Bimstec meet looks to boost anti-terror ties, connectivity in South Asia

The seven Bimstec member states are expected to announce a connectivity master plan and step up counter-terror cooperation during a summit to be held here on Thursday and Friday, officials familiar with preparatory discussions said.

An announcement about setting up a development fund is also expected during the summit of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, the officials said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will arrive here on Thursday morning, his fourth visit to Nepal, to attend the summit of the grouping that has a combined gross domestic product of $2.8 trillion and which fits the two foreign policy priorities of his government – neighbourhood first and Act East.

Of the seven members, five – India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – are from South Asia and two, Thailand and Myanmar, are from Southeast Asia. Myanmar is the only Southeast Asian country that shares a land border with India.

As Kathmandu geared up to welcome the leaders with arches and cut-outs, the foreign ministers of the grouping gave the finishing touches to the agenda for the summit.

The connectivity master plan, which includes a pact for power grid connectivity and rail, road, sea and digital connectivity, has been in the works for some time as the 21-year-old grouping tries to leave behind an era of cooperation at a sluggish pace.

An Indian official said the Kathmandu declaration will reflect the “ambitious agenda” for connectivity. Other officials said institutions such as the Asian Development Bank had evinced interest in the connectivity plans.

“After the summit, the countries will get into the specifics of the master plan. Some of these plans can be aligned with national connectivity plans,” said Nepal’s foreign minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali.

A memorandum of understanding on grid connectivity is set to be signed after the summit. The MoU envisages the establishment of the Bimstec Grid Interconnection Coordination Committee to undertake the Bimstec Grid Interconnection Master Plan Study which will open up avenues for energy trade in the region.

The planned Bimstec development fund will undertake specific projects in member countries. Officials said modalities for the fund, such as raising the corpus, will be discussed in due course.

The summit will also focus on stepping up counter-terror cooperation, strengthening the Bimstec secretariat and putting in place a charter, an agreed blueprint for its functioning in a more coordinated manner. The members have also looked at narrowing focus areas to key issues such as connectivity, poverty alleviation, trade, investment and tourism, climate change and security.

“Bimstec should focus on fewer areas. Instead of 14, they should bring it down to a few like four or five areas for detailed coordination. Among others, FTA should be concluded fast and the stage should be set for a comprehensive trade agreement, covering not only goods but services and investment,” said Sachin Chaturvedi, director of Delhi-based think tank Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS).

“The flexibility of Bimstec is its strength and it can move fast. This is the very reason that Saarc cannot move forward. Its charter does not allow quick decision-making.”

During the Bimstec ministerial meeting, minister of state for external affairs VK Singh said India accords utmost priority to the grouping as it fulfills New Delhi’s foreign policy priority of “neighbourhood first and Act East”.

Strategic affairs expert Brahma Chellany agreed: “Bimstec fits well with India’s Act East policy. India is returning to its traditional orientation to the east. Bimstec, like India’s Act East policy, will help to realign India’s foreign policy along the historical axis.”

Modi is set to have bilateral meetings with leaders of the six other countries on the sidelines of the summit. Before he returns to Delhi on Friday, Modi will inaugurate the Nepal Bharat Maitri Pashupati Dharmashala built with Indian aid.

The grouping formed in 1997 has held only three summits – in 2004, 2008 and 2014. Modi invited Bimstec leaders to a BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, Russia) outreach forum in Goa in 2016, giving impetus to the forum representing a geographical region that is home to 22% of the world’s population.

First Published: Aug 30, 2018 06:49 IST

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