Friday, Sep 26, 2003
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By Our Diplomatic Correspondent
Officials in the Ministry of External Affairs told this correspondent on Wednesday that the summit was likely to take place in Phuket, Thailand, and will include the leadership of Nepal and Bhutan. "Both Nepal (which is now an observer) and Bhutan had expressed their keenness to join BIMST-EC," they said.
With Nepal and Bhutan joining, only Pakistan and the Maldives will be outside this regional grouping, one of whose stated goals is to act as a "bridge" between South and South-East Asia. BIMST-EC was set up as an economic grouping on June 6, 1997, in Bangkok.
So far, BIMST-EC has been meeting at the ministerial level, but now member nations have decided to enhance its profile and raise the deliberations to summit level. Though India's commitment to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation remains, it is evident that lack of progress on the SAARC agenda has made other regional economic cooperation propositions attractive.
Addressing the Second India-Association of South-East Asian (ASEAN) Summit on September 4, Mr. Vajpayee said:
"BIMST-EC provided a valuable link between South Asia and our two close neighbours in South-East Asia. We are working towards a Free Trade Arrangement within this organisation, which will meet at summit level early next year to give a decisive impetus to our cooperation."
Clearly, the possibility of an India-Thailand free trade arrangement in the backdrop of the Prime Minister's bilateral visit to Bangkok in early October, could set the tone for the entire enhanced BIMST-EC grouping.
According to Ministry officials, six main sectors have been identified for cooperation between BIMST-EC nations. These are: trade and investment, technology, communication and transportation, tourism, energy and fisheries. "Initially, the grouping could concentrate on these areas, but the leaders might decide to add new dimensions to our cooperation," the officials said.
The Government appears conscious of the fact that owing to the poor state of bilateral relations between India and Pakistan, SAARC as a whole has been unable to take off. The Pakistani reluctance to trade with India is a complicating factor in projecting South Asia as an economic bloc.
As India intensifies contacts with South-East Asia, there is a growing appreciation of South Asia's weaknesses on the trade and economic cooperation front.
Though BIMST-EC has been around for some time, it has been unable to "take off".
The idea behind the summit meeting of the BIMST-EC leadership (with Nepal and Bhutan coming in as new members) is to address this question and lend meaning to the idea of regional economic cooperation.
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