Bimstec aims for seamless connectivity, free trade zone (Second Lead)

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Kathmandu : The Bimstec regional bloc on Friday reiterated its resolve to provide seamless transport connectivity within its seven member states and renewed its commitment to an early free trade deal.

A joint declaration issued at the conclusion of the Fourth Bimstec Summit here stated that the member states resolved "to establish seamless multi-modal transportation linkages and smooth, synchronised and simplified transit facilities".

This would be done "through the development, expansion and modernisation of highways, railways, waterways, sea routes, airways in the region".

It said that the respective authorities would be directed to speed up their efforts to conclude the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation's Coastal Shipping Agreement and the Bimstec Motor Vehicle Agreement as early as possible.

The bloc was also satisfied with the preparation of the draft Bimstec Master Plan on Transport Connectivity and called for its early adoption.

It thanked the Asian Development Bank for providing support to prepare the Master Plan and tasked the Bimstec Transport Connectivity Working Group to work out the modalities for its implementation, giving due attention to the special circumstances and needs of the member states.

"We agree that the Master Plan would serve as a strategic document that guides actions and promotes synergy among various connectivity frameworks, such as the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Master Plan on Connectivity 2025 (MPAC 2025), the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS), to achieve enhanced connectivity and sustainable development in our region," it stated.

The statement comes in the wake of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's stress on connectivity within the region during his address at the inaugural session of the Summit on Thursday.

Bimstec came into existence on June 6, 1997, through the Bangkok Declaration.

It comprises seven countries lying in the littoral and adjacent areas of the Bay of Bengal -- Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

The bloc brings together 1.6 billion people, or 22 per cent of the world's population, and has a combined GDP of $2.8 trillion.

Its main objective is technical and economic cooperation among South Asian and Southeast Asian countries along the rim of the Bay of Bengal.

With the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) virtually rendered ineffective as a bloc, India has been giving more importance to Bimstec in recent times.

According to Friday's joint declaration, Bimstec decided to establish a Working Group to deal with information technology and communications related matters with a view to providing greater access, more affordable and high-speed internet and mobile communications to the peoples of the region.

In terms of trade cooperation, the bloc renewed its commitment to an early conclusion of Bimstec Free Trade Area (FTA) negotiations, and directed the Bimstec Trade and Economic Ministerial Meeting (TEMM) and its subsidiary bodies including the Trade Negotiating Committee (TNC) to expedite finalisation of all related Agreements of the Bimstec FTA as early as possible.

According to the declaration, the member states also agreed to revitalise the activities of the Bimstec Business Forum and Bimstec Economic Forum to further strengthen government-private sector cooperation for the promotion of trade and investment and task the Expert Group on Bimstec Visa Matters to continue negotiation for finalisation of the modalities for the Bimstec visa facilitation.

It also stated that Bimstec reiterated its position that terrorism continues to pose a serious threat to peace and stability in the region and reaffirmed its strong commitment to combat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and agreed to taking appropriate measures in this regard.

Stating that the bloc looked forward to the signing of the Bimstec Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters, the declaration called upon the member states for its early ratification and expressed satisfaction that many member states have ratified the Bimstec Convention on Cooperation in Combating International Terrorism, Transnational Organised Crime and Illicit Drug Trafficking.

It also encouraged closer cooperation in disaster management through sharing of information, including early warning system, adoption of preventive measures, rehabilitation and capacity building, agreed to build on the existing capacities in the region and decided to establish an inter-governmental expert group to develop a plan of action to improve preparedness and coordination for responding to natural disasters in the Bay of Bengal region.

According to the declaration, the bloc recognised the high potential of energy resources in the region, particularly renewable and clean energy sources, and agreed to expedite its efforts to develop a comprehensive plan for energy cooperation.

It also welcomed the signing of a memorandum of understanding on Bimstec Grid Interconnection and instructed the relevant agencies to take concrete measures to initiate harmonisation of technical, planning and operational standards for removing barriers to grid interconnections and also ensure early establishment of a Bimstec Grid.

The member states also agreed to enhance cooperation for development, access and sharing of affordable technologies, including for micro, small and medium enterprises for promoting sustainable development across sectors.

The declaration stated that Bimstec decided "to deepen cooperation in the agricultural and allied sectors, including crops, livestock and horticulture, farm machinery and harvest management so as to increase productivity and profitability of agricultural produce in a sustainable manner".

The declaration reemphasised the need for cooperation in mountain ecosystems and the Blue Economy.

In terms of people-to-people ties, the bloc resolved to build a deeper understanding and trust among member states and promote people-to-people contacts at various levels and.

It emphasised the need to enhance cultural exchange among member states and reiterated its commitment to giving a clear manifestation to this by establishing a Buddhist Circuit.

The member states also agreed "to take concrete steps to promote intra-Bimstec tourism and task the relevant authorities to devise strategies considering the emerging opportunities and building on the past initiatives".