Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently visited Myanmar to attend the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation summit (BIMSTEC). This sub-regional framework came about in 2004 as part of India’s overall strategy of restoring its traditional links and integrating India with its immediate and extended neighbourhood besides responding positively to the imperatives of globalization.
Thus the vision of BIMSTEC is to improve connectivity between India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and other members through a network of multi-modal transport corridors. These networks would facilitate trade, exchange of energy through oil and gas pipelines, promotion of tourism and increase of communication links leading to what can be termed as a zone of co-prosperity.
It also needs to be noted that BIMSTEC contains most of the major SAARC countries except Pakistan. Further, India also has a Trilateral Dialogue with Myanmar and Thailand addressing the same issues. It can also be said that because SAARC has not made any progress due to intransigence of Pakistan, BIMSTEC was another alternative to include most of the other South Asian countries to promote economic cooperation. There is also a Ganga –Mekong Initiative to link countries of Mekong Basin (Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) with India. All these are in addition to the major organisation in South East Asia i.e. ASEAN. Even though there is an overlap in goals and objectives of a number of regional and sub regional groupings, BIMSTEC remains an important sub set of India’s ‘Look East Policy’ set in motion in the mid 1990s.
So far as Bangladesh, India, China and Myanmar (BCIM) forum is concerned, it has been in works for over a decade now (since 1999). In fact it was a Track II platform, known earlier as Kunming Initiative, that was formed for sub-regional cooperation revolving around trade, commerce and connectivity. The BCIM grouping gained some traction when it was first mentioned in the Joint India-China communiqué during PM Li’s visit to India in May 2013 and it was again discussed between the two during PM Manmohan Singh’s visit to Beijing in October 2013. Thus, it became a Track I initiative with the prospects of the objectives of BCIM being realized. As a follow up of Heads of State meetings, a Joint Study Group of BCIM to chart out the modalities for achieving the goals of BCIM economic corridor was set up and it held its first meeting at Kunming in December, 2013. However, the question remains as to whether this sub regional grouping would make some headway in the coming years because of the perceived geo-political competition between the BCIM and BIMSTEC.
Even though India has agreed in principle for a BCIM Economic Corridor but it appears highly unlikely that it would be realized in an early timeframe in any meaningful manner. The Indian establishment’s security apprehensions about activities of several insurgent and rebel groups in North East India and their links with some Chinese elements still persist. These groups are involved in a host of anti national activities like gun running, drug trafficking and media reports have indicated they are also being used by foreign intelligence agencies (e.g. Anthony Shimray incident where Chinese intelligence agencies were alleged to have been involved in fuelling insurgency by sending a huge consignment of Chinese arms to NSCN(IM) in the NE; there have also been reports of some Chinese intelligence agents being active there; ISI has also been involved in sending arms).
Further, China lays claim to Arunachal Pradesh and therefore dangers of throwing open the North East to exploitation of Chinese economic juggernaut cannot be overemphasized; it would have its own negative strategic connotations. Tirap district of Arunachal Pradesh is inhabited by Nagas and there is an insurgent activity there. The insurgents have been getting Chinese origin arms through Kachins residing across the Myanmar’s border and beyond from Sino-Myanmar border regions. Even though some funds for constructing Ledo/Stilwell Road have been earmarked yet it would be against India’s security interests to revive the old Burma/Stillwell Road linking India’s NE to Yunnan through Myanmar. This is despite the fact that enormous commercial benefits (especially with reduction of transportation costs) might accrue.
While there is a dire need to develop the North eastern states of India and China can provide the wherewithal for infrastructure development including the much needed funds, Japan remains a better alternative as a source of funding and development for the North East. During the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in January 2014, Japan has been invited to take part in the infrastructure development of NE States. It also needs to be noted that China had prevented the Asian Development Bank in 2007 from giving loans for development projects in Arunachal Pradesh.
Additionally, there is a growing trade imbalance between India and China and any free flow of trade and commerce through the envisioned BCIM economic corridor or China’s ‘Southern Silk Road’ would only increase the trade imbalance against India as China has not been able to practically address India’s grievances on this issue in any meaningful way despite remonstrations by India to this effect during summits and other bilateral exchanges.
China has also expressed its desire to join BIMSTEC and there have also been talks of merging or combining of BCIM and BIMSTEC. In a practical sense, it would not be worthwhile to add China to a regional sub-grouping that would be dominated by China taking away India’s central role in this sub-regional initiative. Another contradiction between the objectives of BCIM and BIMSTEC has been that while BIMSTEC aims to develop west to east connectivity, BCIM’s objective is to forge connectivity in North-South direction. The motivating strategic impulse between the two remains at variance thus giving rise to the perceived geopolitical competition.
While Manmohan Singh might have agreed to move towards realizing the BCIM corridor, its prospects do not seem to be bright. Unless there is a fundamental change in the nature of Sino-Indian relations except for hosting some Kolkata to Kunming car rallies and some other peripheral activities the substance in BCIM would remain absent. Substantive issues of BCIM would only receive attention when the geo-politics between both nations move towards a positive resonance.
Indian policy makers should not involve China in such Indian projects that would enable China to influence the local people in the North East in many ways that might prove to be detrimental to Indian interests. If China were allowed access to this region, then Chinese economic influence would become predominant leading to strategic influence in the politically sensitive region. In contrast, India needs to pay more attention to BIMSTEC, put more money and efforts in this regional framework and finish some of the projects at a fast clip as India’s record in implementing such infrastructure projects leaves lot to be desired.