By Liu Zongyi Source: China-India Dialogue Published: 2017-7-12
The Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor is an initiative conceptualized to enhance cooperation in transport, infrastructure, economy, and trade within a certain zone. The proposed corridor starts in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan and traverses Myanmar, northeastern India and Bangladesh before finally reaching Kolkata, India.
Southwestern China, northeastern India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh are economically undeveloped compared to many other places in the area. Construction of an economic corridor at the national level is conducive to complementing the advantages of various parties, forming a reasonable international division of labor and promoting industrial restructuring to accelerate sub-regional economic development. Completion of the economic corridor will facilitate the joint development of South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia.
The Third BCIM Economic Corridor Meeting as a latecomer
The idea of economic cooperation within the BCIM region was first proposed by academic circles in China’s Yunnan Province in the late 1990s. The pioneering ideas received a positive response from academic circles of the other three countries. In May 2013, during Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India, he formally proposed the idea of constructing the BCIM Economic Corridor. Both sides agreed to cooperate on big projects involving infrastructure and industrial parks and advocated promoting the linkage of Chinese and Indian markets through construction of the BCIM Economic Corridor. India’s then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh responded positively to the idea of building the economic corridor. India’s Ministry of External Affairs quickly set up a special workshop to coordinate the proposed initiative.
The First BCIM Economic Corridor Meeting was held in Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province, in December 2013. During the meeting, the four nations reached consensus on common development, joint construction, and setting up development and cooperation platforms for under-developed areas within BCIM. In December 2014, the Second BCIM Economic Corridor Meeting was held in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. The four nations discussed and envisioned cooperation and related mechanisms to promote cooperation in major fields including connectivity, energy, investment and finance, trade facilitation, sustainable development, poverty reduction, people-to-people exchange and human resources. During the meeting, the four countries pledged to accelerate construction of the BCIM Economic Corridor and decided to convene the third meeting in India’s Kolkata in the second half of 2015. By then, a joint research report by the four nations was to be released and discussions held on establishing an intergovernmental cooperative mechanism.
However, only recently was the third meeting held in Kolkata, on April 25. During the meeting, each of the four nations submitted respective reports on the goal, mode, general principles, enforcement mechanisms for construction of the BCIM Economic Corridor. They agreed to schedule a fourth meeting in Myanmar in 2018 to complete the final research report on the BCIM Economic Corridor. China had hoped to complete the final report at the Kolkata meeting and had drawn up a proposal on the establishment of an intergovernmental cooperative mechanism for the BCIM Economic Corridor. But the draft was never discussed at the Kolkata meeting, and no substantial progress was made at that time.
Scholars and officials from India, Myanmar and Bangladesh have shed significant light on the reasons that the BCIM Economic Corridor hasn’t progressed substantially. Most Indian scholars cite problems like the unstable political situation in Myanmar, inactive attitude of the Myanmar Government, border disputes between Myanmar and Bangladesh and refugee issues, have hindered the construction of the BCIM Economic Corridor. Representatives of Myanmar and Bangladesh tend to agree in general terms. They all point out, either directly or indirectly, that India’s reluctance and delay is the major roadblock hindering construction of the BCIM Economic Corridor. The problems in Myanmar and Bangladesh cited by India are real, but Bangladesh has been active in terms of promoting BCIM Economic Corridor construction. As for Myanmar, since Aung San Suu Kyi took office in 2016, the country’s attitude towards China and the BCIM Economic Corridor has changed drastically. Now, the China-Myanmar Oil and Gas Pipelines are operating, and Myanmar hopes to expand cooperation with China. Neither Bangladesh nor Myanmar wants to see the slowing construction of the BCIM Economic Corridor.
Negative Attitude of the Modi Government
During the Manmohan Singh administration (2004-2014), India held a generally positive attitude towards the BCIM Economic Corridor and even the Belt and Road Initiative as a whole. On February 11, 2014, during a meeting with China’s State Councilor Yang Jiechi, Manmohan Singh, then Prime Minister of India, said that India would actively participate in construction of the BCIM Economic Corridor and the Silk Road Economic Belt.
However, since Narendra Modi took office in 2014, India’s attitude towards the BCIM Economic Corridor changed drastically. The Modi government’s attitude towards the different parts of the Belt and Road Initiative take on three different looks: First, conditional participation. Second, opposition and hedging. Third, delay and replacement. For the BCIM Economic Corridor, India clearly practices the “delay & replace” policy. Because of India’s delays, the second BCIM meeting was postponed from early 2014 to late 2014, and the third meeting from 2015 to 2017. However, during the same period, India actively promoted the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) Initiative, a sub-regional program involving countries in South Asia, and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), an international organization involving a group of countries in South Asia and Southeast Asia. Also, alongside the U.S. and Japan, India is promoting the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor.
India originally offered to host the third BCIM meeting in Kolkata to promote its Look East Policy and enhance connectivity with Southeast Asia by using Bangladesh as a “land bridge.” During the meeting, the Indian delegation raised the questions about equal market openness and the underdevelopment of Bangladesh and Myanmar. It continued delaying and even damaged the BCIM Economic Corridor, and related the multilateral cooperation with problems concerning the bilateral trade relations between China and India.
Connectivity Based on Trust
The fundamental reason for the Indian central government’s nonsupport of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, including the BCIM Economic Corridor, is that India doesn’t trust China. In fact, various states in northeastern India and the eastern Indian state of West Bengal are very active in terms of promoting the BCIM Economic Corridor. However, since the border issue between China and India has yet to be solved and separatism still exists in northeastern India, India cannot ignore the strategic and security significance of the BCIM Economic Corridor, even just as an initiative on sub-regional economic cooperation. Indian’s former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran once commented that the BCIM Economic Corridor could provide China with direct access to the Indian Ocean. Thus, it actually is a part of the Maritime Silk Road. If China wants to jointly build the BCIM Economic Corridor with India, it should hold talks with India on equal footing and find avenues to realize peace and mutual benefits. The border disputes should be solved anyway to enhance strategic mutual trust between the two countries.
However, in the past a few years, senior advisors of the Modi government have focused on geopolitical competition between China and the U.S., between China and Japan, and between China and India, which severely mangled India’s foreign policy. They looked at the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative and the BCIM Economic Corridor as moves to gain spheres of influence. Because they decided that the Belt and Road would greatly enhance China’s influence on neighboring countries’ economics, politics and security, and worried the Initiative will diminish India’s advantages in the region. Their proposed solutions include enhancing cooperation with Japan, strengthening domestic infrastructure and enhancing connectivity with neighbouring countries. India will only talk with China on connectivity cooperation after it cements its influence in the region.
In fact, scholars from Bangladesh proposed “multiple paths” long ago. They are quite discontented with the slow progress of the BCIM Economic Corridor at present. They hope to promote construction of the BCIM Economic Corridor through fast-track measures and open up the “southern route” without the missing routes to connect deepwater ports in Bangladesh through Myanmar’s Rakhine State. China could access the Indian Ocean through Yunnan Province and Myanmar alone if it really wanted. Last April, the China-Myanmar crude oil pipeline project began formal operation and was soon praised as an exemplary Belt and Road Initiative project that set a good foundation for further cooperation between the two countries.
India, Bangladesh and Myanmar are all founding members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Bangladesh and Myanmar also participate into the Silk Road Fund, a fund founded by China to provide investment and financing support for trade and economic cooperation and connectivity under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative. Some local governments in India have always been supportive of China-India cooperation and welcome Chinese investment in their regions. Under the frameworks of AIIB and the Silk Road Fund, some infrastructure projects and industrial projects related to the BCIM Economic Corridor are still possible.
The author is a visiting fellow of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China.