After nearly two decades of its first meeting in 1999, the BCIM Initiative involving Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar has not been able to spearhead any major trade, connectivity and energy cooperation initiative to claim ownership of having made a seminal contribution. It has not been able to promote multi-modal transport initiatives that would have potentially reduced transaction costs, stimulated trade and investment and consequently accelerate growth and poverty alleviation in this region. Besides, its progress has been tardy and slow and the Track I / Track II dialogues, and Joint Study Group meetings (December 2013 in China, December 2014 in Bangladesh and the third in April 2017 in India) have not yielded what was envisioned at its inception.
The car rally from Kunming to Kolkata in March 2013 did raise hopes of closer economic, trade and people-to-people linkages through the BCIM-EC region, but it was not to be. A major problem for BCIM-EC arose in September 2013 after China announced its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) comprising of land and maritime connectivity projects connecting Asia to Europe and Africa. China had considered the BCIM-EC as part of this mega initiative but India did not subscribe to this. It had major reservations on the BRI on questions of ‘sovereignty’ (the CPEC which is part of the BRI passes through the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) and ‘financing procedures’ which were labelled as ‘debt traps’. India did not attend any of the Belt and Road Forum meetings.
However, Bangladesh and Myanmar support the BRI and have been benefitting the Chinese financial largess. Analysts believe that they too may become victims of the ‘debt trap’ that had afflicted Sri Lanka; It had to lease Hambantota port to China for 99 years.
Notwithstanding these apprehensions, some member states have called for reinvigorating the BCIM-EC. In July 2019, during the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visit to China, the Joint Statement referred to the BCIM-EC and called for early accomplishment of the Joint Study Report (JSR) and make progress in the BCIM-EC development. As far as Myanmar is concerned, in November 2017, the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor was proposed and it was opined at that time that lack of progress on BCIM-EC was making the two countries take the bilateral route.
Signalling a constructive approach, the official statement following Prime Minister Modi’s visit to China in May 2015, did mention the need to promote cooperation under BCIM-EC framework. Later, at the informal Wuhan Summit in China in April 2018 (following the difficult bilateral period of the Dokhlam crises), both Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping adopted a conciliatory approach and agreed that differences can be resolved peacefully through dialogue. Interestingly, BCIM-EC was not listed as one of the BRI projects during the Second Belt and Road Forum held in April 2019 in China.
Prioritising the region, after coming to power in 2014, the Modi government policies of ‘Act East’ (which incorporated development of India’s northeast region) and ‘Neighbourhood First’ have been spelt out and India has chosen to invest its political-diplomatic and economic capital in the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).
The above discussion presents India with at least two policy options regarding BCIM-EC; first, though the BCIM-EC was not included as BRI project in the second Belt and Road Forum, India can continue to have its doubts and reservations. But, New Delhi would have to make note of the fact that with or without BCIM-EC, Bangladesh and Myanmar are cooperating with China in infrastructure and connectivity projects under the BRI and will continue to do so under bilateral mechanisms.
The second option for India is that it supports the BCIM-EC since it provides an opportunity to strengthen its developmental agenda with Bangladesh with whom it has in the last five years build a broad-based cooperation as part its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. Furthermore, it will help deepen economic relations with Myanmar which is an important ASEAN member and a land bridge connecting India and Southeast Asia which is clearly stated in its ‘Act East’ policy. The spinoff of such a move would be that it would enable economic development of India’s north-eastern region by connecting it and integrating it to the BCIM-EC. Also, it will help India strengthen its agenda of cooperation in BIMSTEC wherein both Bangladesh and Myanmar are members. As mentioned earlier, India is prioritising BIMSTEC in its foreign policy and their leaders were recently invited for the swearing-in-ceremony of Prime Minister Modi in May 2019.
Finally, India and China are part of multilateral forums like BRICS, RIC, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the cooperation in BCIM-EC should be looked upon as a continuation of these multiple cooperative efforts. India could take a leadership role in BCIM-EC and shape the regional agenda of connectivity. This will not only result in welfare of the people inhabiting this sub-region but also safeguard India’s strategic interests. Under the circumstances, India along with the other members should hasten the JSG discussions and chart out a road map of the projects under the BCIM-EC.
Ms G.Padmaja is former Regional Director, National Maritime Foundation, Andhra Pradesh Chapter.