Thu 28 Jul 2005
Filed under: Business / Trade,News
When it comes to the key regional cooperative frameworks to which Thailand belongs, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) immediately come to mind. Less familiar is the BIMST-EC, which brings together seven member countries: the original five members, Bangladesh, India, Burma, Sri Lanka and Thailand and Bhutan and Nepal, which joined the grouping more recently. On July 30-31, the leaders of BIMST-EC will meet in Bangkok for their first summit to provide political impetus to and to set the future direction for the cooperative initiatives under the grouping. It is therefore timely to take a look at how BIMST-EC came about and what it has achieved so far.
On June 6, 1997, BIST-EC (Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka Thailand Economic Co-operation) was created through a Thai initiative. When Burma, which is also known as Myanmar, joined on December 22, 1997, the group was renamed BIMST-EC. In 2003 the membership expanded to include Nepal and Bhutan but the BIMST-EC name was retained.
The grouping covers a population of almost 1.3 billion and is endowed with a wealth of natural and human resources yet untapped. Its aim is to foster socio-economic cooperation among its members and to serve as a means to link South and Southeast Asia. The group has identified six priority areas, each of which is overseen by a member country. They are: trade and investment (Bangladesh), technology (Sri Lanka), transport (India), energy (Burma), tourism (India) and fisheries (Thailand). One of the grouping’s major achievements has been the signing of the Framework Agreement on a Free Trade Area (FTA) at the ministerial meeting in Phuket on February 8. Negotiations on tariff reductions are to start in September and are
scheduled to be completed by the end of next year with the goal of
realising a free-trade area by 2017. India, Sri Lanka and Thailand are spearheading the process of achieving trade liberalisation by July 2012, while Bangladesh, Burma, Nepal and Bhutan will gradually liberalise by 2017, out of respect for the member countries’ different stages of development.
BIMST-EC is an integral part of Thailand’s policy of forging closer
economic links with our neighbours in South and West Asia. South Asia is home to one fifth of the world’s population and, interestingly, almost all the countries in the region are going through a process of economic reform and liberalisation.
Thailand’s trade with the BIMST-EC countries amounts to over US$3.3 billion (Bt136 billion) and is growing. At the same time, the countries of South Asia, particularly India, are adopting a ‘look east’ policy of closer partnerships with the nations of Asean. The convergence of the look west and look east policies comes at a time when the region’s security, political and economic outlooks have been marked by positive developments.
India, the emerging regional economic power, is igniting the economic
dynamism of South Asia as it achieves one of the fastest economic growth rates in Asia. It is therefore not surprising that the member countries recognise the enormous benefits to be derived from closer economic co-operation within BIMST-EC.
The expansion of transportation links among member states is a general policy of the grouping. One of the major projects is to extend land transportation links along the existing East-West Economic Corridor under the framework of the Greater Mekong Sub-region cooperation (GMS), which stretches from Da Nang and Lao Bao in Vietnam through Dansavanh and Savannakhet in Laos and Mukdahan in Northeast of Thailand, to connect with the planned India-Burma-Thailand Highway link from Mae Sot in Thailand
through Burma and India. There is also a trilateral project to connect the road links from Thailand to Burma and onward to Bangladesh and to establish another economic corridor by building a highway from Kanchanaburi in Thailand to the planned deep-sea port in Dawei in Burma, which would link up with seaports in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
Thailand is also playing an important part in promoting new coastal
shipping routes among BIMST-EC members. India has proposed improving intra-regional sea transport by developing feeder services from major ports along the Bay of Bengal rim to a central hub in the Bay of Bengal, perhaps in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. With regards to air transportation, Thailand hopes to promote Chiang Mai as an aviation hub not only for the Greater Mekong sub-region, but also for direct air links with major cities in South Asia. A major step in this direction is the inauguration of direct air services between Chiang Mai and Chittagong. These transportation linkages between the two sub-regions, once realised, will facilitate the movement of goods and passengers and will help generate greater business opportunities in trade, investment, and services as well as tourism.
The role of the private sector has also been instrumental in facilitating the expansion of trade and investment within the BIMST-EC region, particularly the establishment last year of the BIMST-EC Chamber of Commerce and the initiative to create a BIMST-EC Business Travel Card similar to the Apec Business Travel Card to make business travel in the region more convenient.Another prominent project worth highlighting is making 2004-2005 ‘Visit BIMST-EC Year’. Thailand has played a major role in promoting this project by organising familiarisation programmes for tour operators and promoting new forms of tourism, like pilgrimage tours
of Buddhist religious sites and new cruise and yacht tours through
Thailand, Burma and India. By combining tourist destinations, it is hoped that a larger number of tourists within and outside the region will be drawn to the various tourist attractions.
It has been noted that cooperation under BIMST-EC has been slow. But since 2002, when the annual meeting of BIMST-EC was raised from the deputy minister to the foreign minister level, the process of cooperation has gained momentum. Steadily, BIMST-EC has made much headway since its inception. As the leaders gather in Bangkok at the end of this month, BIMST-EC is poised to move to a higher plane of cooperation. The much anticipated Bangkok Declaration to be issued at the end of the meeting will provide the roadmap for BIMST-EC to advance and provide the building blocks for wider cooperation in Asia.
Sihasak Phuangketkeow is the director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Department of Information.