A Bay Of Bengal Community

Updated: Jan 24 2003, 05:30am hrs
The proposal for a summit meeting of the member nations of Bimstec (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation), put forward by the government of Myanmar, should be warmly welcomed by the other member countries. Bimstec, like Apec (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation), is an association with an incomplete name but a wide-ranging scope. It is essentially an association of the rim countries of the Bay of Bengal. Since Nepal is a land-locked country, dependent on the Bay of Bengal for access to maritime trade, it has naturally been invited as an observer to Bimstec. By this criterion, Bhutan too deserves a similar status. While Bimstecs intra-regional trade is a mere 3 per cent of the groups trade with the rest of the world, and so not very different from the level of regional economic integration within the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), Bimstec is likely to see an acceleration of this economic interaction. Not only is trade between India and some of the Bimstec member countries like Thailand increasing, but the proposals in the infrastructure sector, especially in energy, highways, railways and irrigation, are bound to increase the level of economic interaction.

Given the wide ranging nature of the potential interaction between member countries, the present framework is highly limiting. Bimstec governments meet only at the level of trade ministers and government officials. This is inadequate to explore the full potential of regional cooperation around the Bay of Bengal rim. Hence, Myanmars proposal, articulated this week in New Delhi by the visiting Myanmar foreign minister Win Aung, for a summit of Bimstec heads of government should be readily welcomed by all Bimstec Saarc governments. While Bimstec should not be viewed as a substitute for Saarc, faster paced economic integration within the Bimstec framework can only push Saarc out of its slumber caused by Pakistans intransigence on the economic cooperation front. Fortunately, Bimstec is not hobbled by Indias size and presence since a self-confident and dynamic Thailand offers a good balance and enables Bimstec members to be less obsessed with Indias size than is the case in Saarc. Regional associations make little sense if they lack an economic basis. The era of purely political and security-oriented regional alliances is over. Saarc is stumbling because of Pakistans unwillingness to impart an economic content to regional cooperation in South Asia. Bimstec can work because it has a forward-looking economic agenda. Myanmar is right to suggest that the time has come for a summit-level meeting of Bimstec leaders.