Kunming to Kolkata connectivity is sought via China-backed BCIM economic corridor. What implications does it hold for India? Manish Vaid explains.
In order to find new ground for Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC), all the countries concerned have done their part to push hard for this project. But it was during 2013, when both China and India spearhead the corridor with their urge to bring some momentum to it.
Through their strong initiatives these two countries have succeeded in bringing positive outcomes and the recent one being the successful completion of the second meeting of the Joint Study Group (JSG) of BCIM-EC on December 17-18, 2014.
It was the success of BCIM Car Rally of February 2013 between Kolkata and Kunming that helped in improving the connectivity in the economic corridor. This provided impetus for both the countries to make this corridor an important bilateral agenda and placing them in the joint statements during visits of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to India in May 2013 and subsequently by Indian then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to China in October 2013. These bilateral exchange then paved way for the first JSG meet on December 18-19, 2013 in Kunming.
Earlier, it was in the August 1999, the BCIM Forum for Regional Cooperation, commonly known as “Kunming Initiative” officially came into existence. This was a year after Professor Che Zhimin, the then Deputy Director of the Economic and Technological Research Centre of the Yunnan Provincial People’s Government presented a note at a Conference hosted by the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS) in New Delhi. He defined the scope of the proposed ‘sub-region of China, India, Myanmar and Bangladesh, which can lead to a ‘cooperative zone’.
Though India embraced this proposal of Che, its ambivalence towards overland connectivity projects of the Chinese, including that of BCIM-EC has been in existence for long, largely due to political relationship resulting from unresolved border disputes and frequent face-offs on the borders.
This is coupled with India’s apprehension of China’s increasing maritime presence at Indian Oceanand Onland encirclement around India. But of late such trepidation on Indian side should start diminishing due to three different reasons. Firstly, to gain larger economic space and geopolitical presence, the essence of regional integration has been appreciated well by India due to its inherited benefits such as reduction of costs of goods movement and boosting regional trade and investments.
Secondly, India should welcome China’s invitation in various multilateral projects including maritime Silk Road and unblock Stilwell Road, which links Ledo in Assam with Kunming in China.
Thirdly, it is through these multi-modal projects like BCIM-EC and Stilwell Road, which can push for regional development of the Northeast part of India as well, facilitating India’s ‘Act East’ policy objectives.
As far as the current JWG meeting held in Dhaka’s Cox’s Bazar, all the four countries have now agreed upon to give BCIM-EC an institutional shape, while gearing up for the next JSG meet in Paschimbanga, Kolkata.
The discussion in this meeting, largely revolved round the K2K(Kunming-Ruili-Bhamo-Lashio-Mandalay-Tamu-Imphal-Sylhet-Dhaka-Kolkata) route, which is 2,800 km long and part of the historic Silk Route, offering the best condition for the corridor.
All the four countries further agreed to prepare a combined country reports on the seven thematic areas as identified in the first JSG such as, connectivity, energy, investment and financing, trade in goods and services and trade facilitation, social and human development and poverty alleviation, sustainable development and people-to-people contact. The broader areas on which these reports would focus are objectives of BCIM-EC, its concept, scope and elements, principles and modalities of cooperation and framework of cooperation.
While China would prepare reports on connectivity and investment, India would lay its focus on energy and trade while also identifying actionable areas and concrete projects, with the ultimate objective of deepening economic cooperation among the four nations. The initial total estimated cost of BCIM-EC projects would be about $22 billion for which 55 per cent may be contributed from the multi-billion dollar fund, while the balance will be borne by the four governments and the private sector.
Modi government therefore, would do well to concurrently develop the connectivity at Northeast region (NER) of India. The government has already started working on broad gauge rail conversion, India’s ambitious railway link to Southeast Asia, which is in addition to the 34 ongoing railway projects in the NRF zone with an anticipated cost of Rs. 54,000 crores to be completed in five years.
Furthermore, the Government of Assam has approached Modi government to fast track other connectivity projects including the one on inland waterways for which the former has prepared a concept note to avail funding from World Bank.
Therefore, while India should undoubtedly move forward with China on all economic corridor projects including BCIM-EC, it should also lay equal emphasis on its own inter-connectivity projects in the Northeast with not only a better coordination with border states but also taking into confidence the local communities at NER and its likely impacts on the rich biodiversity of the region. Only such coordinated efforts from the Centre can direct these projects towards sustainable goals.
Manish Vaid is Junior Fellow with Observer Research Foundation, Delhi