India to push for connectivity in Bay of Bengal region

India to push for connectivity in Bay of Bengal region

India will this week call upon the Bay of Bengal nations to move fast on initiatives concerning connectivity in the region.

With Pakistan blocking most of the attempts for regional connectivity within the SAARC, India will this week call upon the Bay of Bengal nations to move fast on such initiatives – beginning with easing coastal shipping and trans-border movement of vehicles.

The BIMSTEC — a bloc comprising seven littoral and landlocked countries dependent on Bay of Bengal for maritime purposes — will hold its fourth summit in Kathmandu on Thursday and Friday. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will represent India and join the leaders of the other BIMSTEC member nations — Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Myanmar and Thailand — at the summit.

"My participation in the (BIMSTEC) summit symbolises India's highest priority to our neighbourhood and our strong commitment to continue deepening our relationship with the extended neighbourhood in South-East Asia," Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Wednesday.

Modi is likely to nudge the leaders of BIMSTEC nations to expeditiously conclude negotiations on the proposed Motor Vehicle Agreement (or the Agreement for the Regulation of Passenger and Cargo Vehicular Traffic), to pave the way for hassle-free movement of cargo and passenger vehicles across borders in the BIMSTEC region that comprises seven nations, including five of the eight SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) members.

New Delhi has since 2016 focused more on rejuvenating the BIMSTEC in order to promote regional connectivity initiatives, as similar moves within the SAARC were blocked by Islamabad.

India is keen to promote connectivity projects in and around its neighbourhood, ostensibly to counter China's bid to spread its geostrategic influence in the region through its ambitious Belt-and-Road initiative. China has already embarked on a series of infrastructure projects in the countries in the Bay of Bengal region.

Preeti Saran, Secretary (East) at the Ministry of External Affairs, told journalists in New Delhi that connectivity has been "a very important component" of discussions within the BIMSTEC – a region, which is home to 1.6 billion people (nearly 22 % of the world’s population) and a combined GDP of $2.8 trillion.

New Delhi has taken up some international corridor projects, such as the India-Myanmar Thailand Trilateral Highway and the Kaladan Multi-Modal Project, which serve as the land and sea bridge among the Northeastern states of India and the ASEAN member countries.

Saran said that the BIMSTEC Motor Vehicle Agreement is "under discussion" at present.

A draft text of the proposed Motor Vehicle Agreement was prepared during a meeting of the BIMSTEC officials in New Delhi in April this year. It was also on the agenda of the discussion at a meeting Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale and his counterparts in the governments of the other BIMSTEC nations held in Kathmandu on Tuesday to set the stage for the summit.

Thailand, however, conveyed to the other BIMSTEC nations that it had certain concerns on the draft text of the pact. The Thai Government insisted that the proposed agreement should only allow the vehicles belonging to the transport companies based in any of the BIMSTEC countries should be allowed to move across the borders in the region and not the ones owned by farms registered in countries outside the region.

The draft text of the BIMSTEC Coastal Shipping Agreement was also discussed in a meeting in New Delhi in November 2017. The proposed agreement will apply to shipping within 20 nautical miles off the coastlines of the BIMSTEC nations and will hence require smaller vessels and involve lesser cost and time.

The Motor Vehicle Agreement and the Coastal Agreement are intended to give a boost to the regional trade within the Bay of Bengal region, said Saran. “There are discussions underway for a BIMSTEC trade agreement, but, like all other FTAs (Free Trade Agreements), negotiations take time,” she added, hinting that a deal to enhance commerce within the region is unlikely to be inked during the forthcoming summit of the bloc in Kathmandu.

The BIMSTEC summit in Kathmandu will also give the leaders an opportunity to review progress in drafting a Master Plan for Connectivity, sources said.