Bimstec envoys call for early conclusion of FTA

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New Delhi : Ahead of the Bimstec Summit in Nepal this month-end, envoys of the seven-nation regional bloc on Monday called for early conclusion of negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) among member-nations, which is hanging fire for 13 years.

Speaking at a panel discussion here on the "Fourth Bimstec Summit: Expectations, Challenges and Opportunities", organised by industry body Ficci, the envoys of Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand were of the view that the time is ripe to give unequivocal directives to facilitate the conclusion of the FTA.

The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (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 1.5 billion people, or 21 per cent of the world's population, and has a combined GDP of $2.5 trillion.

The main objective of Bimstec 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, largely due to non-cooperation on part of Pakistan on issues like connectivity and counterterrorism, India has been giving more importance to Bimstec in recent times.

India is the lead country for cooperation in four priority areas: Counterterrorism and transnational crime, transport and communication, tourism and environment, and disaster management.

This year's Bimstec Summit, only the fourth since the bloc's inception, will be held in Kathmandu on August 30-31.

In his address at Monday's panel discussion, Bangladesh High Commissioner Syed Muazzem Ali called for expediting the Bimstec FTA to boost trade as "poverty is a common enemy for development of the region".

Pointing out that Bimstec nations should work together for connectivity, energy and counter-terrorism, Ali said: "Comprehensive connectivity will be a game changer."

He said that Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has taken a zero tolerance approach towards terrorism/extremism and will not allow the country's soil to be used against other countries.

"Institutional mechanism of Bimstec has to be strengthened," Ali said.

"Our government puts priority in taking forward the Bimstec process."

The Bangladesh High Commissioner was also of the view that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has adopted a more pragmatic and accommodative approach to Bimstec.

Sri Lankan High Commissioner Chitranganee Wagiswara said that Bimstec should work to create its visibility in international fora.

"The Bimstec Summit should work for outreach programmes with international organisations and agencies," Wagiswara said.

Calling for people-to-people contact between member-states, she called for promoting Buddhist tourism trails in the region.

Thailand Ambassador Chutintorn Gongsakdi said that his country would like to see some "transformative changes" in Bimstec.

"We should look at how Bimstec can be a building block for the Indo-Pacific region," Chutintorn said.

Stressing that Bimstec is a bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia, he called for increased cooperation between the bloc's seven nations in terms of connectivity, trade and investment, people-to-people contacts, and counter-terrorism efforts.

Myanmar Ambassador Moe Kyaw Aung said that cooperation with Bimstec is a priority for his country but lamented the fact that there is still lack of a strategic cohesion in regional economic cooperation.

Former Indian Ambassador to Myanamar Rajiv Bhatia said it is time to recognise the seven countries of Bimstec as a powerful geopolitical construct.

"No matter what happens to Saarc, we should be committed to Bimstec," Bhatia said.

"Bimstec should concentrate on governance, the business community, and the people of the region at large."

The unanimous view of the Bimstec envoys was that out of the 14 identified priority sectors of cooperation, there was a need to focus on select areas such as connectivity, energy, trade, investment, climate change, and counter-terrorism measures.

This, they said, would give visibility to the regional grouping and make it a meaningful platform for prosperity in the region.

The heads of Bimstec missions called for people-oriented decisions based on regional connectivity and economic integration.

Piyush Srivastava, Joint Secretary (Bimstec and Saarc) in India's External Affairs Ministry, expressed the hope that the Nepal summit would give further impetus to the expectations of the region's people to better their lives.

On the occasion, a knowledge paper prepared by Ficci's core group of experts was released, which makes several policy recommendations for a thorough renewal and rejuvenation of Bimstec as a premier regional grouping, committed to securing greater cooperation and integration in the next decade.