BIMSTEC push for Regional Cooperation under ‘New Normal’ | Daily News

BIMSTEC push for Regional Cooperation under ‘New Normal’

Sri Lanka, as the Chair of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) has a special responsibility of ensuring the speedy cooperation of the Member States of the Bay region. Foreign Secretary Jayanath Colombage, chairing the 21st Session of the Senior Officials’ Meeting (SoM), urged BIMSTEC Member States to embrace the “new normal, and adapt fast”.

The BIMSTEC ministerial meetings and expert group dialogues will lay the groundwork for major policy decisions required for a giant leap in regional cooperation at the 5th BIMSTEC Summit to be chaired by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2022. The Bay of Bengal countries have shared aspirations for growth, development, commerce and technology and BIMSTEC is the natural platform to implement regional connectivity and economic cooperation. The Bay of Bengal is increasingly gaining salience as a strategic maritime space. The geographical area of the Bay of Bengal region is more than two million square kilometres, and the Bay is situated between vital sea routes and stretches from Sri Lanka, up the coast of eastern India, curving under Bangladesh and Myanmar, and heading south along Thailand and Malaysia, until it reaches the northern coast of Sumatra in Indonesia.

Since ancient times, the waterways have been used as a primary medium of trade and have provided the impetus for the growth of maritime enterprises for their densely populated littoral countries. Maritime trade and maritime connectivity, after all, have been the oldest forms of cross-cultural and cross-civilizational interaction, and this has been manifested in this region.

BIMSTEC is mandated to deepen regional cooperation through its 14 working groups, covering everything under the Bay of Bengal sun, including a Free Trade Agreement, poverty alleviation, counterterrorism, disaster management, energy, climate change and tourism. There is every potential for BIMSTEC to become a highly successful forum of economic cooperation such as the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) or the European Union (EU).

Foreign Secretary Colombage, in his inaugural remarks at the first virtual meeting of BIMSTEC senior officers held last week stated that global dynamics will not be the same after the COVID-19 pandemic as it has affected all States, in various degrees, as it transformed from a health crisis to an economic and human crisis as described by the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.

This is a reflection of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s call for support of global solidarity, unity and renewed multi-lateral cooperation in overcoming COVID -19. In his address to virtual Non-Aligned Summit he urged the member states to support collective global action in combating this deadly virus and sharing best practices and lessons learnt. “It is essential to ensure that all countries have unrestricted access to vital medical resources required to respond to this virus and do not face impediments in their procurement. As Sri Lanka notes with deep concern that developing countries are facing an unprecedented economic and debt crisis due to the pandemic, the need for debt relief and financial stimulus for these countries must be duly recognized,” the President said and added, “in this regard, Sri Lanka re-iterates its call and joins global appeals for international financial institutions and donors to provide debt relief and greater financial assistance to vulnerable countries.”

Recognizing the importance of regional cooperation, President Rajapaksa appointed Tharaka Balasooriya as State Minister for Regional Cooperation. The young dynamic professional works under the guidance of the experienced Dinesh Gunawardena who handles Foreign Affairs.

Foreign Secretary Jayanath Colombage, speaking at the senior officer dialogue, pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic crisis has affected the very fabric of daily life of BIMSTEC Member States as economic activities have slowed down with global and regional value chains disrupted, millions of people have lost their jobs with many pushed into poverty and therefore the meeting was timely, as it is an opportunity to build on the assurances made by Heads of State of BIMSTEC Members on combating the adverse effects of COVID-19 at the 23rd Anniversary of the BIMSTEC Day in June 2020.

“Their messages were clear and encouraging as the Leaders had reiterated and acknowledged the need to build a better and resilient organization that could leverage regional cooperation in the recovery and rehabilitation process post COVID-19,” he said.

Given that the region is home to 23% of the world population, the devastating effects affecting the vulnerable sections can only cripple economies and divert resources that were once used for upward mobility in Member States. The collective GDP of US $ 3 trillion, which was a benchmark prior to the pandemic, should not become an unattainable goal in the face of this devastation, and the goal should be to surpass it.

The sector driven organization should collectively promote trade and investment cooperation, strengthen energy cooperation, increase connectivity and people-to-people contact, focus on disaster management and public health, combat terrorism and extremism, deal with the adverse effects of climate change and work towards poverty alleviation, Prof Colambage said.

As the lead country for Information, Technology and Innovation sector in BIMSTEC, Sri Lanka informed that it will put forward proposals that would enhance the use of technological tools in daily life to address post COVID-19 effects and also cater to the demand for internet based economic activities and that the proposed setting up of the BIMSTEC Technology Transfer Facility in Colombo would further augment the work Sri Lanka proposes to undertake in the sector.

The Sri Lanka delegation indicated its readiness to host the 5th BIMSTEC Summit preceded by the 17th Ministerial meeting, as it has earned the ‘Safe Travels’ stamp from the World Travel & Tourism Council in recognition of the comprehensive health and safety measures the Government has put in place.

It is an accepted fact that any regional bloc to be productive, the political desire of major member nations is essential. In the regional organizations in this region, the commitment of the economic giant, India is a prerequisite. The BIMSTEC could take a giant leap with the unstinted support of its biggest member, India. India finds it very convenient to promote and strengthen BIMSTEC, an organization in which Pakistan is not a member. New Delhi is not keen to promote the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) because of major differences between Pakistan and India. Some Indian analysts call BIMSTEC as ‘SAARC minus Pakistan and plus two’ (Myanmar and Thailand).

Now it is for the new BIMSTEC Chair, Sri Lanka to work in cooperation with India to take the initiative for BIMSTEC to perform successfully. To start with, there should be a strong management mechanism as nothing will progress unless the BIMSTEC secretariat is significantly empowered. Regions often lead to multilateral organizations, but strong organizations can also make or revive regions.

The Bay of Bengal has a common history and shared cultural heritage, which is the backbone of multilateral understanding and respect. Hence, it is the responsibility of BIMSTEC leaders to further strengthen cooperation among member countries through regional integration, creating a prosperous Bay of Bengal region.