In what is likely to be his last major multilateral event as Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh attended a meeting of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) in Napyidaw, Myanmar. BIMSTEC is a fairly young regional institution that gets lost in the space between SAARC and ASEAN, but the latest summit added some much-needed energy to its development. BIMSTEC is comprised of India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal.
In Napidyaw, Singh called for fast-tracking a free trade pact among the BIMSETC members and increasing economic cooperation. The summit issued a joint declaration on trade, which expressed an intention to “expedite work for conclusion of the Agreement on Trade in Goods by the end of 2014, and to continue its efforts for early finalisztion of the Agreement on Services and Investments.”
Singh emphasized the importance of a short timetable for a potential free-trade agreement: “Most of us here are connected with each other through one or more regional economic arrangements and it should not be difficult for us to conclude one for BIMSTEC.” A BIMSTEC free trade area framework has existed since at least 2004 but has led to little concrete progress for the countries within the organization.
The free trade pact process within BIMSTEC is rendered more complicated by the fact that its constituent states already have FTAs under the South Asia Free Trade Area agreement, which was reached via SAARC summits, or are members of ASEAN who then have their own free trade negotiations with BIMSTEC states. Indian Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh noted the difficulty of arriving at “an outcome that is optimal for India and them.”
“In coming together, we are not only stepping out of narrow, traditional definitions of regions such as South Asia or Southeast Asia, but we are also building a bridge across Asia’s most promising and dynamic arc,” Prime Minister Singh said at the summit.
The BIMSTEC leaders jointly vowed to increase cooperation in counter-terrorism, drug trafficking, and transnational crime as well. According to The Hindu, the heads of government at the BIMSTEC summit “called for expediting the ratification for entry into force of the BIMSTEC Convention on Cooperation in Combating International Terrorism, Transnational Organized Crime and Illicit Drug Trafficking and also for the early signing of the BIMSTEC Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters.”
Singh also took the opportunity to announce that India would initiate direct shipping lines to Myanmar. Relations between India and Myanmar have grown warmer since President Thein Sein’s wave of reform. Myanmar will import India-developed submarine sonar systems this year. For India, Myanmar represents an important node in its Look-East Policy.