Below potential

Speeches and statements emanating from the just-concluded third Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) summit in Myanmar were rich in stressing co-operative intentions.

Participating heads of state pledged solemnly to jointly fight terrorism, transnational crimes and drug trafficking and agreed to accelerate efforts to improve connectivity and cooperation in trade, energy and environment. However, BIMSTEC has done little beyond expressing good intentions. The only concrete achievement to come out of the Myanmar meet was the signing of three pacts relating to the setting up of a permanent secretariat, weather-related scientific research and culture.  These agreements, while welcome, are way below the immense potential that the region carries. A part of the problem lies in the low priority that the region’s leaders accord BIMSTEC. In the 16 years since it came into being, only three summits have been held. BIMSTEC’s below the par performance must be attributed to India’s lack of interest in the regional grouping. Geographically, India is located centrally in the grouping; every infrastructure project depends on Delh’s participation. India is BIMSTEC’s most powerful economy too. Unlike SAARC, whose very functioning has been hampered by Pakistan’s obstructionist conduct, BIMSTEC is largely free of bilateral bickering. When it was set up in 1997, India in fact was eager, seeing it as a more viable and productive alternative to SAARC. Where has that enthusiasm gone?

BIMSTEC projects envisaging regional connectivity could transform economies. But these are yet to see the light of day. A road project linking India’s landlocked Northeast with Thailand via Myanmar is yet to be completed as is a multi-modal transport corridor plan linking the Northeast with the Bay of Bengal via Myanmar. Completion of such projects will not only improve India’s relations with neighbouring Myanmar but also, it will open up our economically under-developed Northeast to trade with vibrant Southeast Asia. This lethargy stands in contrast to the determined inroads that China has made in building infrastructure linking its own economy with Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and others.

As with SAARC, BIMSTEC is being reported more for the bilateral meetings that take place on its sidelines rather than what the summit itself produces. Its Myanmar meet was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s last overseas diplomatic engagement before he demits office.

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