China is enthusiastically following up on its proposal to develop the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor.
While India and China agreed to explore the idea during Prime Minister Li Keqiang’s recent visit to India, New Delhi now seems to be having second thoughts on the project.
In June, Chinese dignitaries told ministers in Bangladesh and Myanmar that Beijing is keen on developing an ‘international highway’ that will connect both countries to China’s Yunnan province and end in Kolkata through Bangladesh. China has not come out with the final route yet, but is keen on the BCIM car rally route.
It would not be difficult to develop this route because it would just need linking up the Chinese-built north-south highway in Myanmar to Indian-built Kalemyo-Tamu Road that leads to Moreh in Manipur. All that is needed is to develop the Moreh-Imphal-Silchar-Tamabil highway in northeast India and one gets into Sylhet. From there to Dhaka and on to Kolkata, the highway is in place.
The Chinese were once — and perhaps still are — enthusiastic about revamping the World War II vintage Stillwell Road that goes into Upper Myanmar from Assam and Arunachal Pradesh and ends in Yunnan. But the Indian Army is wary that this may give China a tactical advantage in the event of a war. Trade officials feel the Chinese could use this road to dump their goods in northeast India.
The Kolkata-Dhaka-Sylhet-Imphal-Moreh-Tamu-Mandalay-Muse-Yunnan route is what the Chinese are keen to turn into a BCIM ‘international highway’. Once the highway system is in place, the Chinese will propose setting up trading entrepots and industrial zones along it. This could then be followed by Chinese investments, if Delhi allows it, in the Kolkata-Amritsar growth corridor that the PM is keen to develop. If Japan is keen on the Delhi-Mumbai corridor, the Chinese will look at the Amritsar-Kolkata corridor and the BCIM corridor.
This is Li Keqiang’s idea of greater integration between the world’s second and third largest economy for a new order in trade and commerce. The BCIM is at the core of this vision.
Besides drawing India to itself with a Himalayan handshake, this seeks to take India away from both Obama’s ‘Asia pivot’ and Shinzo Abe’s ‘Arc of Freedom’. Since India and China have a disputed Himalayan border through which little trade can flow — as the reopening of the Nathu La pass indicates — China is seeking to open an effective land route to eastern India but one that goes through two other countries with great growth potential.
Li referred to India’s ‘Look East’ thrust from the North-East and China’s southward Bridgehead thrust from Yunnan meeting up in Myanmar. India’s ‘Look East’ policy makes little sense if it only focuses on south-east Asia. Ports in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia or Vietnam are closer to the Indian ports than if accessed via the land route. Since China’s eastern ports are far away, it makes sense to ‘Look East’ to the vast western Chinese markets by travelling on an international highway.
Subir Bhaumik is former BBC correspondent and author of Insurgent Crossfire and Troubled Periphery