Transcript of Special Briefing on 5th BIMSTEC Virtual Summit (March 30, 2022)

March 30, 2022

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: A very good afternoon to all of you. Thank you for joining us for the special media briefing on the occasion of the 5th BIMSTEC Summit, which took place virtually today morning. You would have also seen that some of the proceedings were telecast live also. To give us a better sense of what was discussed, the background to it, and the quite historic decisions that were taken, particularly with regard to the charter, we have with us Shri Rudrendra Tandon, Additional Secretary looking after BIMSTEC and SAARC divisions. We will have initial comments from him and then a few questions. So without further ado, let me hand over the floor to Shri Tandon.

Shri Rudrendra Tandon: Thank you very much. Good afternoon. So the Prime Minister has just finished attending the fifth BIMSTEC Summit hosted by Sri Lanka. Prior to this summit, there were preparatory meetings at the Foreign Minister level and the Senior Official level. This took place on Monday and Tuesday. Secretary Saurabh Kumar and External Affairs Minister Dr. Jaishankar attended their meetings in Colombo. The theme of this summit was ‘towards a resilient region, prosperous economies, healthy people’. This was chosen by the chair; the chair has the prerogative to do so. And it sought to capture the main preoccupations that currently prevail in the top political leadership in the region centred around prosperity, resilience and public health. This provided the context to several of the interventions that we saw, including that of our Prime Minister.

The fourth element of context was the significant achievement of signing the charter. This in some sense caps a process of formalizing this grouping into a proper regional organization and this was the main outcome of this summit. With the charter, BIMSTEC now has an international personality, it has an emblem, it has a flag, it has a formally listed purpose and principles that it is going to adhere to, and an architecture. So that represents a fairly significant evolution of this grouping process which was happening since 2004 or so, but actually gained a lot of traction after 2014. From our perspective, of course, the signing of the charter is the most important outcome, but also in line with this development of the organization into a formal structure, was the approval granted by leaders to a complete reorganization of BIMSTEC cooperation activities. Henceforth, BIMSTEC cooperation activities will take place in seven pillars. Each pillar will be led by one of the member states, who will be primarily responsible for furthering cooperation. In that reorganization, it was decided that India will lead the security pillar.

The third major outcome from our perspective in this summit was the adoption of the master plan on transport connectivity. This is major agenda on the BIMSTEC platform for several years. But in 2018 summit, it was decided that we will approach this issue more systematically. I think it was a suggestion that came from Thailand, to create a master plan, which was worked upon for the over the last two years, in collaboration with the Asian Development Bank, and it was finalized in time for this summit. So what happened at this summit was that the leaders adopted this as a kind of framework or guidance for the type of cooperation that we are likely to do in the future in the connectivity space.

In addition to these three major outcomes, where the leaders were involved directly, they also witnessed the signing of three agreements. Now, this represents incremental progress that is being achieved on this platform in various ongoing areas of cooperation. For your information there was an MLAT on criminal matters. This emerged out of the discussions in the security pillar that have been taking place in the past. So it represents an incremental progress on that agenda. There was a Memorandum of Association to create a centre for technology transfers. It's called a Technology Transfer Facility, which will be established in Colombo. The third was an MOU for cooperation between diplomatic academies. So all these were witnessed by the leaders, but represent incremental progress being achieved on this platform, which is a good sign in terms of the vibrancy and in terms of the ability of this platform to move ahead.

Now, coming to our approach to the summit and the approach of the Prime Minister in particular. In his intervention, you would have heard, he spoke about several things, but they were focused on firstly, the agenda of developing BIMSTEC further. It seemed like the most important, relevant thing to do at this summit, because firstly, we were signing the charter, which caps long effort to formalize this grouping. So his general approach was to propose to the leaders that we needed to accelerate the pace of this formalization, and that we should not rest merely after signing the charter. He also spoke about the need to move forward the connectivity agenda, the disaster management agenda, the marine cooperation agenda, the economic integration agenda, and, of course, parts of our security agenda, which is an essential prerequisite for any sort of constructive economic and development cooperation.

Now, in view of the special commitment that India has, to developing the BIMSTEC platform further, the Prime Minister used this occasion to make announcements of some Indian initiatives, which we hope will further the BIMSTEC agenda in a more accelerated manner. In this regard, he announced a $1 million ad hoc grant to the BIMSTEC Secretariat's operational budget. Now the objective of that was to ensure that whatever pending institutional building tasks are taken forward on a rapid pace. He also announced a $3 million grant to revive the BIMSTEC Centre for weather and climate, which is an important part of the disaster management, disaster risk reduction agenda. With the aim of furthering our economic integration agenda, he announced the establishment of a program that will be run out of ICRIER in India and the aim of this will be to try and adopt as many international standards and norms for the trade facilitation part of the economic integration. This I can explain later, for some of you who may not see the significance of this. He also suggested the institutionalization of the disaster management exercises that India has been holding on its own on this platform, in view of the priority that disaster management in general is given on this platform.

So all in all, I think it was it was a satisfying or productive summit from our perspective, because the BIMSTEC agenda was taken forward, we were able to announce initiatives that will accelerate this process. And our overall takeaway from this summit was that at the top political level, there is great will to move the BIMSTEC agenda forward and there is also a sentiment that this moving forward has to be done with some urgency given the type of challenges that BIMSTEC members states are facing. Thank you.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Thank you very much. I will open the floor for some questions. Please introduce yourself and the organization for record.

Yashi: This is Yashi, from The New Indian Express. Yesterday, the EAM had said that, you know, the focus was also on countering terrorism. So throw light on what was said and also, how are they going to fortify the economic tie up between the member states of BIMSTEC?

Meghana Dey: Sir, Meghana Dey from DD News. My question is, Sir, under the master plan, how many projects are there and amount to what? And also which sectors have been given priority under the master plan?

Rezaul Hasan: Rezaul Hasan from the Hindustan Times. Mr. Secretary, I was wondering when you mentioned that India is going to take the lead in the security pillar, if we could get a few specifics I mean, what are we going to focus on, what are the programs and on the MLAT, pardon my ignorance, but will it kind of supersede the MLATs we may have with individual countries or how is it going to function?

Sidhant: Sir, there has been a certain bit of questions raised over presence of Myanmar, it is a member of the grouping but there is a leadership change, we know the coup has happened. So what has been the Indian perspective of the presence of the leadership of Myanmar at the BIMSTEC?

Shri Rudrendra Tandon: So let me first deal with the agenda items. So on counterterrorism, there was a mention of what External Affairs Minister spoke about, and also the question about what will be our approach to the security agenda. So we choose our activities based on the potential and capacities of this platform. So you have to match the type of initiatives you take to the capacity of this platform. So currently, our approach on the security pillar is to try and do two things - firstly, establish the highest quality norms for combating terrorism and transnational crime and other non-traditional crimes. At the same time, to put in place all the legal mechanisms required to enable our law enforcement agencies to collaborate as closely as possible to tackle these crimes. This is our broad approach. Now we do that through getting agreements, like the MLAT. There is other agreement of the same nature in the pipeline. We get it by establishing training collaborations at the law enforcement level, which was, by the way, one of the suggestions that was made by the Prime Minister, but this is the general approach on the security pillar. Coming to economic integration, I know that there is a lot of scepticism about the achievements on the economic integration pillar because of the fact that FTA has been under negotiation since 2004. Now, progress has been achieved, but it's very difficult to characterize how much progress. So the practical approach that we decided to follow on this platform was to focus on the trade facilitation agenda. Trade Facilitation in the economic integration space is a kind of low hanging fruit or early harvest type of activity. But what it does is that it enables intra BIMSTEC trade to flourish and the creation of regional value chains, which is what the objective of this economic integration agenda is all about.

On the master plan for connectivity - so the master plan for connectivity has projects listed out, which if undertaken, would have a multiplier effect on the logistic integration of the region, that is true. But the idea behind the master plan is that it provides a kind of framework that individual member states will keep in mind when they do their national connectivity plans and the hope is that if we all follow this as a kind of framework or a guidance, our connectivity plans will join up and the region will benefit from lower cost logistics.

You talked about the MLAT - I think I answered that question. It's one of the many agreements that facilitate interaction with law enforcement. They will not contradict any of the bilateral MLATs, we always make sure of that. They will supplement or if possible, do better than those bilateral arrangements.

On Myanmar - well, firstly, you must remember that BIMSTEC is a multilateral, it’s a regional cooperation platform and the aim is to focus on economic and development cooperation, to do activities that genuinely deliver value to people. The members on this platform are countries who are either geographically littoral to or dependent upon the Bay of Bengal. For the success of cooperation activities on this platform, we require all countries to be present and to participate in that cooperation activities. Myanmar is an important constituent member of the BIMSTEC and it has a very important geography.

Akhilesh Suman: I’m Akhilesh Suman from Sansad TV. Sir since you're telling that maybe completely revamp the BIMSTEC, is there any proposal to rename BIMSTEC so that the name can be more attractive, like SAARC, ASEAN? And also Sir, Sri Lanka is facing a huge challenge economically. Even today, they have declared that 10 hours, there'll be no light in the country. Is BIMSTEC thinking about helping such a country inside their grouping?

Shri Rudrendra Tandon: So, on renaming - I think what you're referring to is the fact that BIMSTEC is relatively unknown amongst the people of the region. And, as yet, it's a work in progress. I mean, we have to be realistic that its capacities are limited so its capacity to deliver value to the people of the region is also limited, so the awareness is limited. But hopefully, with the initiatives we are taking; with the work that has been going on, as I told you at an accelerated pace since 2014, BIMSTEC will start delivering cooperation activities that are useful to its members, which will deliver value to its people and hopefully recognition amongst the people will go up.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Thank you very much Rudrendra for the detailed briefing. That brings us to the end of this special briefing on the 5th BIMSTEC Summit. We will shortly have another special briefing for President's forthcoming visit to Turkmenistan, and the Netherlands. Please bear with us, we will just adjourn for a few minutes and reset the table.


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