efforts to combat terrorism. In this regard a meeting will be hosted by India soon to work on establishing an intelligence network of the seven member countries. This is quiet a departure from the inflexible mindset that the SAARC leaders have displayed so far in their unwillingness to exhibit the dynamism needed to make an organization result oriented and adaptive to the changed circumstances.

One may query the justification of so many regional and sub-regional initiatives including the latest one and the advisability of joining all or many of them. The answer is, instead of looking at multiplicity of initiatives in a competitive sense, it would be more logical to look at the possible synergies that these initiatives may bring, both to the groupings and the participating nations.

There is a pressing need for the countries of the new grouping to understand the tremendous potential for growth in BIMSTEC. There is indeed great wisdom in what the Thai premier said at the Summit. Unless BIMSTEC nations rally to build their economies they would be no more than a small blip on the radar screen of the rest of the world.

We risk getting used to life at the bottom if we fail to heed the warning.

The author is Editor, Defence and Strategic Affairs, The Daily Star.