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Subir Bhaumik
Date of Publish: 2015-11-27


Centre's enthusiasm for BCIM good news for Northeast


Since the four-nation grouping BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar) originated at the end of the last century India has been circumspect about taking it forward. Delhi was happy relegating the Chinese proposal for the BCIM economic corridor to joint study groups, playing for time as it formulated a response to China's smart geo-political move.

That did not augur well for Northeast. In one conference after another across India -- and in one held at Singapore -- I have argued that India's 'Look East' through Northeast will never work if its focus was restricted to south-east Asia.

My argument was based on straightforward logistics -- it is easier and cheaper in terms of distance and transport cost to access much of south-east Asia by sea. Why would a Mumbai or South Indian exporter take the trouble of going overland through Northeast India and Upper Burma (with all its insurgency problems) if it could just load the cargo on a ship to Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia or Philippines.  That is hal;f the distance, one-third the cost. 

Only some countries like Laos are possibly better accessed overland. 

But would the Northeast attract Indian manufacturing if promised the Laotian market?  They would come only if promised an opening to the vast markets of south-west China. Why?  The Chinese have higher spending power, are more numerous.

The answer is again in distances. A Chinese port like Shanghai is 5500 kms from Kolkata and taking anything to Yunnan or Chengdu would mean another 2500-3000 kms by road. But the Stillwell road is just 3000 kms and Indian manufacturing units located in Northeast would need to carry their goods half the distance if the BCIM development corridor opens up along an highway that would link Kolkata to Kunming through Bangladesh, Northeast India and Upper Myanmar.

In short, it makes sense to trade overland with China and not with south-east Asia.

Modi's emphasis on 'Act East' (stressing on the importance of the Look East) policy is welcome but it would only benefit the Northeast if China was in the matrix and not merely south-east Asia.

A survey by the Guwahati-based CESPR in 2014 indicated that decision-makers across the northeastern states were most interested about BCIM taking concrete shape. Traders, state bureaucrats, mediapersons and academics interviewed by the CESPR  said China was not a threat but an opportunity .

Finally after years of slow-footing , Delhi is waking up to the fact that there can be no Act East without China and it is better to deal with the Dragon in a multinational grouping than bilaterally. Participating in the 11th Kolkata-Kunming (K2K) Forum in Calcutta this week (23-24th Nov) , a senior foreign ministry official strongly pitched for BCIM and K2K initiatives. 

" The BCIM is the point where the markets of China joins with those of South Asia and South-east Asia. This sub-region is isolated from the world market and large scale investments in infrastructure is needed to change that," said K Nagraj Naidu , who now heads the division on investment and technology promotion in the ministry of external affairs.  

"A more interconnected region will not only be a driver for economic growth but also a harbinger of regional peace and stability," Naidu said to huge applause by Chinese and Indian delegates.

Naidu said the BCIM and K2K visions fitted squarely in India's "Act East" policy that sought to connect the Indian mainland to theNortheast through Bangladesh and further on to South-east and East Asia. It will be useful to recall that Chinese prime minister Li Keqiang, an economist of no mean stature, has repeatedly stressed this point in his meetings with Manmohan and then Modi.

The Chinese wanted to focus on the complimentarities in China's One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative and India's Look East. Now veteran diplomats like Shyam Saran are saying India should use the Chinese infrastructure built under the OBOR initiative for its Act East policy. This is precisely what I have argued -- and so has my good friend Binoda Mishra, the secretary general of the K2K Forum. 

At the risk of many in India feeling we were going too far down the Chinese path, we argued this was in India's best interest.

If China paid for a new deep sea port in Bangladesh, which we cant pay for, it will help us access our Northeast more easily because Chittagong like Calcutta is an old port . 

Also as someone from Northeast , I am understandably not interested in conflict but in cooperation with China because the 1962 'leaving Assam to its fate' sits heavy on our memory. No mature power sees war as a viable option any more -- even globo cop US is too tired . Even after the Turkish air force shot down the Russian fighter jet, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov ruled out a war with Turkey . So while predicting a war with China seems to be becoming a cottage industry in Indian academia (with understable patronage from countries who see India as a 20 billion dollar arms market ) , the reality on ground is different .

India has the advantage of having a very capable foreign secretary in S Jaishanker who has been ambassdor both to China and US and knows both countries ( and their think-tanks) well. I could see his obvious influence on the though process that Nagraj Naidu outlined at K2K this week.

Naidu said Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already emphasized on regional diplomacy to connect to the immediate and larger neigjhborhood . As part of the 'Act East' policy, he said, the Modi government has sanctioned 11 projects that would cost the national exchequer $ 1.5 million. To connect all capitals of Northeastern states by rail by 2020 is part of this plan, he said.

"The eastern and northeastern states are at the heart of the BCIM and K2K (Kolkata to Kunming) processes. Our connectivity plans with Bangladesh and Myanmar are all part of the Act East policy," said Naidu, who has served as Consul General in China's Guangzhou city before.

Naidu said that the state governments of east and Northeast India must capitalise on the opportunities created by the 'Act East' policy and the transnational; connectivity now being developed. "These states, specially West Bengal,  must explore export opportunities in Myanmar, Bangladesh and specially China to develop their economies. That will all add up to national growth," Naidu said.

Naidu's real punch came at the very end -- the BCIM corridor was important for changing the lives of the people who lived alongside it . And that the interests of the Northeast were uppermost in Delhi's calculations while promoting the BCIM corridor.

Hopefully this would now translate to Sino-Indian joint ventures in the Northeast , specially in infrastructure , an area none can now beat the Chinese. In Northeast, we need quality infrastructure to attract investments, because that happens not when ministers talk about it but when there is enough going for business in the area. 

If Modi can attract huge Chinese investment to his Gujarat state as chief minister, nothing should stop our laidback leaders from doing so.

And for those in Delhi who advise caution, let me point out the huge conceit in this whole 'security first' argument.

While Assam did not get a refinery for its crude and that went to Barauni because it was considered safe, how can Delhi now go ahead with so many huge hydel projects in Arunachal Pradesh!  Will they not be in the Chinese line of fire ! 

If China and India cooperate closely to develop the whole BCIM region , the possibility of conflict will recede further.

China is much more interested in trade and investment with India than in promoting Paresh Barua or Khaplang. Wild speculations by homegrown insurgency experts that China will soon help Khaplang and Barua float an exile government are mere kite flying. I can bet my head on something like this never materialising unless India starts backing the Tibetans with weapons and bases all over again. Borders and dams upstream will remain a cause for concern but both can be settled once the atmosphere of confidence is developed with initiatives like the BCIM and with growing trade. 

Recall the 1950-60s . Did we not first back the Tibetans before the Chinese started backing Naga and Mizo rebels !  That is different from Pakistan whose push for Kashmir's secession finally prompted India to intervene to create Bangladesh. 

Delhi has get over fears that people in Northeast may tilt towards China because of their Mongoloid origins. Such naivete is not expected of a rising country but they do exist. Those who know what happened in Tibet and Sinkiang will always prefer India and not China but Northeast's future lies in cooperation and not conflict with China.

Subir Bhaumik

(Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC Correspondent and now works as Senior Editor of Dhaka-based bdnews24.com. His books on Northeast " Insurgent Crossfire" and " Troubled Periphery" are well acclaimed. His forthcoming book " Agartala Doctrine" is being published by Oxford University Press.)



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