ASEAN, SAARC to BIMSTECTowards establishing a broader partnership for peace, prosperity and security in Asia
The fourth summit of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) held in Kathmandu issued an 18-point declaration pledging to make the alliance more effective by strengthening it as a bridge between South and Southeast Asia. BIMSTEC will ‘identify and hold accountable states and non-state entities that encourage, support and finance terrorism’ and explore the possibility of establishing a BIMSTEC Development Fund, the declaration further said.
Conference diplomacy in the region is thus expected to be even more hectic with additional opportunities and resources for those involved.
Nepal left no stone unturned to turn the event into a gala affair, but what about the prospect of real cooperation for the welfare of the peoples of the region? Will BIMSTEC become one more white elephant known for grand ceremonies and declarations repeating the same old statements? Nepal was unable to use the summit as an opportunity to promote tourism and showcase the forthcoming Visit Nepal Year by organising a retreat in a scenic location outside Kathmandu or even in Gokarna. What needs to be done to prevent BIMSTEC from turning into another dysfunctional regional institution like the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)? To this end, the following may be relevant.
As the post World War II vision of collective security, prosperity and dignity at the global level through the United Nations seemed farfetched, scholars came up with the idea of manageable regional level cooperation among countries with similar needs and aspirations as the next best thing. But experience shows that will and ability to respond to political and security concerns are essential for real cooperation to happen. If the European Union presents a success story, SAARC gives an example of an organisation made moribund by problems between two of its largest members and a charter preventing discussion of contentious issues. Can economic and technical needs alone motivate members to really cooperate and make BIMSTEC effective?
International and regional organisations are created to harmonise national interests for the collective global and regional good. But this requires political will among national leaders and a strong and independent secretariat able to deal with issues affecting cooperation. At the regional level, the SAARC secretariat and secretary general remain helpless due to over-bureaucratisation. At the global level, the UN suffers from pressure from the powerful and top officials compromising with the ‘powerful’ for fear of risking their careers or not being elected to a second term. How will BIMSTEC redress such problems?
The post-BIMSTEC summit military exercise proposed by the Indian prime minister has overshadowed the Kathmandu Summit. Critics have always identified BIMSTEC with India’s Look East policy and attempt to undermine SAARC to isolate Pakistan. The military exercise has given the impression of trying to create a military alliance around the Bay of Bengal to counter China’s military activities in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. The fear of being caught in the rivalry has prompted some members to withdraw from the military exercise.
The BIMSTEC summit took place against a backdrop of the global order in disarray, intellectual discourses raging on the rise of ‘illiberal internationalism’ and the global economic situation marked by US-China trade tensions escalating into a trade war. Regional institutions and their members are affected by emerging global trends. In this situation, Asia represents the best economic growth potential but also the most serious security challenges. In a vital but volatile region, a broad partnership for peace, prosperity and security is essential like the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Only such a vision can make BIMSTEC a bridge between South and Southeast Asia and bring together all major Asian initiatives and powers.
Security and stability are essential for prosperity. From such a perspective, Indian Prime Minister Modi’s proposal to hold a military exercise focused on training and sharing experiences on disaster preparedness and relief seems to be non-threatening. But the response of some members may reflect their broader political and security perceptions affecting participation in the exercise currently, and cooperation in other areas in the future. With visionary leadership and effective institutionalisation, confidence can be built for changing perceptions so that BIMSTEC does not end up as one more regional forum displaying ceremonial fanfare but little real cooperation.
Simkhada is a former Nepali ambassador to Switzerland and chairman of the Association of Former Nepali Ambassadors.