Can off-tracking Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) affect India’s gain from BCIM?
This study has been authored by Saheli Bose
Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar ((BCIM) began its journey as a “track two” initiative with an aim to bring better coordination in the flow of products, services, energy, investments, technology and people to people contact within these countries. Primarily, it was established as a Track II dialogue to create a sub-regional ‘cooperation zone’ or ‘growth zone’ which would link the relatively backward regions stretching from land-locked areas of Southwest China to North-eastern India along with the adjoining Least Developed Countries (LDCs) of Bangladesh and Myanmar.
At the heart of the BCIM initiative is the route connecting Kolkata (In India) with Kunming (in China). The connection between the two countries will be made by crossing over the countries of Bangladesh and Myanmar. The aim of the corridor is facilitation of connectivity and trade linkages between the underdeveloped and landlocked areas of India’s North-eastern region and South-western region of China. As one of the main aims of the BCIM forum is to uplift the major underdeveloped areas out of their present state of condition, the economic corridor (EC) when materialised would provide vital connectivity and trade linkages to the underdeveloped regions of India and China. For India development of northeast is of vital to lift the region out of poverty. A major reason for the underdeveloped nature of the region is that of poor connectivity. Therefore, if the BCIM EC is able to link northeast India with the Southeast Asian and East Asian market then this can create lots of opportunity for the people of the region. The implementation of the BCIM EC will provide the member countries to exploit the complementarities that exist amongst them in trade. China is renown for manufacturing goods, for India service export is its forte, Myanmar is exporter of primary and forest-based products and has abundant labor. Bangladesh specialises in export of garments and clothing. Thus, the countries involved are expected to gain from more extensive market access for the goods and services. Through the elimination of tariff and non-tariff barriers along with development of supply and value chains, based on comparative advantage, can bring huge benefit to the region of BCIM. BCIM has huge potential in terms of earning revenue from tourism and energy trade. Energy trade can be possible in the region because the south-western provinces of China (Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan), the North-eastern region of India, Yadana and the Shwegas fields in Myanmar have huge reserves of natural gas. In addition to natural gas, these sub-regions have huge reserves of other fuel like coal,petroleum. There is existence of abundant water resources in the sub-region, which could be utiliszed to generate hydroelectricity for the industrial sector. Numerous streams dotted in the entire Northeast of India can be successfully utiliszed for this purpose. Therefore, in this regard, the BCIM region has an opportunity to establish a regional forum to assess electricity generation capacity and mechanisms, and suggest the forms and norms of electricity cooperation and generation in the region. As far as tourism is concerned, member countries could reap benefits through sub-regional cooperation. The entire region of BCIM is dotted with tourist destinations. Particularly these destinations are spread through India, China and Bangladesh. India-China and India-Bangladesh can develop a circuit of religious tourism. Rich biological resources along with wide range of cultural diversity can attract tourists not only from the region but also around the world. By developing and facilitating travelling among the member- countries, this sub-regional cooperation could also play an important role in developing eco-tourism and religious tourism.
A connectivity road map linking Asia with Africa and Europe was first projected in September 2013, by China under the ‘One Road One Belt’ (OROB) Initiative which subsequently came to known as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It is is the brainchild of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Initially the OBOR policy was meant to be a framework for better cooperation between Central Asia and China's western provinces.Though the Chinese have insisted India to join the BRI, the Indian side has decided to refrain from the BRI project. India boycotted the first Belt and Road Forum (BRF) in 2017 and also second Belt and Road Forum held in 2019. India is the only South Asian country having to do so. In the second BRF, the BCIM has not been enlisted by the Chinese side to be considered a part of the BRI. Most recently in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting held in November 2020, India did not join the other members of the SCO in backing the Chinese-led BRI. Though the Chinese have insisted India to join the BRI, the Indian side has decided to refrain from the BRI project. India boycotted the first Belt and Road Forum (BRF) in 2017 and also second Belt and Road Forum held in 2019. India is the only South Asian country to have done so. In the second BRF, the BCIM has not been enlisted by the Chinese side to be considered a part of the BRI.
The resistance from India stems from the fact that there are apprehensions that Chinese might misuse BRI as a geostrategic leverage.India has refused to be part of BRI is due to involvement of China with Pakistan in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, (CPEC) which is a flagship project under BRI between Xinjiang in China and Gwadar in Baluchistan that goes through PoK and Gilgit-Baltistan. Second, India looks at CPEC as a ‘unilateral’ initiative from China and thus directly transgresses its sovereignty. New Delhi is worried that Chinese-funded infrastructure projects may run afoul of accepted international standards and norms; grant China greater geopolitical influence and undue economic and diplomatic leverage over the policymaking decisions of India’s neighbours in ways that disadvantage India. More over the Maritime Silk Route which the Chinese are talking about as part of the OBOR is also seen by India with apprehension, because Maritime Silk Route is often equated with the ‘string of pearls’ strategy that has been adopted by China to dominate the Indian Ocean. As China has committed to some port projects with Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar, India is apprehensive of Chinese presence in India’s backyard. Given the fact that BCIM predates BRI and was conceived with the idea of sub-regional development, India should continue with those aims. Being on board with BCIM India can take advantage of the economic ties in the region. Therefore, it would be wise to relook at the opportunity to boost the BCIM forum. India’s central geostrategic position being one of the world’s largest economies, will add a momentum to the Forum in terms of tangible outcome. A holistic approach to analyze and increase business between South, Southeast and East Asia through BCIM should be emphasised . India should be a proactive player in the forum for its own benefit. India should not miss out on the opportunities generated by BCIM, especially in light of China’s bilateral connectivity projects around the region. Apart from CPEC, the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) is also strongly taken ahead by the Chinese. The corridor will be Y-shaped corridor, which will start from China’s Yunnan province and go towards Mandalay in Myanmar. After reaching Mandalay, the corridor could extend to Yangon city and towards the Kyaukphyu SEZ in Rakhine State.
With CMEC the Chinese will have access to the Indian Ocean, which can be cause of concern to India. For Bangladesh, the country officially has been part of BRI since 2016, China has made massive investment in Bangladesh amounting to more than 38 billion. Apart from Bangladesh, Myanmar and Pakistan, Chinese massive investment in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives, have not gone well with India. The option that seems to be most viable to India at this point is to either “catch up” or seek claim in the transformations. While catching up might require considerable time and resource, being part of the transformation with better coordination and cooperation can be away forward.
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This study has been authored by Saheli Bose