From the tales of Lord Rama to the wisdom of Lord Buddha, the South Asian and Southeast Asian regions are not only historically intertwined, but also founded on a shared cultural heritage. Perhaps this shared history alone was enough to convince four nations under the Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation (Bist-Ec) arrangement to come together to pen the Bangkok Declaration on June 6, 1997, to promote economic development, social progress and regional cooperation.
But in reality, the Bimstec framework (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), a later iteration that welcomed Nepal, Myanmar and Bhutan, has been an organisation in name only throughout its existence. For 25 years, it has suffered from inconsistent commitments, either due to a lack of political will or finances. However, all that changed on Wednesday when member states met virtually in Colombo for the fifth time with much fanfare, with a renewed sense of optimism. A charter was signed, cementing clear long-term goals in seven areas, each assigned to one country, while a flag and emblem were also adopted.
For Thailand, which is leading the connectivity charge, Bimstec is a unique opportunity to kickstart its post-Covid economic recovery -- and ensure it is not reliant only on trading partners in Asean and the Indo-Pacific, a region where geopolitical tensions are on the rise. Having diversity and balance is important, and although the country has historically looked East, it has much to gain by realising its "Look West" policy.
Crucial to this process is establishing a clear trading infrastructure and network, through roads and marine links. The Bimstec region accounts for 21.7% of the world's population and a combined GDP of US$3.8 trillion (127 trillion baht). Despite having massive potential, intra-regional trade between members only accounts for $70 billion of total trade, a stark contrast to Asean's $600 billion. Part of the problem is a lack of established trade routes. Although the 1,408-kilometre India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway connecting Moreh, India to Mae Sot, Thailand through Myanmar is operational, political instability in Myanmar has rendered it largely unusable for cross-border trade.
Hence, member nations should not delay the passing of a proposed Coastal Shipping Agreement that aims to create a network of ports in the Bay of Bengal to allow smaller vessels to transport cargo. Besides lowering regional trading costs, these ports, especially with the upgrade of Ranong Port on the Andaman Sea coast, can serve as alternative destinations through which global trade flows to ease pressure along a congested global shipping route through the Straits of Malacca, and this can ultimately benefit Thailand as an alternative hub of trade. Enhanced maritime links will also serve as a cornerstone for future disaster management, especially since Bimstec nations are prone to cyclones and tsunamis. A joint framework for disaster response and annual exercises can help lessen the impact of future catastrophes.
But trade and disaster management issues are not the only connectivity items on the menu. Thailand is on the fast track to become an aged society either this year or next, and a "super-aged" society by 2031-2032 when 28% of its population will be over 60. With the number of new births hitting an all-time low of 544,000 last year, Thailand's National Economic and Social Development Council has predicted the economy will shrink by an average of 0.5 percentage points annually between next year and 2033. Once again, the Bimstec market presents an immense opportunity in terms of tourism potential and a skilled workforce that can help plug gaps and prop up domestic high-tech industries. With the resumption of Chinese tourism still being anyone's guess and the Russia-Ukraine conflict depriving another critical market of tourists, Thailand should invest in attracting Bimstec travellers and improve the flow of skilled workers through better visa policies.
While trade and workforce collaborations are the bread and butter of most frameworks, what sets Bimstec apart is a one-of-a-kind chance to establish people-to-people connectivity through cultural and educational exchanges that can cement long-term mutual partnership. With Buddhism being a key link that unites all seven members, exchange programmes and scholarships, such as the one offered by India's Nalanda International University, specialising in Buddhist studies, can open new avenues of intra-regional connectivity and development.
With Sri Lanka passing the chairmanship of Bimstec to Thailand for this year, and with the country also set to host Apec, Thailand has a rare chance to set the course of its future.
In a rapidly changing world, building a "bridge of prosperity", as highlighted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in our own backyards is necessary for stability.
The time has come for Bimstec to mature and for members to work hand-in-hand for the benefit of its population.