Will the Elephant Dance with the Dragon?

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Introduction : The 2800 km Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC), previously known as the Kunming Initiative, is seen as an important project connecting Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province to the Indian city of Kolkata, passing through Mandalay in Myanmar and Dhaka in Bangladesh. However, the slow progress of the project and its inclusion in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been a cause of consternation since its formal establishment in 2013. Faced with such concerns, the 13th BCIM Forum held after four years hiatus in June 2019 in Yunnan Province of China provided a fresh lease of life to an otherwise tepid project.

Significance of BCIM-EC

The significance of BCIM-EC is manifold, having both economic and strategic implications. The economic corridor is an important development channel connecting the three sub-regions - South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia. Together, the BCIM region accounts for 9 percent of the world’s total landmass, 40 percent of its population and 7.3 percent of world gross domestic product. Besides enhanced transport connectivity, the project is also at the heart of the development of the blue economy and international maritime trade by providing access to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. With such extensive connectivity, BCIM-EC is expected to boost regional integration process in the three sub-regions.

From the Indian perspective, the project has enormous economic potential. If realised, the project would facilitate the cross-border movement of both people and goods, substantially reduce transaction costs, minimise informal trade and enhance trade and investment in the region. Most importantly, it is also one of the trans-regional growth corridors that would connect the remote areas of north-eastern states with the eastern neighbours. As such, the project would be a stepping stone towards the development of the north-eastern states and realising India’s Act East Policy. Strategically, theproject would enable India to reduce the impact of BRI and thus minimise Chinese presence in the region.

BCIM vs BRI: The Tug of War between the Elephant and the Dragon

While the original roots of the project can be traced back to the ‘Kunming Initiative’, which was launched in 1999, the project was officially renamed as BCIM-EC in 2013. Seemingly, soon after it’s rechristening the project came under the fold of Chinese grand vision of BRI. However, India has expressed strong reservations against the China-led BRI since its inception, especially to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) cutting across Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), as it infringes on the ‘sovereignty’ of India. Consequently, for a very long time now India has been persistent in its position that since BCIM-EC predates the BRI project, the former should be excluded from the BRI umbrella.

In what appeared to be a step towards celebrating the bonhomie between India and China at the Wuhan Summit of 2018, BCIM-EC project was reported to be dropped from the lists of projects under the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative in April 2019, generating much speculation. However, China denied that it excluded BCIM-EC from the BRI. Meanwhile, in another significant move, and running parallel to BCIM-EC, China and Myanmar formally signed the 1700 km China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), under the BRI umbrella, linking Kunming in China to Myanmar’s Mandalay, Yangon and Kyaukpyu Special Economic Zone on the Bay of Bengal in September 2018, and in the process providing China access to the Indian Ocean. Both these projects, when completed, would have Mandalay as its intersecting point, leading all the way to the Indian Ocean. Simply put, with each new Chinese project under the pipeline in the region, and reported a delay in BCIM-EC, the shadow of BRI might continue to loom large on the success of the project.

Kunming Meeting 2019: Reinvigorating BCIM-EC

In an attempt to reinvigorate BCIM-EC, the 13th BCIM Kunming meeting was held by the four stakeholders in June 2019. Recognising the importance of BCIM-EC, the countries agreed to the need to come up with concrete measures to fully tap the immense potentials of connectivity through the successful completion of BCIM-EC, linking the sub-regions. Given the lack of adequate capital investment for infrastructure development, the four countries agreed to cooperate ‘to innovate the application of public-private partnerships in conformity with the laws and regulations of the Parties to efficiently utilise financial resources’. The meeting has renewed hope and opened up new vistas of opportunities for expediting the project.

Way Ahead: Will the Elephant Dance with the Dragon?

BCIM-EC project has received a new impetus with the 13th BCIM Meeting. Given the multiple benefits that would flow from the project, India’s pro-active role in the project becomes even more crucial so that it does not miss out on the opportunities generated by BCIM-EC, especially considering Chinese connectivity projects around the region under the BRI. There is no denying the fact that BCIM-EC might most likely generate a measure of competition between the Asian powers - India and China - in terms of its connectivity projects. However, a healthy competition would eventually create a win-win situation for both countries. In fact, the convergence of the two corridors (BCIM-EC & CMEC) is being seen as a step forward towards strengthening regional integration. Nonetheless, and in the light of current progress of BCIM-EC, certain questions remain to be considered: whether the convergence of the two corridors will result in convergence of interests between India and China? If so, to what extent and in what ways, if at all, will both India and China leverage such opportunity to their own mutual advantage? Needless to say that India needs to push to fast-track the work towards completion of BCIM-EC without further delay and before the spirit of 13th BCIM meeting dampens again!

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.

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