17 December 2005
Like SAARC, the South and Southeast Asian BIMSTEC has also become another seven-nation grouping with the inclusion of Bhutan and Nepal in the first BIMSTEC Bangkok summit in 2004 and its 8th ministerial meeting will now take place in Dhaka on 19 December. The BIMSTEC ministers’ meeting being attended by, apart from Bhutan and Nepal, Bangladesh India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand and would mainly focus on trade, poverty alleviation, trans-nation crimes and terrorism. The 10th foreign secretary level official meeting on 17 December would precede the ministerial. Interestingly, like SAARC, the BIMSTEC Free Trade Area (FTA) would also become effective from 1 January 2006 but this will be subject to December 21-27 BIMSTEC experts meeting in Katmandu to finalize FTA negotiations on goods. However, a comprehensive BIMSTEC FTA inclusive of trade in goods, services and investment would come into effect on 1 January 2008. But that outcome will also largely depend on the next BIMSTEK summit to be held in India in 2007.
One of the main task before the BIMSTEC ministerial under the chairmanship of Bangladesh Foreign Minister Morshed Khan is to formally rename the grouping which has become necessary after the inclusion of Bhutan and Nepal. The likely new name to be discussed at the meeting is the Bay of Bengal Initiative of Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation. The two Southeast Asian nations, namely Thailand and Myanmar, in the 7-nation group are expected to provide the effective linkages to the other five South Asian nations eager to extend economic cooperation to the ASEAN and East Asian countries. Although India has been quite active in the last almost a decade in developing closer economic ties with the Southeast and East Asian countries and successfully established itself as a major trading partner with the region; such closer cooperation from other two new entrants, land-locked Nepal and Bhutan, would largely depend on how New Delhi cooperates in allowing transit facilities through its territories to and from Bangladesh to use ports facilities there and develop healthy trade ties.
It appears that the success of BIMSTEC will largely depend on the success of SAARC in forging greater cooperation amongst the member countries in the movement of goods across the region with facilities to use the Bangladeshi ports for their foreign trade. India, Nepal and Bhutan want to use the Bangladesh port facilities but without transit facilities to and from Bangladesh through Indian and Bangladesh territories that cannot happen. We hope that Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh would to take the advantage of the meeting to thrash out the problems with India, which appears to be more willing now than in the past to extend such cooperation for mutual benefit. Otherwise, not much tangible benefit could be derived from such economic grouping.