ASEAN Subregional Cooperation in the Spotlight With BIMP-EAGA Meeting

The initiative continues to muddle along despite lingering challenges.

ASEAN Subregional Cooperation in the Spotlight With BIMP-EAGA Meeting
Credit: ASEAN Secretariat

Over the weekend, officials from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei gathered for another iteration of a meeting around a decades-old subregional grouping. The ministerial meeting in Indonesia for the so-called Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA) placed an emphasis on cooperation at the subregional level in Southeast Asia that is often overlooked.

As I have written previously in these pages, some of the border areas between Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, despite belonging to different countries, are in reality quite porous, with economic, security and people-to-people links between them that can present both opportunities as well as challenges for governments, businesses, and populations at large more generally (See: “Malaysia-Philippines Meeting Puts ASEAN Subregional Cooperation in the Spotlight”).

One of the prime examples of ASEAN subregional cooperation is BIMP-EAGA, an initiative set up in 1994 to promote economic ties, which consists of Palawan and Mindanao in the Philippines, the states of Sabah and Sarawak and the Federal Territory of Labuan in Malaysia, and ten provinces on the islands of Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Maluku, and Irian Jaya in Indonesia.

Though BIMP-EAGA has faced some significant challenges in getting off the ground, work toward the realization of the initiative has continued on, and government data indicate that there have been incremental increases in trade, investment, and tourism arrivals. The 12th BIMP-EAGA Summit was held in April in the Philippines, which is chairing ASEAN this year and is being led by President Rodrigo Duterte, who is familiar with the initiative, having governed in the southern Philippines. At the April summit, leaders acknowledged the work that remained to be done and agreed to a new roadmap for the next few years called BIMP-EAGA Vision 2025 (BEV 2025).

BEV 2025, which is meant to be linked to the broader ASEAN Vision 2025, focuses on creating a resilient, inclusive, sustainable, and economically competitive BIMP-EAGA (R.I.S.E. BIMP-EAGA) to narrow the development gap. It includes priorities in key areas such as green manufacturing, fisheries, tourism, and agriculture. This will be accomplished through several means, including strengthening institutional mechanisms and implementing a series of priority infrastructure projects that will help boost connectivity for the seamless movement of goods, services, and people.

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From November 30 to December 3, the 21st iteration of the BIMP-EAGA Ministerial Meeting was held in Tarakan, North Kalimantan. The main focus of the ministerial meeting, as with others of its ilk, was to review progress and discuss follow up items from the head of state directives issued at the 12th BIMP-EAGA Summit meeting earlier this year.

In his remarks to the meeting, Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs Darmin Nasution framed the significance of BIMP-EAGA cooperation in the context of not just subregional prosperity, but also wider ASEAN integration. He also noted the importance of regulators providing support to ongoing economic initiatives in the form of policies or incentives, and reviewed some of the progress in areas such as the formation of economic corridors and green city initiatives in the relevant countries. To take just one example, the Indonesian city of Kendari, South Sulawesi was selected as the pilot city for the BIMP-EAGA Green Cities Initiative (BGCI), and the action plan for implementation has just been concluded.

Despite the challenges that remain, BIMP-EAGA continues to muddle on. The work on the initiative will continue on to 2018, not just among governments with their meetings at the ministerial and at the functional working group level, but among businesses that are interested in accelerating the pace of regional development, local officials that are also invested in the concept of subregional integration for their own reasons, often more so than their counterparts at the national level, and select partners as well that contribute to the initiative, notably China, whose role has been played up recently.