Rebooting South, SE Asian cooperation
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Rebooting South, SE Asian cooperation

This file photo dated Aug 31, 2018 shows leaders of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) member countries attend the 4th summit in Kathmandu, Nepal. (Government House photo)
This file photo dated Aug 31, 2018 shows leaders of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) member countries attend the 4th summit in Kathmandu, Nepal. (Government House photo)

Fresh from the success of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation last year, Thailand is currently chairing another immense regional economic bloc promoting holistic and sustainable development and smart connectivity amongst South Asia and Southeast Asia. In the coming decades, if not centuries, these combined regions will together form the centre of the Indo-Pacific.

The name of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation or Bimstec might sound awkward and not be a familiar acronym but its future potential is not. Bimstec is considered the world's second regional bloc with a population of more than 1.5 billion. It will be sooner rather than later that Bimstec-related news hits the headlines.

The bloc came into being because of the economic crisis that the broader Asian region faced. Through the Bangkok Declaration in June 1997, the original bloc was created with the acronym BIST-EC which represented Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand Economic Cooperation.

At the time, as a full democracy and developing nation, Thailand was able to garner support from key South Asian economies to join together to face common challenges emanating from trade, energy, transportation, public health, poverty eradication, and counter-terrorism, amongst others. But within a few months, the bloc expanded to include Myanmar by the end of 1977. Two more mountainous South Asian countries, Nepal and Bhutan, had to wait until 2004 to join the bloc, which later adopted the current acronym, Bimstec.

For many observers, Bimstec is a slow-moving train that needs to add more fuel and fire to speed up the engine amid regional and global uncertainty. Last year, Bimstec faced one of the worse crises since its inception when the host, Sri Lanka, encountered a serious internal crisis that impacted its leadership of the bloc.

Now with Thailand as the chair, Bangkok is wasting no time in transforming Bimstec into a new engine of growth for the regional economy and beyond, especially in the post-Covid-19 world. The Thai bureaucrats, who helped shape and advance the Apec agenda last year, are confident that with commitment from the top, Bimstec could be a new game changer. The reason is a simple one: the bloc occupies one of the world's most important strategic outposts, the Gulf of Bengal.

After its stint as Apec chair, Thailand has gained the confidence to proceed with new visions for Bimstec. Bangkok is hoping to recalibrate this 25-year-old organisation, which Thailand helped found, into a vibrant and strategically important economic bloc. As such, in the coming weeks, Thailand is dispatching a team of senior officials to all Bimstec capitals to consult and consolidate members' views and proposals to be included in the Bimstec Bangkok Vision 2023. Bangkok would like to hold a foreign minister retreat in the near future to consolidate the bloc's future trajectories further. This is a procedure that will encourage all stakeholders to provide input.

Making use of lessons from Apec, Thailand has set forth the so-called three dimensions of driving forces under the pro-Bimstec theme. First, the Bimstec process must restart and reboot its economic cooperation because Covid-19 has disrupted regional production and value chains, and it is, therefore, necessary to strengthen the existing ones and create new channels that can reconnect with each other again. Under this pillar, Thailand will ensure that logistics supports for both land and sea are stronger than before to ensure easier business access for forms of enterprises, big or small.

Secondly, together with the Bimstec members, Thailand will promote food and health security so that all members are able to recover from the economic setbacks. One piece of good news for Bimstec would be the long-term implementation plan of the Bangkok Goals for Bio-Circular-Green economic model by the US chair of Apec this year. Washington has recently circulated the Manoa Agenda, which details how the US would like to implement the Bangkok BCG goals, to the Apec Members for comments. The BCG economic model will fit in nicely with the current economic conditions of Bimstec member countries.

Finally, Thailand sees the urgent need to transform Bimstec into an open platform for all stakeholders to take advantage of. With the people-centred focus, there will be more people-to-people exchange which will lead to unprecedented growth of tourism.

During the past three years of the pandemic, tourists from South Asia have helped improve Thai economic performance and growth.

One of the most frequently asked questions is the impact of Thailand's domestic development on its leadership role in Bimstec. As is well known, the Thai bureaucrats, often caught in constant political upheavals, are confident that they can pursue the Bimstec agenda without fail.

Thailand will have a new government in the autumn following the results of the May election. Bimstec will provide that new government with a fresh opportunity to continue the country's vision as a key player in the Indo-Pacific.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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