Regional Conference on ‘Advancing BIMSTEC Cooperation’

Regional Conference on ‘Advancing BIMSTEC Cooperation’
Delegates discuss regional cooperation at the BIMSEC meeting. Photo: Mizzima

In an era of lack luster performance of global bodies like WTO and UN system to stem the rise of protectionism, a ray of hope in building a vibrant regional block in BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) needs the highest-level political commitment from countries of this grouping. After the Goa retreat of 2016, the next Summit Conference to be held later this year in Katmandu, Nepal is expected to give much-needed fillip to this endeavour.   
The seven-country grouping BIMSTEC (India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand) with common historical, trade and cultural linkages, and connected by the waters of vast Bay of Bengal appears to be the natural formation of the collective. The criticality of people-to-people connectivity is emphasized at the inaugural session of the two-day Regional Conference on “Advancing BIMSTEC Cooperation” that began at Yangon on 14 June 2018.  
Attended by over 50 delegates from various countries, representing governments, academics, CSOs and media, this two day regional conference is being hosted by Delhi Policy Group, a think tank from India with collaboration from Myanmar think tanks viz., CESD, MISIS and the Asia foundation.
Speaking at the inaugural session, India’s ambassador to Myanmar Vikram Misri observed,  “India’s twin track approach of Look East and Neighborhood First policies are embedded in its efforts at enhancing regional cooperation with South Asia and South-East Asia neighbours and BIMSTEC presents a case of sustaining such multilateralism.” 
The dynamic growth of South Asia and South East Asia in terms of trade and investment provide an opportunity of win-win for all the countries of the region.
Pointing out that Myanmar is at the fulcrum of both BIMSTEC and ASEAN, the ambassador identified the need to bridge the bureaucratic and ministerial level bottlenecks within the governments to face some of the implementation challenges of regional agreements. Most often delays occur as translation of agreements into actions takes lot of time, thereby losing the momentum of change.
“People-to-people connectivity through shared history and culture need to be further nurtured through easy movement of people across the countries for tourism and other business endeavors,” he said.  
Bilateral cooperation among countries needs to extend to the regional level in order to harness the experience and expertise of the countries, particularly in the areas of agriculture development, food security, energy security, and disaster management.
The emphasis of this regional conference is to provide policy inputs to the BIMSTEC member countries on areas of trade and economic integration, connectivity, energy environment and climate change, people to people relationship building and advancement of gender equality.  Scholars from various disciplines and policy makers deliberate on these issues during the two days and come out with policy recommendations.
Opening the conference, the Director General of Delhi Policy Group, Ambassador H K Singh pointed out the need to harmonize national interests and focus sharply on critical areas of regional cooperation among BIMSTEC member countries. Too broad an approach may result in diluting efforts and identifying key and critical sectors that multiply regional cooperation is important for the countries. In this connection, he pointed out the need for physical connectivity, human resource development as key areas. Pointing out the success of ASEAN, public awareness on BIMSTEC needs to be enhanced in order to make it a people-to-people development endeavour. 
Chairman of the Myanmar Institute for Strategic and International Studies, Ambassador Nyunt Maung Shein pointed out the need for exchange among scholars, media, and civil society in the region in order to learn from each other. 
Identifying agriculture still remains as a key sector across all countries, the need for regional cooperation - in improving production, promotion and trade - was emphasized by Dr Zaw Oo, Director of Centre for Economic and Social Development, Myanmar.  A regional approach to agriculture and food security would benefit farmers of all the countries, especially small farmers.
Pointing out the historical relationship among the countries of BIMSTEC, Permanent Secretary of Agriculture Dr Khin Zaw emphasized that synergies need to be built in terms of regional value chains in agriculture products so that countries can benefit from primary commodities. Similarly connectivity in the area of energy and physical infrastructure is also emphasized which would strengthen the agriculture exports. Myanmar’s agriculture development strategy emphasizes such regional value chain approaches for supporting food security and smallholder sustainable agriculture.
Myanmar Deputy Director General of Commerce of government of Myanmar emphasized the need to conclude the free trade agreement among the members of BIMSTEC to advance economic cooperation. Acknowledging the progress made, it is hoped that the next round of meeting at Dhaka will result in some conclusion.  Efforts can also be made in trade and investment promotion activities jointly by the member countries in order to facilitate greater collaboration among the private sector of the member countries.
Speaking on the occasion, Shri Piyush Srivastava, Joint Secretary of Government of India, in charge of BIMSTEC, emphasized that as part of India’s foreign policy, efforts are being made to deepen relationship with SE Asia and South Asia. The retreat of BIMSTEC heads of nations held at Goa in 2016 reflected India’s commitment towards this regional grouping as a significant player in promoting peace, security, and economic development in this region.  Listing out the modest progress made on BIMSTEC so far, he pointed out the need for more academic, media, and people to people relationships that would propel further actions from the government’s side. He pointed that the focus of member governments also would be on conclusion of BIMSTEC FTA, which would give further fillip to the regional trade among the countries.
The emphasis of the speakers at this inaugural session lay on the need for improvements in physical connectivity, in terms of motorways, waterways, air connectivity in boosting trade, commerce and tourism which are the thriving sectors of all the countries of BIMSTEC. This requires speedy conclusion of a BIMSTEC free trade agreement, which is seen as one of the key accomplishments that the countries would be able to achieve this year.