With little fanfare and slight attention given by news networks, the BIMSTEC summit was successfully held last August 30-31 in Kathmandu, Nepal. BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) is a regional grouping of seven countries along the coasts of the Bay of Bengal. It includes Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan. Bhutan and Nepal, both landlocked countries, are not along the coast, but their economies are tied to India, the country along the coast. The focus of the grouping is collaborating in the areas of trade and investment, technology sharing, fighting terrorism, addressing climate change and poverty reduction. The nascent organization has just held its fourth summit in Kathmandu, with Myanmar hosting the third summit in 2014 in Nay Pyi Taw.
Economic development potentials The grouping was envisioned as an economic bloc to support the hastening of economic development of membercountries. What can Myanmar benefit from the bloc? Beside the motherhood statements, real opportunities for Myanmar are in two main areas.
The first is the development of coastal shipping. For centuries, communities along the coasts of the Bay of Bengal are engaged in trade and commerce with small coastal boats facilitating the moving of goods. The development of inland roads, bridges and railways and the customs restrictions of the countries established after the Second World War somehow limited the growth of trade and commerce along the coasts. The revitalization of this platform is underway with the negotiation of a coastal shipping agreement. This will mean lower cost in the movement of goods and generate more economic opportunities for people in the coastal communities.
The second opportunity is taking advantage of India’s economy. The grouping is India’s platform to reach out to its northeastern neighbors. Indian states along the borders of neighboring BIMSTEC countries include Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. These are the least developed among the Indian states. India’s ‘Look East’ policy is expected to enhance nor only cross-border trading but connectivity, tourism and other investments opportunities. This will benefit Myanmar areas such as Chin State, Kachin State and Sagaing Region. The common border will allow the intertwining of trade transport and tourism. The 1994 Indo-Myanmar Trade Agreement facilitated the opening of cross-border trade through Tamu in Sagaing and Rih Kaw Dar in Chin State. The Tamu post is the gateway to India and part of the western growth corridor envisioned by Myanmar that will attract investments from India. Counterweight against China BIMSTEC may be an economic grouping but India is using it as its card against the creeping influence of China in the South Asian region. Through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China slowly weaned away small countries from the influence of India.
It has invested heavily in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar.
China has even made an inroad with Pakistan with its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The corridor boasts of more than $60 billion worth of investments, part of which is in the disputed Kashmir region. The BRI however received cautious response among the prudent leaders of some countries as the consequences of the China loans became apparent. Sri Lanka surrendered control of Hambantota Port to China due to its inability to pay the cost of its construction. Myanmar has also suspended the construction of Myitsone Dam, and until now is one of the thorny issues in the Myanmar-China relationship. Nepal is renegotiating several dams to be constructed that will be financed also by the BRI.
India’s political move to strengthen BIMSTEC is understandable as it presided over the demise of the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation). The SAARC became ineffective due to the perennial bickering of India and Pakistan and as the latter move closer to China, closing it indefinitely became final.
Maximizing the benefits of regional blocs
During this year Kathmandu BIMSTEC S u m m i t , P r e s i d e n t W i n M y i n t represented Myanmar. State Counselor Aung San Su Kyi was unable to attend, and this reflects the importance given to the regional bloc. She participated during the 2017 ASEAN Summit in Manila, Philippines and engaged in various other meetings not only with Southeast Asian leaders but other global leaders with stakes in the region. Myanmar can maximize its membership with regional blocs as it offers the opportunity to be a platform where it can share what is happening inside its borders. Western media may have different perspectives and may have projected a different image of the country. Strengthening relationships with regional blocs provides an occasion and venue for Myanmar to share its side. W o r k i n g w i t h neighboring countries on common agenda is beneficial to Myanmar. On the economic side, tourism, transport and trade are naturallyinclined to be prioritized. Combatting crime and terrorism, preventing human trafficking and disaster response are some of the areas that can be worked on. So whether it is ASEAN or BIMSTEC, maximum participation should be provided by Myanmar leaders. As the country faces more challenges, the more it should find support from its regional neighbors.