India pushes for regional integration among Bay of Bengal countries

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Robust connectivity with smooth cross-border movement of people and goods remains an essential pre-requisite for economic integration of the BIMSTEC region

With connectivity and regional integration between South and South-East Asian countries as the driving forces of change, India today said that the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) was at the heart of its Act East policy.

Established in June 1997, BIMSTEC, a regional organisation comprising seven member states around the Bay of Bengal region, constitutes a unique link between South and South-East Asia with five members from South Asia (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka) and two from South-East Asia (Myanmar and Thailand).

Speaking at the 17th BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting held virtually on Thursday, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar stressed on what Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also listed as an essential pre-requisite for economic integration of the region - robust connectivity with smooth cross-border movement of people and goods.



This appears to become a reality soon with, as reported by India Narrative before the meeting, the member states today finalising the BIMSTEC Master Plan for Transport Connectivity which is expected to be adopted at the fifth BIMSTEC Summit to be hosted by Sri Lanka this year.

"BIMSTEC over the years has emerged as a promising sub-regional grouping with growing strategic and economic interests of the member states, as well as of the international community in the Bay of Bengal region. Our collective resolve to impart a fresh dynamism to BIMSTEC has rejuvenated the organisation. I am glad that the region is witnessing rapid economic growth with growing political and economic cooperation among the member states, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said in his virtual address today.  

India had announced several initiatives at the last BIMSTEC Summit, held in Kathmandu in August 2018, to further strengthen cooperation and capacity-building in diverse areas.
 
While the BIMSTEC Convention on Cooperation in Combating International Terrorism, Transnational Organized Crime and illicit Drug Trafficking came into force last month and BIMSTEC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters has also been finalized for signing at the forthcoming summit, India today stressed the need to put in place legal framework for smooth connectivity in the region by finalizing the BIMSTEC Coastal Shipping Agreement and the Motor Vehicles Agreement at an early date.

 
Jaishankar India External Affairs Minister

Other initiatives have already been implemented, including the BIMSTEC Startup Conclave, the BIMSTEC Military Exercise, the BIMSTEC Ministerial Conclave at the India Mobile Congress 2018, the 2nd BIMSTEC Disaster Management Exercise, BIMSTEC Seminar on Climate Smart Farming Systems, training of BIMSTEC Diplomats at the Foreign Service Institute, etc.

With the text of the BIMSTEC Charter having been finalised, action is also being taken on organising a Tri-Services Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) Exercise and BIMSTEC Youth Water Sports meet.

"Development and prosperity go hand in hand with peace and security. We face both traditional and non-traditional security challenges. Cooperation in the security sector therefore has a special significance for us. Our NSAs have met thrice since 2017. They have been working closely and have moved forward in several aspects of security cooperation including counter terrorism, intelligence sharing, coastal security, cyber security, etc in a tangible manner," said Jaishankar.

India reiterated today that it remains committed to further building the momentum of regional cooperation under the BIMSTEC framework and make the organization stronger, vibrant, more effective and result-oriented.

"BIMSTEC has evolved through a long journey. Next year will be the silver jubilee of the establishment of the BIMSTEC. It is high time that we dwell upon how to make a paradigm-shift in raising the level of our cooperation and regional integration," said the minister.

While expressing thanks to the Indian government for providing Covid-19 vaccines to the countries in need - with a special priority to neighbourhood - Nepal said that representing the one-fifth of humanity, BIMSTEC stands as a dynamic bridge between South Asia and SouthEast Asia. It said that the region, blessed with rich natural resources, mosaic of cultures and age-old civilization, has an enormous potential.

"A well-established transport connectivity network is essential to realize regional integration process. In this context, endorsement of the BIMSTEC Master Plan for Transport Connectivity will be crucial to facilitate greater connectivity in all modes of transport. We must accord high priority to promote transport networks, sustainable energy and power grid interconnections, and information highways," said Nepal's Minister for Foreign Affairs Pradeep Kumar Gyawali.

Kathmandu also wants effective and timely implementation of the BIMSTEC Poverty Plan of Action in line with the Agenda 2030 to eradicate poverty from the region.

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Bangladesh, which has proposed to host the 20th Meeting of the BIMSTEC Working Group on Rules of Origin (WG-ROO) and tourism-related meetings, said that the implementation of initiatives in various sectors must be expedited on priority basis to harness quick dividend for the people in the Bay of Bengal Region.

"BIMSTEC region, with 22 per cent of the world's population and a GDP of $3.61 trillion, is still the least integrated one. The area has an intra-trade of only 7 per cent of their combined global trade volume and there is potential of raising this ratio to 21 per cent, if exploited jointly," said Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen.

India, in particular, sees Bangladesh as a key neighbour and a valued partner, not only in South Asia but also in the Indo-Pacific region under its ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act East’ policy. The bilateral relations between the two countries have received a huge fillip with some high-profile visits from New Delhi recently, including that of PM Modi and Jaishankar last month.