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#4343, 17 March 2014
 

Dhaka Discourse

East Meets West: Bangladesh and the BIMSTEC Summit
Delwar Hossain
Professor, Department of International Relations, Dhaka University
 

The third Summit of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), held in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw from 3-4 March ended with the call to achieve collective prosperity for the region. BIMSTEC was expanded into a new transnational structure of cooperation following the inclusion of Nepal and Bhutan in 2004. It now encompasses states from both South and Southeast Asia, with over 22 per cent of the world population and a collective GDP of nearly $2 trillion.

The group commands enormous geopolitical and geoeconomic significance for regional and extra-regional powers. Although the Summit was held belatedly, the organization demands attention owing to its overwhelming thrust on trade, energy and agriculture. Notably, it offers an opportunity for inter-regional cooperation as a vital ingredient of new regionalism in the age of globalisation.

The Summit was particularly significant to Bangladesh and the current Government for both bilateral and multilateral tracks of diplomacy. As one of the founding members of the group, Bangladesh has always supported the BIMSTEC. This year’s summit was the first occasion where the recently re-elected government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina marked a strong diplomatic presence. Hasina led a 54-member delegation to the Summit.

On the multilateral front, Bangladesh actively participated in the BIMSTEC proceedings to advance the goal of regional development, peace and stability. During this Summit, the Bangladeshi Prime Minister strongly pushed for advancement on issues such as regional security, prosperity and counter-terrorism. Bangladesh identified poverty as the “main and common enemy” of the region and stressed the need for inter-state connectivity for the development of the people of the region.

Another major achievement was the decision to establish the permanent secretariat of BIMSTEC in Bangladesh, with all member-countries sharing costs – and India will be the biggest contributor, footing 32 per cent of the costs. Although the decision to establish the secretariat in Dhaka was taken in January 2011, the process was put in place this year, and according to the 14th ministerial meeting, the permanent secretariat would start functioning in Dhaka from May 2014.

On the bilateral front, the Summit had been an occasion of intensive diplomatic efforts to strengthen ties with Myanmar and India. The Bangladeshi prime minister met the heads of governments of Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan. It was a pleasant occasion for Sheikh Hasina to meet Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Bangladesh and India have come a long way over the past five years, in improving and then strengthening bilateral ties. Both prime ministers met twice at summit level meetings in their respective countries resulting in them developing a strong mutual understanding.

Sheikh Hasina and Manmohan Singh met on the sidelines of this year’s BIMSTEC Summit and the two prime ministers discussed issues of bilateral interests including cooperation in the areas of the power sector, trade, investment, and the implementation of the previously agreed decisions between the two countries. Both the leaders held discussions in an environment of fraternity and termed their bilateral relations as a “tested friendship.”

However, despite the camaraderie, it was a huge disappointment for Bangladesh, for the country could not ensure progress on the two key agreements – the Land Boundary Agreement and the Teesta Water Sharing Agreement. Sheikh Hasina raised these issues in her talks with the high-powered Indian delegation and emphasised on more balanced and equitable bilateral relations. Bangladesh also made a much-needed and genuine observation that Bangladesh, India, Bhutan and Nepal could resolve their domestic electricity demands via joint endeavours by constructing hydropower plants. Though the current Indian government is at the end of its term, these issues remain critical for a genuine bilateral friendship.

Furthermore, India and Bangladesh presented their respective ‘look east policies’ to achieve goals of mutual interest. Bangladesh demonstrated substantive engagement with the Myanmarese leadership at this Summit. Sheikh Hasina met the President of Myanmar, Thein Sein, the Speaker of the Parliament of Myanmar, Thura U Shwe Mann, and the Chair of the National League for Democracy and Member of the Parliament, Aung Saan Suu Kyi, on the sidelines. The two leaders identified the importance of connectivity via land, water and air to pave way for increased trade and investment and people-to-people contacts. President Thein Sein offered the use the Myanmar’s port facilities to Bangladesh, if required. He apprised Sheikh Hasina of her government’s initiative of constructing a seaport in Sittwe and Kyakpyu.

At present, the Bangladesh-Myanmar bilateral trade stands at $100 million, and both the nations hope to reach a $500 million mark by introducing the shipping line. The Bangladesh-Myanmar Chamber of Commerce and Industry predicts that the trade volume between the two neighbors may reach $1 billion by 2020.

Both nations emphasised road connectivity as a key element. Myanmar proposed that Bangladesh could become a partner of an Indian initiative of connecting, Thailand and Myanmar by establishing road connectivity. Sheikh Hasina also added that the Bangladesh-Myanmar-Kunming road could be critical for improving road connectivity. Bangladesh raised the Rohingya refugee issue, which has remained unsettled for nearly three decades. The absence of any concrete promise or effort from Myanmar to repatriate the Rohingya people not only causes endless sufferings to them, but also creates irritants for bilateral ties. Predictably, both sides agreed to resolve the Rohingya problem through peaceful and amicable talks between the two countries.

The meeting with Aung Saan Suu Kyi was crucial in view of the ongoing democratisation process in Myanmarr, for Suu Kyi will have a major stake in the future leadership of the new Myanmar.

The BIMSTEC summit offered a real opportunity to combine the ‘look east’ and ‘look west’ policies of South Asian and Southeast Asian countries in a spirit of new regionalism. In all respects, Bangladesh is well placed to advance this process through bilateral and multilateral initiatives. The country is a natural partner for any initiative in the direction of deepening cooperation on trade, energy and connectivity. Ironically, bilateral irritants pose roadblocks to these much-needed multilateral initiatives at sub-regional and inter-regional levels. At the BIMSTEC level, the member nations are in advantageous positions to resolve bilateral disputes efficiently and amicably.

The establishment of the BIMSTEC Secretariat in Dhaka will contribute in bringing the East and the West together for mutual benefit in the region.

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