Prime Minister Manmohan Singh left for Myanmar today to attend the BIMSTEC Summit, making a strong push for intensifying collective efforts to combat security challenges and enhancing connectivity and trade in the region.
"Security challenges both natural and man-made, require our collective vision and determination to be overcome," Singh said in a statement before his departure for the Myanmarese capital, Nay Pyi-Taw.
"In the security sphere, we have steadily put in place enabling legal instruments for regional approaches to international terrorism, transnational crime, drug trafficking and mutual legal assistance in criminal matters, the need for which is more salient in today's integrated world than ever before," he said.
Singh said the BIMSTEC lay at the crossroads between SAARC and ASEAN, drawing its energy from the natural convergence of the countries around the Bay of Bengal. "Connectivity and sub-regional cooperation in trade and investment, energy, climate, tourism, agriculture and other areas provide the spark for the growth engine in our region," he said.
The Prime Minister stressed that peace, stability and development in BIMSTEC countries, with over 20 per cent of the world's population and over USD 2.5 trillion worth of GDP, was 'indispensable', for the forward march of Asia as a whole.
BIMSTEC has evolved and matured further as a group since the last summit in New Delhi in 2008, he said.
Singh stressed that India's bilateral relations with BIMSTEC countries are among its most important in the world.
On the sidelines of the two-day summit, he hopes to exchange notes with leaders from other Member states, whom he described as 'close and friendly neighbours of India'.
With the impending establishment of a Permanent Secretariat in Dhaka and appointment of a Secretary General, BIMSTEC is poised to play a more active role in regional integration and cooperation, he said.
Several BIMSTEC centres are being launched throughout the region, including three in India, to foster greater technical exchanges between member countries, he said.
During the summit to be attended by leaders from seven countries including India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal, Singh is expected to make a strong pitch for giving a fillip to India's Look East policy and explore ways to enhance connectivity, transport, trade, tourism and other linkages to all the northeastern states.
In what could be his last foreign trip as Prime Minister in this tenure, Singh is likely to use his two-day visit to renew contacts with leaders of the seven-member Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) which will hold its summit in Nay Pyi Taw tomorrow.
One cannot underestimate the potential of BIMSTEC in bringing the fruits of these cross connectivity linkages to the northeastern states, says Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh.
With some sticky issues still to be resolved, it may take some time for the grouping to wrap up a free trade pact.
"FTA negotiations are processes that take time. The BIMSTEC negotiation is particularly complex because it already encompasses countries which have FTA under the SAFTA process, and then you have other countries that belong to ASEAN. Taking all this into account, we have to arrive at an outcome that is optimal for India as well as for them. So, this is going to take some time," she said.
A Framework Agreement for BIMSTEC Free Trade Area was signed in Phuket, Thailand in February, 2004, which commits the parties to negotiate FTAs in goods, services and investments.
An agreement on Trade in Goods and other provisions relating to rules of origin, operational certification procedures and pact on Customs cooperation was finalised in June, 2009. India has exchanged its tariff preference schedules with member countries. Leaders at the upcoming meeting are expected to ink pacts on setting up of BIMSTEC Centre on Weather and Climate in India and Cultural Industries Observatory in Bhutan besides establishment of the permanent secretariat in Dhaka for which India has pledged contribution of 32 per cent of annual expenditure incurred there.
"Our stakes in BIMSTEC are significant and will grow further as the grouping matures," the Foreign Secretary stressed. The summit will be preceded by ministerial meeting which will be attended by External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid and at the senior official level by the Foreign Secretary.
During the visit, the Prime Minister will have bilateral meetings with Sri Lankan President Mahindra Rajapaksa, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and other leaders.
His talks with Rajapaksa takes place three months after he had skipped a visit to the island nation to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) due to pressure from Tamil parties and within government.
Sri Lanka has rejected a call by the UN for an independent international probe into allegations of war crimes.
Colombo has come under increasing international pressure to probe allegations of excessive civilian deaths during the final battle that ended in May 2009. A crucial UN Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka is coming up for vote in Geneva this month.
Last Monday, the UN had called for an independent international probe into allegations of war crimes in Sri Lanka during the final battle with the LTTE, prompting an angry reaction from Colombo which rejected the demand and slammed it as "unwarranted interference".
Singh's meeting with Hasina comes in the backdrop of delay in signing the long-pending agreements on Teesta river water sharing treaty and India's ratification of land boundary agreement with that country.
This will also be Singh's first meeting with Hasina after her party Awami League coasted to a landslide victory in the January 5 parliamentary election, bagging 231 seats in the face of a boycott by BNP-led 18-party opposition alliance.
The talks are expected to touch on the agreement on Teesta river treaty which was put on hold after West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had expressed reservation over the quantum of water to be given to Bangladesh and had opted out of Singh's entourage to Dhaka in September, 2011.
Singh, who is travelling to Myanmar after a gap of nearly two years, the last being a bilateral visit in 2012, will also be holding talks with the leadership in that country.
The Summit is also expected to discuss steps to bolster cooperation in counter-terrorism. India has led negotiations and finalised the BIMSTEC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters.
India also wishes to see BIMSTEC promote economic and energy cooperation, encourage cultural links and strengthen security contacts.