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Talking up Bimstec

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December 24, 2005 14:14 IST

A senior Myanmarese official thought he was being offered a beefsteak when someone mentioned BIMSTEC. The foreign ministry in Tokyo said it had no 'official policy' on the association of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand when Japan's New Delhi embassy sought guidance.

Adding insult to injury, a leading Kolkata newspaper called BIMSTEC 'a Japanese initiative' when the purpose of last week's two-day seminar was to persuade an indifferent Japan to take some interest in this group.

Yet, born in 1997 as a result of Bangkok's persistence, BIMSTEC could be a vital bridge between SAARC and ASEAN. Myanmar and Thailand are already in ASEAN while Japan is Thailand's second-biggest export destination. BIMSTEC's $80 billion economy seems puny against Japan's wealth but its 6 per cent average growth -- against Japan's 2.4 per cent -- indicates future promise.

BIMSTEC's 1.32 billion people command the Bay of Bengal with its immense resources and strategic shipping routes. Since Tokyo's well-heeled Sasakawa Peace Foundation supported the seminar that the Centre for Studies in International Relations and Development in Kolkata organised, there is obviously interest at one level in establishing linkages.

The problem was that many of the exhaustively researched papers ignored the stagnation that now discourages Japan.

The seminar was like a matrimonial ad proclaiming the beauty and virtues of the impoverished but wheat-complexioned BIMSTEC bride (read India, read West Bengal) seeking a prosperous Japanese groom.

Indian speakers bubbled effervescently with facts, figures, charts and graphs to prove to their own absolute satisfaction that the bride deserves all the world's aid and investment. Carried away by his own rhetoric, one speaker claimed that Japan's surplus savings, excess industrial capacity, ageing population and inadequate outsourcing would force it to come a-courting BIMSTEC.

That touching faith ignored the push and pull interaction that determines everything. However much Japan might need a foreign spouse, it may not regard a sluggish and moribund BIMSTEC as the ideal candidate.

Expectedly, Japanese speakers were more realistic. Hidenao Yanagi, minister in the Japanese embassy, cited dilatoriness on the Myanmar-Bangladesh-India oil pipeline as a "symbolic example" of how BIMSTEC functions -- or doesn't. Similarly, Shigeru Tsumori, Japan's former ambassador to Myanmar, regretted repeated delays over the proposed India-Myanmar-Thailand highway.

Masahiko Ebashi, professor of international studies at Yokohama's Meiji-Gakuin University, mentioned investors' complaints regarding business conditions, the inability of BIMSTEC countries "to utilise foreign capital and technology properly," the "big presence of inefficient state-owned enterprises" and internal political constraints.

There was no Indian response. Not even when Rahul Sen from Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, the only Indian to share Japanese misgivings, warned bluntly, "BIMSTEC must get its act together."

Nor did criticism, albeit muted, prevent the Centre's president, Lt-Gen B S Malik, from producing an optimistic Kolkata Consensus.

Think tanks need to proclaim success to survive and, obviously, the consensus had to reflect the buoyancy of the Indian speakers, especially since the Japanese acknowledged that BIMSTEC is a good idea that deserves support. But a greater awareness of shortcomings and challenges, as well as of the reasons for Japanese disinterest, might have given Gen Malik better cause for satisfaction and served the bigger aim of fleshing out a sound concept whose purpose should not be squandered in self-serving verbiage.

BIMSTEC's commitment to a free trade agreement and plans for energy co-operation and tourism development could be promising. Asia-Pacific tourism is growing rapidly but Myat Thein, former rector of Yangon's Institute of Economics, pointed out that BIMSTEC's 15 million tourists are only 15 per cent of the global total of more than 800 million and earn only 2 per cent of the world tourism revenue of $475,722 million.

A Panglossian attitude will not change things. Just calling a half-empty glass half-full will not fill it up.

Nor should Japanese hardheadedness be underestimated. The so-called "China Risk" factor was mentioned but spats with China and South Korea have not affected economic interaction. Though relations with Myanmar have dwindled since the military coup, Japan, being heavily dependent on energy imports, is interested in huge Myanmarese offshore natural gas deposits which have supplied Thailand since 2002.

If the special economic zone near Yangon, to be administered by Shanghai's Pu Dong New Zone Authority, is lucrative and persuades Myanmar's rulers to open up, Japan could be the next applicant.

Japan does not gamble on unknowns. Not for nothing is its per capita direct investment in Bangladesh only a dollar but $419 in Malaysia.

Though an India-Japan study group is considering how to strengthen a burgeoning partnership, no Japanese prime minister visited India during the 23 non-alignment years of socialist and bureaucratic controls. Once the major buyer of Indian coal, Japan soon switched to Australia. The luxury train for Buddhist pilgrims flopped because no Japanese tourists came.

Indo-Japanese ties are looking up now because India is changing. If BIMSTEC countries make investment profitable, liberalise policies, check corruption, cut red tape and improve co-operation among themselves, Japan will automatically express interest.

Neither U Thet Tun, former director of UNESCO's Asia Division nor anyone else will then mistake BIMSTEC for beefsteak.
Sunanda K Datta-Ray