Opening BIMSTEC | Sunday Observer


16 July, 2023

Today’s world is defined by alliances, be they military, diplomatic or political. Sri Lanka is a member of several alliances or blocs, but it remains to be seen whether we have actually reaped the benefits of such memberships. One reason is that certain international alliances have lost their relevance in the modern world. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) began with grand ambitions in the early 1950s at the height of the Cold War, but it has seemingly lost its way in a unipolar world.

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), founded in 1985, is also mainly non-functional as a result of bilateral issues between India and Pakistan. It is in this context that The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) arrived on the scene in 1997. It brings together seven South Asian and Southeast Asian nations (Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar) housing 1.73 billion people and having a combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of US$ 4.4 trillion.  Today, BIMSTEC has emerged as a formidable force in world affairs, perhaps only second to BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), which itself is expanding at present.

But the problem with BIMSTEC is that almost 26 years after its inception, it is yet to realise its full potential. There is a good example from elsewhere in the world for the possibilities that open when countries in a given bloc work together.

The European Union (EU) and its Schengen Zone is completely borderless for residents and visitors with valid Schengen visas. This way, one can seamlessly travel to and within almost 35 countries (some European countries which are not members of the EU are in the Schengen scheme) and the same goes for trade.

Most EU countries share a single currency (Euro). There are multiple benefits that a country can derive from being a member of a seamless bloc. By the same token, most people in the UK have now realised the folly of voting for Brexit. After all, the logic is fairly simple – nations are always stronger together.  

In this backdrop, the leaders of BIMSTEC countries should take serious note of President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s recent clarion call to make it a borderless travel and trade region. Addressing the Travel Agents Association of India (TAAI) Congress in Colombo under the theme “Transcending Borders, Transforming Lives”, President Wickremesinghe outlined the plus points of such a borderless region.

“Why don’t we make our whole BIMSTEC area one borderless tourist area? Is that what you want? Transcending borders? Not just Sri Lankans travelling to India or Indians travelling to Bangladesh. No. It should be one tourist area for anyone who wants to come from outside. We have so much to offer. Why don’t we open up BIMSTEC,” the President queried.

This is a very pragmatic call by a statesman who has a vast knowledge of international alliances. Of course, it goes without saying that the BIMSTEC should be open to all its residents as well, who now have to obtain fairly expensive visas to visit each other’s countries. Countries that have liberal visa and open trade schemes generally see an exponential rise in visitor numbers and trade volumes.

BIMSTEC will experience the same phenomenon if it becomes a borderless region with a BIMSTEC visa regime and also “Open Skies” where the airlines of BIMSTEC countries will be free to operate any number of flights within the region, including “fifth freedom” flights. Sri Lanka, located in the epicentre of East-West trade routes will be poised to realise the full potential of such arrangements. As the President so rightly said, BIMSTEC can even market cuisines such as Biriyani as a regional dish to attract more tourists.

The future belongs to alliances, even those that are formed across geopolitical boundaries. It was reported that around 40 more countries are vying to gain membership of BRICS, which will make it BRICS+, although only five countries are likely to be admitted in the first round. They are even contemplating forming a new BRICS common currency to challenge the dominance of the US Dollar in global trade and money markets.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is also likely to add more members and Sri Lanka too has expressed an interest in joining it. The agreement, signed between the 10 ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) and its five Free Trade Agreement (FTA) partners, is the largest free trade arrangement in the region. Sri Lanka, having lost a golden opportunity to join ASEAN when it was set up in 1967, should at least now work with vigour to gain RCEP membership.

Sri Lanka, being non-partisan, should also look at the possibilities opened by the US-led Blue Dot Network (BDN) and the China-led Global Development Initiative (GDI), formerly the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), for infrastructure development. There is no harm in leveraging our unique geopolitical situation to gain an added advantage in terms of infrastructure and social development.