Oceans and major rivers divide people, but they also connect them. Today, seaborne and riverine trade and investment connectivity between South and Southeast Asia is lagging well behind world standards. South Asia is among the least integrated regions of the world, accounting for only about two percent of world trade and 1.7 percent of foreign direct investment.
Despite extensive historical and cultural ties, South Asia and Southeast Asia remain conceptually divided (as one author put it) by “a line between them…right through the middle of the Bay [of Bengal].”
Efforts to bridge the huge gap between South Asia and Southeast Asia face numerous challenges. One is the absence of a focused cross border effort at improving connectivity between South and Southeast Asia. Making such an effort will require political leadership, energizing the bureaucracy and overruling vested interests. Poor or mediocre business climates in various BIMSTEC countries add more obstacles. That is why improving the business and investment climate in BIMSTEC countries is crucial to expanding maritime and inland river connectivity. Better maritime and inland waterways connectivity in the BIMSTEC region can open up possibilities for regional value chains in agriculture, textile and clothing, leather, and fisheries. Moreover, the betterment of maritime and inland waterways connectivity among these countries will have strong linkages with fostering trade in services. Such efforts might have spin-off benefits of promoting riparian cooperation and environmental stewardship as well.
India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Thailand frame the Bay of Bengal and have a combined total of well over 12,000 km of coastline. Myanmar alone has a coastline that is 2,200 km long. The southern arm of Thailand reaches to the Strait of Malacca, a vital gateway connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The mountains of Bhutan and Nepal are home to the headwaters of some of the region’s mightiest rivers, which support the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people downstream. Sri Lanka’s location has made it a trade hub for centuries. Given all this, strengthening maritime and inland waterways connectivity is crucial for economic and peace dividends in the region. Furthermore, China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative highlights the importance of maritime connectivity as an important regional strategic and security consideration. An effective engagement of leading regional powers like the United States, India, Japan, and Australia would be useful for smaller countries to secure their economic and strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific region through better maritime connectivity in the Bay of Bengal region.
To this end, the deliberations will aim at creating a platform to initiate a discourse that will ultimately translate into a set of future strategies to promote maritime and waterways connectivity among the BIMSTEC countries. Deliberations at the stakeholder consultation will underline the various opportunities, existing policy framework and institutional arrangements, major impediments to regional integration and suggestions on what could be done to address the impediments so as to create an enabling business climate towards a stronger regional maritime connectivity. It will explore ways to actualize the potential of maritime and inland waterways connectivity in the Bay of Bengal region and with the Malacca Straits linking the Indian Ocean region with the Asia-Pacific.