Announcement of the Eminent Persons’ Group in BIMSTEC: Consolidating Subregional Cooperation

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On December 02, 2023, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) took a significant step forward by establishing the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) to provide guidance for the regional body’s future endeavors. This panel, comprising representatives from each of the seven member countries—Nepal, India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand—aims to formulate a comprehensive blueprint for the future actions of the organization and explore avenues to enhance its cohesion. While the formal announcement of the EPG’s formation is pending from the BIMSTEC Secretariat in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the decision aligns with the overarching Bangkok Vision–2030 and the commitments made by member states in the past.

Rishi Raj Adhikari, the assistant spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Nepal, is slated to make the official announcement on behalf of the BIMSTEC Secretariat. The inaugural meeting of the EPG is scheduled for January 25, 2024 in Dhaka, setting the stage for robust subregional cooperation by addressing critical issues through this newly established body.

Established on June 6, 1997, BIMSTEC serves as a vital link between South Asia and Southeast Asia, comprising countries that include Nepal, India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand. Positioned as an alternative to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), BIMSTEC aims to foster collaboration across various sectors for mutual benefit. With a combined population of 1.7 billion, constituting 22 percent of the global population, the nations in the BIMSTEC region possess the opportunity for reciprocal advantages and can play a role in enhancing the worldwide economy. The collective GDP of BIMSTEC countries currently stands at approximately USD 3.6 trillion, with prospects for further expansion. However, Tenzin Lekphell, the Secretary General of BIMSTEC, is credited with spearheading the formation of the EPG, a concept initially endorsed by member states during the 15th BIMSTEC ministerial meeting in Kathmandu in September 2017.

The decision to establish the EPG gained momentum as a result of the agreement reached during the ministerial meeting, where the need for a roadmap for BIMSTEC’s 2030 Agenda was underscored. The meeting acknowledged the commendable efforts of the BIMSTEC Network of Policy Think Tanks (BNPTT) in facilitating regular consultations to enhance people-to-people contacts. The Terms of Reference for the Eminent Persons Group were finalized by the BIMSTEC Permanent Working Committee, as highlighted in the joint statement issued after the 19th ministerial meeting in Bangkok on March 9 of the same year.

During the BIMSTEC foreign minister’s retreat in July, member states expressed satisfaction with the progress made in establishing the EPG, emphasizing its role in charting a roadmap to maximize benefits for member countries and their citizens. In a message commemorating the twenty-sixth anniversary of BIMSTEC, Secretary General Tenzin Lekphell articulated the organization’s commitment to revisiting and re-examining its working methods to better serve the people. BIMSTEC currently operates in 14 areas of cooperation, encompassing trade and investment, technology, energy, transportation and communication, tourism, fisheries, agriculture, cultural cooperation, environment and disaster management, public health, people-to-people contact, poverty alleviation, counter-terrorism and transnational crime, and climate change.

Representing Nepal in the EPG is former foreign secretary and Nepal’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Durga Prasad Bhattarai. Other member states have nominated senior diplomats or former foreign secretaries to contribute their expertise to the panel. Sri Lanka, for instance, has appointed Esala Ruwan Weerakoon, former SAARC Secretary General and currently Additional Secretary to the Sri Lankan President’s Presidential Secretariat, as its representative in the EPG.

The establishment of the Eminent Persons Group within BIMSTEC marks a pivotal moment in the organization’s journey, signifying a commitment to charting a clear and comprehensive path for its future. As member states come together to address shared challenges and capitalize on common opportunities, the EPG’s role is crucial in guiding BIMSTEC towards greater regional cooperation and prosperity. The upcoming meeting in Dhaka is anticipated to lay the groundwork for a new phase in the organization’s evolution, with the potential to make a lasting impact on the economic and technical collaboration among the member countries.

How Does it Consolidate Subregional Cooperation?

Consolidating subregional cooperation within the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) involves a multifaceted approach, and the establishment of the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) plays a pivotal role in shaping the future trajectory of this regional organization.

Within the BIMSTEC framework, certain member countries face unique challenges arising from specific circumstances. For instance, Bangladesh and Nepal are identified as the two least developed countries (LDCs) that are set to graduate from LDC status by 2026. This transition will result in the discontinuation of various international support measures, including those from developed nations and various international organizations. Post-graduation, these countries will no longer receive duty-free, quota-free (DFQF) market access in both developed and developing nations, potentially leading to a decline in trade. The absence of preferential market access and DFQF benefits may increase export costs, diminishing competitiveness and reducing export income. The EPG aims to address and overcome these challenges.

In the current configuration of bilateral trade among these nations, it is evident that many BIMSTEC members have witnessed a significant increase in their bilateral trade over the years. Notable instances include the substantial growth in Thailand’s exports to India (amounting to US$ 5.5 billion in 2015), India’s exports to Sri Lanka (US$ 4.4 billion), Bangladesh (US$ 3.4 billion), and Nepal (US$ 2.6 billion), as well as Myanmar’s exports to Thailand (US$ 3.3 billion) and India (US$ 1.3 billion). Overall, India and Thailand emerge as key players in both export and import, while Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar play significant roles in terms of imports. This trend is expected to further strengthen.

The primary objective of the EPG is to provide strategic guidance by formulating a new blueprint for BIMSTEC. This blueprint encompasses a comprehensive vision for the regional grouping, outlining specific actions and initiatives that need to be undertaken in the future. By delving into the nuances of BIMSTEC’s direction, the EPG aims to offer valuable insights into the projects that should be initiated to foster greater collaboration among member states. This forward-looking perspective is crucial in adapting to the evolving dynamics of the subregion.

Strengthening the BIMSTEC grouping is another key focus of the EPG. By identifying areas of improvement and proposing measures to enhance the organization’s cohesiveness, the panel aims to fortify BIMSTEC’s role as a significant regional player. This includes assessing the existing framework and suggesting changes that will foster better regional cooperation. The EPG’s recommendations are expected to address challenges and capitalize on opportunities, paving the way for a more robust and effective BIMSTEC.

Moreover, the EPG is tasked with supporting the Vision 2030 of BIMSTEC. This long-term vision sets the tone for the organization’s aspirations and goals over the next decade. By aligning its recommendations with Vision 2030, the EPG ensures that its proposed blueprint is in harmony with the overarching objectives and aspirations of BIMSTEC. This alignment is crucial for fostering a shared vision among member states and creating a cohesive framework for collective action.

In addition to aligning with the vision, the EPG aims to facilitate the implementation of understandings and agreements reached among BIMSTEC member states in the future. This involves translating diplomatic commitments and shared goals into tangible actions and outcomes. The EPG’s role in this regard is to provide practical and actionable recommendations that can guide member states in realizing the agreed-upon objectives.

A key aspect of the EPG’s mandate is to identify specific projects that can be executed under the BIMSTEC framework. These projects are envisioned as catalysts for deeper cooperation in various sectors, including trade, technology, energy, transportation, tourism, and more. By pinpointing projects that align with the organization’s goals, the EPG contributes to the practical implementation of its proposed blueprint.

The statement from a Nepali diplomat underscores the significance of the EPG’s role in shaping the future of BIMSTEC. The diplomat emphasizes that the EPG’s recommendations will not only guide the organization in the future but also lend support to the implementation of Vision 2030 and commitments made by member states. This reiterates the EPG’s pivotal role in consolidating subregional cooperation within BIMSTEC, ensuring that the organization evolves as a dynamic and effective regional entity.

The Eminent Persons Group emerges as a crucial mechanism for consolidating subregional cooperation within BIMSTEC. By suggesting a comprehensive blueprint, supporting the long-term vision, and facilitating the implementation of agreements, the EPG contributes significantly to the organization’s evolution. As BIMSTEC navigates the complexities of regional dynamics, the insights and recommendations of the EPG are poised to shape a more integrated, cooperative, and prosperous future for the member states.

– Syed Raiyan Amir is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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