That the fourth BIMSTEC summit would be declared a “success” was a foregone conclusion because there wasn’t really much expected of the sub-regional economic grouping.
The two-day conference concludes on Friday with the signing of a charter on regional cooperation by the leaders of India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, Nepal and Thailand in Kathmandu. This is the first time after 2015 that Nepal is hosting such a high level summit, and the NCP government sees it as a feather in its cap, pulling all stops to spruce up the capital.
“It is an honour for Nepal to host the Summit, and BIMSTEC has great potential, we just need to cooperate on poverty alleviation through closer economic cooperation and connectivity,” Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali said.
But will Nepal really benefit? The proof of the pudding will be in whether BIMSTEC can go where SAARC has not because of the India-Pakistan rivalry. It also links South Asia to Southeast Asia, and it is now up to member countries to look beyond bilateralism.
“We are going step by step, but have made good progress on cooperation, including the energy grid,” BIMSTEC Secretary General Shahidul Islam told Nepali Times. This could be important for Nepal, with its hydropower potential.
However, only a day before the Summit, China’s Three Gorges indicated it may pull out of the long-delayed 750MW West Seti project designed to export surplus power to India.
SAARC countries, five of whom are BIMSTEC members, already have a framework agreement on energy cooperation, signed at the Kathmandu Summit in 2014 that should have allowed power trading if there was political will.
But India issued its energy trade guidelines in 2016, declaring that it will import hydropower from Nepal and Bangladesh only if it is produced by companies that are at least 51% Indian owned. That effectively killed Nepal’s chance of getting the Chinese involved.
Ex-Energy Secretary Dwarika Nath Dhungel says: “Regional energy agreements mean nothing unless India revises its cross-border energy trade policy.”
In August, Kathmandu and Dhaka signed an MoU to export electricity to Bangladesh. Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina made that request during a visit to New Delhi in April 2017, but there was no mention of it in the joint communique. Nepal has never bothered to raise it with India.
Nepal aims to generate 15,000MW more electricity in the next 10 years, and could export the surplus to Bangladesh and beyond to Burma and Thailand.
There are also fears BIMSTEC may jeopardise Nepal’s relations with China. India has persuaded BIMSTEC members to conduct a joint military exercise shortly after the summit. Foreign Minister Gyawali clarified Nepal will not join any military alliance, but China and Pakistan are unlikely to be convinced.