Sub-regional cooperation can be the answer to the deadlock of regional integration in South Asia

Though there is a strong demand for a deeper regional integration in South Asia, the progress has been rather slow. Actual implementation of agreements often does not match the declared ambitions, and in this context, lack of political will and leadership, institutional weaknesses and capacity and resource constraints have been argued to be the major impeding factors. The political rivalry between India and Pakistan has often constrained the SAARC to be a functional regional forum. The recent cancellation of the SAARC summit is such an example.

In order to take forward the regional integration process in South Asia a good and effective initiative is the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) initiative, which is a sub-regional coordinative architecture of countries in South Asia. BBIN operates through Joint Working Groups (JWG) comprising official representation from each member state to formulate, implement and review quadrilateral agreements. Areas of cooperation include water resources management, connectivity of power grids, multi-modal transport, freight and trade infrastructure. Focused on the subcontinent’s north east, it endeavored to cooperate on trade, investment, communication, tourism, energy and natural resources development. Its objectives have been expanded over years to incorporate substantial land and port connectivity.

The economic needs and drivers for a deeper integration in the BBIN sub-region are more prominent compared to these countries’ integration with the rest of South Asia. Especially, a deeper integration among the BBIN countries is very important to place BBIN as the gateway for further integration with China and Southeast Asian countries. The political economy drivers also seem to be more favorable. In the context of some structural factors, especially the political rivalry between India and Pakistan which has confined the progress of SAARC, and landlockedness of Nepal and Bhutan, the BBIN sub-regional initiative has seen a great interest from the political elites from these four countries. The extra-regional drivers for BBIN are also favorable as there are growing interests from the international organizations like the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank for improvement in connectivity and infrastructural development in this sub-region.

As far as intra-BBIN trade is concerned, there are substantial potentials for the rise in intra-regional trade. However, despite that India has already provided almost full duty-free-quota-free of its market access to exports from South Asian LDCs, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan are facing escalated challenges to at least secure and then to increase their exports to the Indian market. These challenges are related to their limited export capacities, lack of diversification of their export baskets, and various non-tariff measures (NTMs) and procedural obstacles (POs) due to inadequate infrastructure and lack of support facilities both at home and in the Indian market. However, streamlining of NTMs and removal of associated POs are very important as such actions are likely to intensify further market integration in the BBIN sub-region through development of regional value chains. These will also encourage larger intra and extra regional investments in the BBIN sub-region which can be instrumental for growth integration among these countries. To make these happen there is a need for policy integration among the BBIN countries.

Domestic capacities of the exporters in Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal need to be improved to meet different international standard requirements. Unless and until these exporters develop their capacities, they will not be able to diversify exports and become competitive in the regional and international markets. A number of supply side factors at home can actually undermine the exporters’ competitiveness and constrain economic and export diversification. These factors are directly associated with the domestic production and investment environment. Most prominent of these factors are access to finance, weak physical infrastructure, inefficient ports and high transport costs, shortage of skilled workers, technological bottlenecks, lack of entrepreneurship and management skills, lack of information, and high costs of doing business.

There are some signs of heightened ‘new’ commitment among political elites of the BBIN countries. The recent speedy resolution of land boundary agreement (LBA) between Bangladesh and India, the positive reception of the India-Bangladesh Maritime Arbitration Award announced in July 2014, establishment of border haats along the border between India and Bangladesh, and the BBIN Motor Vehicle Agreement are signs of such ‘new’ political commitments.

However, the aforementioned ‘new’ commitments have not yet been translated much to resolve the issues related to NTMs and POs discussed above. There is a need to put renewed emphasis on this. There are some recent initiatives by the Government of India to solve the trade infrastructural problems at the border by setting up of Integrated Check Posts (ICPs) at major entry points on the land borders between Bangladesh and India. Two such ICPs have been put in place recently. Such ICPs need to be established at the borders between India and Nepal and India and Bhutan.

There is also a need for cooperation among different institutions in the BBIN countries to deal with NTMs and removal of POs. Cooperation is needed in a number of areas for harmonization of TBT and SPS measures, Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRAs) among respective organizations of these countries, and for introduction of increased automation of their customs clearance procedure.