Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The four member countries of the Kunming Initiative that was rechristened as the BCIM Forum (Bangladesh, India, China, and Myanmar) for regional cooperation is a Track II initiative that was given Track I coordination in 2011. 

During the recent visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to India, the initiative received a boost when a BCIM economic corridor was for the first time discussed at the level of heads of government. 
  • The Kunming Initiative was formed keeping in mind the fact that a regional outlook on the concerns of development, security and prosperity was undoubtedly more beneficial than striking out one's own. 
  • It had promising prospects given that the region represents 9% of the world's landmass and at present, a considerable amount of global GDP and a great majority of the world's population. 

An important aspect of the BCIM was the Kolkata-Dhaka-Mandalay-Kunming car rally earlier this year. This linking all four countries by road has further strengthen the notion that this corridor would subsequently open up the whole of the northeastern region of India to Southeast Asia and China and turn it into a significant channel of trade. 


The corridor would also dovetail the China-ASEAN Free trade Area, the India- ASEAN Free trade Area and the ASEAN Free trade Area turning it into the largest global free trade area. It is pertinent to note here that the northeastern states have, for a long time, been in unanimous support of making the objectives of the initiative functional. 

Since its inception in 1999 with the primarily aim to boost the economic prowess of the region and increase connectivity, the BCIM has been unable to be productive in any substantial manner. Despite the apparent willingness of the four countries, they have been limited by several factors in their endeavour to make the initiative prosper. One of the prime reasons for this is the fact that there is considerable political reluctance that hinders its success. The recent talks between Premier Li Keqiang and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh merely promised an 'exploration' into the areas of cooperation thus avoiding substantial assurance for the Kunming Initiative. The state of affairs between India and China is the most vital aspect impacting the proper functioning of the BCIM. 

From India's perspective, two reasons are pointed out in regard to the 'China factor'. 

One, the concerns that opening up of the northeast would flood the Indian markets with Chinese goods and two, that the same prospect would make the northeastern border security vulnerable. Many believe that it is part of Chinese policy to keep the border issues unresolved, wean away Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar and arm Pakistan, thereby limiting India's influence in the subcontinent. 

On the other hand, there is the much talked about the 'Asian Century' and the view that "India and China need not fear each other, as it is not 'India or China' but 'India and China' which would redefine the global economy." In either instance, clearing the geopolitical air may prove more beneficial on both domestic as well as international levels, than keeping them in the shadows. 

While India already has established connectivity with Myanmar (Moreh-Tamu-Kalewa road as well as trade points at Moreh-Tamu and Zowkhathar-Rhi besides the implementation of the 
Kaladan project) the same however, is yet to be arrived at with Bangladesh. 

With the political and constitutional changes that have taken place, Myanmar is keen to balance its position with other countries and reduce its reliance on Beijing. There are in fact several areas of convergence between India and Myanmar with regard to energy investments, geo-strategic and maritime security. Indian policy with respect to Bangladesh is vital as India shares the longest border with the latter and also because it is often acknowledged that 'India's northeast is Bangladesh-locked. The problems of resolving the Land Boundary Agreement and the Teesta water sharing accord, also require early answers. Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, during her recent visit, called for a Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) Basin Regime, and gave strong arguments which would serve to complement the already existing BCIM agendas. 

The Road Ahead 

Besides harnessing the geostrategic potentials of Myanmar and Bangladesh, India also needs to develop a clear course of action with regard to China, and figure out ways to push forward the BCIM rather than making it prisoner of larger strategic and political estimations. If the BCIM is to accomplish what it was set up for, then 

(1) the import of an incremental approach towards the augmentation of sub-regional connectivity needs to be appreciated, 
(2) the Northeast must be rethought and refocused, 
(3) geostrategic considerations need redefining in view of the larger gains to be accrued from sub-regional connectivity, 
(4) avoid the constant risk of becoming the jailbirds of larger strategic and political estimations. 

Given the political baggage that is being shared by the four countries, it is understandable that the process of sharing their strengths and their resources will take time. But what is important is not to let time pass us by. 

(The writer is a Research Assistant at the ORF Kolkata) 

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