Re-imag­in­ing Re­gions through BIM­STEC

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - K. Yhome

T he idea of Bay of Ben­gal Ini­tia­tive for Multi-Sec­toral Tech­ni­cal and Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion (BIM­STEC) as a sub-re­gional group­ing com­pris­ing na­tions of South and South­east Asia was a move to break the con­structed no­tions of re­gions. The no­tions of “South Asia” and “South­east Asia” have come to blur the multi-lay­ered re­la­tions and link­ages among the na­tions in the north­east of the In­dian Ocean, tied to­gether through his­tory, ge­og­ra­phy and cul­ture. The BIM­STEC ini­tia­tive was in that sense an ef­fort to re-con­nect and re-in­te­grate the his­tor­i­cal as well as con­tem­po­rary in­ter­ac­tions and link­ages of a re­gion that has of­ten been looked upon as two de­mar­cated re­gions.

Imag­i­nary po­lit­i­cal bound­aries of the lit­torals of the Bay of Ben­gal and the con­structed re­gional no­tions had long kept na­tions of the lit­torals apart. To some ex­tent, bi­lat­eral en­gage­ments was limited to gov­ern­ments for decades and for­ma­tion of re­gional group­ings such as As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions (ASEAN) and South Asian As­so­ci­a­tion for Re­gional Co­op­er­a­tion (SAARC) had also re­in­forced th­ese no­tions of de­mar­cated re­gions.

For the found­ing South Asian na­tions (In­dia, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh) of BIM­STEC, it was a move to “look beyond” South Asia. The fac­tors that prompted th­ese coun­tries to view the move as look­ing beyond South Asia tes­tify how strongly th­ese re­gional no­tions have come to shape and in­flu­ence the way we con­cep­tu­alise our re­gion.

In­versely, what the coun­tries is in South Asia were try­ing was to de­con­struct the con­structed no­tions of re­gions and to re-dis­cover the link­ages and re­la­tions that had long ex­isted and con­tin­ues in sev­eral ways and man­ners. The ques­tion is: To what ex­tent has BIM­STEC achieved to re-shape and re-con­nect the lit­torals of the Bay of Ben­gal? And what im­pact did it have on South Asia?

Ge­o­graph­i­cal re­al­ism has dic­tated this new ap­proach. While from an ideational per­spec­tive, it may be ar­gued that the for­ma­tion and ex­is­tence of the sub-re­gional group called BIM­STEC has to a large ex­tent changed the way re­gions are per­ceived in South Asia. This change in per­cep­tion has how­ever not trans­lated on the ground. Part of the prob­lem lies in the fact that BIM­STEC has not been able to move beyond gov­ern­men­tal walls with lit­tle in­volve­ment of the so­ci­ety. While top-down gov­ern­men­tal ini­tia­tives are im­por­tant, it is the so­ci­ety that de­ter­mines the suc­cess or fail­ure of any na­tional and transna­tional ini­tia­tives. De­spite the huge po­ten­tial to re­de­fine the eco­nomic ge­og­ra­phy of the lit­torals of the Bay of Ben­gal, the level of eco­nomic in­ter­ac­tions re­mains much be­low its po­ten­tial.

Thus in­ject­ing new dy­namism in BIM­STEC would need not only strength­en­ing con­nec­tions within the mem­ber­states of BIM­STEC but also in bridg­ing with other re­gional and sub-re­gional fo­rums. Syn­er­gis­ing the group­ing’s ex­ist­ing and planned projects with projects of other re­gional and sub-re­gional group­ings needs to be ex­plored. There are a few sec­tors where such syn­er­gies are not only de­sir­able but also nec­es­sary-- such as trans­port, trade, and en­ergy (all of th­ese are part of the four­teen pri­or­ity sec­tors iden­ti­fied for co­op­er­a­tion by BIM­STEC).

In land and sea trans­port, the Tri­lat­eral High­way project be­tween In­dia-Myan­mar-Thai­land could be ex­tended to in­clude Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan and also syn­chro­nise it with other on­go­ing and planned land and sea trans­port projects such as the Kal­adan Multi-Model Trans­port and Tran­sit Project be­ing de­vel­oped by In­dia in co­op­er­a­tion with Myan­mar.

Other land trans­port projects such as the BCIM Eco­nomic Cor­ri­dor be­ing planned to con­nect Bangladesh, China, In­dia and Myan­mar and the In­dia-Mekong Eco­nomic Cor­ri­dor be­ing pur­sued by In­dia and the Mekong Coun­tries could be also brought within such a re­gional net­work.

In the en­ergy sec­tor, BIM­STEC has al­ready con­ducted fea­si­bil­ity study and es­tab­lished task force on trans-gas pipe­line and trans-power ex­change. Th­ese ini­tia­tives could be tied to ini­tia­tives of the sub-re­gional fo­rum South Asia Sub-re­gional Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion (SASEC) com­pris­ing In­dia, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh. The ad­van­tage of this is that all the mem­ber-states of SASEC are also mem­bers of BIM­STEC.

In the trade and in­vest­ment sec­tor, de­spite the es­tab­lish­ment of the BIM­STEC Free Trade Area Frame­work Agree­ment in 2004, there has been lit­tle con­crete progress in fi­nal­is­ing agree­ment on trade within the BIM­STEC. The joint dec­la­ra­tion of the third BIM­STEC sum­mit held in March this year only re­it­er­ated the need to ex­pe­dite the progress of fi­nal­is­ing agree­ment on trade in goods.

Since all BIM­STEC mem­bers are mem­bers of re­gional or­gan­i­sa­tions such as SAARC and ASEAN, they can take ad­van­tage of the var­i­ous re­gional eco­nomic ar­range­ments in which they are al­ready linked to each other.

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