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BIMSTEC meet just a talking shop?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have to deftly deal with two conflicting strands of expectations when he attends the 4th Summit of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) in Kathmandu August 30-31. Set up in 1997 as an attempt to forge sectoral

Published: 29th August 2018 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 29th August 2018 01:09 AM   |  A+A-

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have to deftly deal with two conflicting strands of expectations when he attends the 4th Summit of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) in Kathmandu August 30-31. Set up in 1997 as an attempt to forge sectoral connectivity among states along the Bay of Bengal region, the organisation now includes seven nations—Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand.

The original sectors for cooperation—trade, technology, energy, transport, tourism and fisheries—were expanded in 2008 to include agriculture and public health among others. Together, the member states are home to 1.5 billion people, approximately 22 per cent of the world population and have a combined GDP of $2.7 trillion. In his message on the 20th anniversary of BIMSTEC last year, Modi described it as “a natural platform” to fulfil India’s “key foreign policy priorities of ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act East’.” But critics complain that the three earlier summits were mostly declamatory in nature, with no tangible progress. 

A Free Trade Agreement negotiated in 2004 is still to be ratified. Work on a trilateral India-Myanmar-Thailand highway, which would eventually extend to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, has been patchy at best. A 2015 Indian proposal for a trilateral Motor Vehicle Agreement to facilitate seamless movement of passengers and cargo among the three countries is still pending.

The main hurdles are conflicting priorities. While most member states believe an FTA should be on top of the list, India has been stressing on security, and has even planned a joint military exercise in Pune where armies of the seven nations will conduct anti-terror exercises. Several agreements are likely to be signed in Kathmandu, where Modi will also hold bilateral discussions with the leaders of the other six states. But unless all nations agree on aligning their priorities, BIMSTEC will continue to remain a talking shop.



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