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Sri Lanka’s chairing of BIMSTEC: Momentous or mundane?

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 20 September 2018 00:45


Leaders of the BIMSTEC member countries at the Sheetal Nibash, the presidential palace, at Kathmandu in Nepal on 30 August. The Chairmanship of the BIMSTEC was handed over to President Maithripala Sirisena on 31 August by Nepal’s Prime Minister Sharma Oli


By George I. H. Cooke

Sri Lanka’s assumption of the chair of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) raises opportunities as the grouping provides yet another forum through which Sri Lanka could articulate a clearer, pragmatic approach to international engagement across a spectrum of themes. It also exposes inadequacies which seem inherent with the opportunities provided to the country in the recent years. 

Political uncertainty, strategised diplomacy and a coordinated approach are among those issues that top the list of challenges ahead as the country focuses on electoral processes in the next couple of years, is yet to identify a clear strategised mode of engagement in diplomacy, and sourly lacks an overall coordinated mechanism in the field of international relations.  

The grouping of seven states which brings together Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand as well as Bhutan and Nepal, dates back just two decades to 1997, but has met at the Head of State level on only four occasions including the recently concluded summit in Nepal. 

Though the position is for a period of two years, the history of BIMSTEC has seen long gaps between summits resulting in extended presidencies. While the 14 sector specific areas of cooperation remain the foundation upon which the organisation functions, these thematic areas, led by each country, result in the opportunity to guide the actions and enhance the cooperation of the organisation, under their respective leadership. 

Sri Lanka has been delegated leadership in the areas of technology as well as counter terrorism and transnational crime. While technological advancement in Sri Lanka is gradually gaining momentum it would be more opportune for the country to play a dynamic role in the second category of counter terrorism and transnational crime. 

The experiences of a near three-decade conflict, the means by which terrorism was thwarted and how territorial integrity was safeguarded, all continue to remain secluded within the island. The sharing of such counter terrorism measures and enhancing dialogue on the issue, either at the bilateral level with other countries facing similar conflicts or in multilateral security fora, does not occur at the pace at which it would be expected, and here Sri Lanka can lead, and lead proactively. 

The security dimension: Overarching contribution of Sri Lanka 

Sr i Lanka, in its time at the helm, would do well to underscore the importance in BIMSTEC of an overarching umbrella of security which includes all the 14 areas and does not limit the country to just two areas of specialisation. 

Considering the guidance that Sri Lanka could provide each of the sectors through a coordinated approach amongst the membership, Sri Lanka would see a momentous period at the head of BIMSTEC. This would give the grouping direction, rejuvenation and revive its core mandate, while increasing its relevance in the years ahead. 

When considering the priority sectors, be they trade and investment, technology, fisheries, agriculture, public health, poverty alleviation, and transport and communication, or the promotion of tourism, enhancing cultural cooperation, and boosting people to people contact, as well as the need for heightened cooperation in the fields of counter terrorism and transnational crime, and the all-important categories of energy, environment and disaster management, and climate change, BIMSTEC needs to focus on security throughout. 

Failing economies, lack of investments, challenging technological advancements, over fishing, poor agriculture methods, inadequate public health services, counter-productive poverty alleviation measures and underdeveloped transport and communications means could elongate the problems facing BIMSTEC countries, but more importantly increase the security risk these countries continue to face due to the inadequacies experienced. 

Similarly low levels of intra-regional tourism, insufficient cultural cooperation and scarce people-to-people contact jeopardise the process of integration that BIMSTEC expects to achieve. The security dimension cannot be overestimated in relation to improving counter terrorism measures and thwarting transnational crime, as well as in securing greener energy options, and mitigating the impact of climate change in the region, which is prone to incessant natural disasters.   

Sri Lanka possesses the wherewithal to successfully lead the overarching efforts from a security dimension through the drawing up, in consultation with the member states, of effective plans of action for the 14 specified thematic areas of priority. This would ensure that Sri Lanka’s chairing of the group would be momentous. However three critical aspects have to factored into the decision making process, they being the political processes, the need for strategised diplomacy and a coordinated approach.  

Political processes

Sri Lanka’s democratic system has seen the country encounter a high level of vibrancy which at varied periods resulted in the state having to steer through excessively stormy conditions, yet it has retained its democratic stature. The political processes that are inherent of a democracy see, at times, drastic changes in leadership, which alter policy formulation and implementation. 

Sri Lanka secured the Chair-in-Office position of the Commonwealth in 2013 and retained it till 2015. The change in individuals at the top of the ladder saw Sri Lanka spirit away a hard fought for opportunity to make an impact on the grouping and seal her position within the Commonwealth of Nations. While the Chair-in-Office position is for a period of two years and is held by the leader of the country hosting the Heads of Government Meeting, the position has no specified terms of reference but gives the holder the opportunity to explore deeper involvement with members of the grouping. 

The next couple of years are being touted as crucial with the playing out of political processes in the island, and concern rises over the attention BIMSTEC would receive in the milieu of activity. 

Strategised diplomacy

Whilst domestic compulsions need to be prioritised, Sri Lanka needs to focus on a strategised process of diplomatic engagement, rather than piecemeal efforts to liaise with the world. In the domain of diplomacy, the identification of core values in foreign policy formulation and the effective implementation of that which is decided, require a concerted effort which is not always apparent. 

Sri Lanka sits as a member, dialogue partner or observer at various multilateral fora, however the contribution made therein and the benefits accrued therefrom remain ambiguous. Just as the widespread engagement is vital for a small state in the global system, the usefulness of that position would only be realised through a strategised process of synergising that engagement. Here diplomacy remains the key. 

Member states in BIMSTEC are identifying priority areas, comprehending looming challenges, adapting to the presence of new actors, exploring new initiatives and opportunities, and most importantly changing the course of their respective ships of diplomacy to suit global developments. 

Sri Lanka lacks a foreign policy formula that would strategically ensure the country reaps the benefits of its geographical position, regional engagement and international involvement. The identification of the importance of the neighbourhood – the Indian Ocean Region and its member states; crucial regional groupings which are growing in scope and power; as well as specific countries to be gateways into regions across the world, would augur well for the strategising of diplomacy. 

Coordinated approach

Foreign policy formulators have been keen, at times, to rationalise the formulation of policy as with the case of the non-recognition of Kosovo at the time of its declaration of independence in 2008, owing to the domestic ramifications of such recognition. Yet that non-recognition appears limited to part of the political sphere only. 

In May 2018, a Theatre Festival in Colombo, of which a state entity was identified as a partner, drew participants from Argentina, Austria, Germany, India, Italy, Turkey, and notably from Kosovo. The inclusion of participants, even though it may be argued in the sphere of the arts, indicates the recognition afforded to Kosovo. Participants would require visas to enter Sri Lanka, which would be stamped on Kosovan passports. They would perform as natives of that country and under their flag, and would represent the artistic voice of that state, which is supposedly not recognised in Sri Lanka.  

While the artistic community may be unaware of the intricacies of international engagement, the state institution which partnered in organising the event would need to bear responsibility, as the state apparatus as a whole needs to be singing off the same sheet, especially when it comes to a matter of such sensitivity as Kosovo. Evidencing a severe lack in a coordinated approach as one arm remains ignorant of the action of another speaks volumes. 

In relation to BIMSTEC, the onus is on the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry to structure a pragmatic approach that would bind all strategically vital sectors within the country, especially those in security, and trade and commerce, and to effectively lead the grouping in its areas of priority, if Sri Lanka is to maximise, or at the very least benefit from the opportunity received.

The ensuing two years will see Sri Lanka’s chairing of BIMSTEC being hailed as momentous or simply passing as another mundane period in the history of the grouping and the country. Sri Lanka has been entrusted with the prospect of providing guidance to a grouping that bridges South and South East Asia. The country would do well to use the occasion to chart the direction of BIMSTEC and thereby rise in the region, rather than squander the opportunity by merely chairing the discussions.

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