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Tuesday, Aug 04, 2020 13:30 [IST]

Last Update: Tuesday, Aug 04, 2020 07:52 [IST]

Another Failed India-China Platform

MAHENDRA P LAMA
Even after two decades of lively discourse and debate, 12 rounds of Track II BCIM Forum meetings during 1999-2015, setting up of BCIM-Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC) Study Group in 2013, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) remains far from being formalised.  Started as Kunming Initiative in 1999, it is still a living idea that has huge potentials surrounded by uncanny skepticism and in-explicit non-acceptance by the ‘member countries’ themselves. The last BCIM Forum was held in Myanmar in 2015. From the very beginning Bangladesh, China and Myanmar were represented by senior government officials whereas in case of India the delegations mostly consisted of think tanks, business persons and former officials-diplomats. India never participated openly and directly. Even when there have been major events like Car Rally in 2013 and Kolkata – Kunming (K2K) meetings which had visible support of the Government of India, the actual official participation never happened.
India’s Camouflaged Participation
 As against Indian camouflaged participation, China consistently maintained the spearheading by Yunnan, a relatively less developed south western province of China, with its high officials as the pivot. India’s apprehensions range from history to national security, legacy of conflict, Chinese economic dominance to socio-cultural disturbances, fragility of geography and more critically subliminal level of trust and confidence.  The fear of wanton exploitation of rich natural resources and biodiversity of the Eastern Himalayas,  dislocation of traditional relations based on bilateralism and loathing that it will invite permanent presence of China are seriously impinging upon this project. Since the insurgency prone North East region is central topography in the conduct of BCIM and the recorded role of China and East Pakistan in training, arming and financing this protracted violence has always been an insurmountable block. These conflicts extended upto the sensitive ‘chicken neck corridor’ through support to violent Naxalite movement that originated in the plains land of Darjeeling district and spread over to major parts of in West Bengal.
Against this backdrop, India’s official announcement of joining the BCIM-EC in 2013 came as a major departure in its foreign policy. How and why the idea of BCIM-EC was brought forward still remains a question. Among many attributions, two plausible reasons emerge upfront. Firstly, it provided appropriate fitting in China’s grand scheme of  Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)  announced in 2013. This could be a major entry point for China - a non-Indian Ocean country- to this strategic oceanic geography of 68.56 million sq kms that provides access to Pacific through State of Malacca, Atlantic bypassing Cape of Good Hope and Mediterranean through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.
Colombo’s Strategic Generosity
And second, is the apprehension that hurriedly built Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka in 2010 with massive Chinese loan  by China Harbor Engineering Company, a state owned enterprise, had already started facing severe under utilization of its operational capacity. Even after the decree of the government ‘that ships carrying car imports bound for Colombo port would instead offload their cargo at Hambantota to kick-start business there, only 34 ships berthed at Hambantota in 2012, compared with 3,667 ships at the Colombo port.’ By 2017  Sri Lanka figured among the top 50 recipients of external debt to China and was identified as one of the 23 countries for which the risk of debt distress could be quite high. When Sri Lanka finally handed over the port and 15,000 acres of land around it for 99 years lease to China in 2017, it partly substantiated this unexplained rationale of the proposed economic corridor. 
The proposed ports if built in Kyaukpyu (Myanmar) and Chittagong (Bangladesh) in the East Indian Ocean under BCIM-EC, could durably feed the Hambantota and substantially upgrade its capacity utilization. Since this would be a much shorter route, could even attract the Greater Mekong Sub-region of Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand to use this route and connect with China’s Maritime Silk Route (MSR). However, connecting with these new ports around the Indian Ocean, considered to be traditional Indian stronghold ,  would clearly provide a permanent thread to China in accomplishing the US calls “string of pearls” strategy. This apprehension has been one significant reason and also the fact, that India-Maldives and Sri Lanka signed a tripartite agreement on maritime cooperation to secure sea routes in the Indian Ocean region in 2013 explains India’s vehemence against the BRI, its MSR and BCIM too.
Secondly, in the JSG, unlike China which designated National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) - the top governmental planning and development institution under the State Council as its study team, Bangladesh and India have been represented by widely known think tanks viz., Centre for Policy Dialogue (Dhaka) and Institute of Chinese Studies (Delhi) respectively. Again unlike China’s NDRC which is also the core agency to plan and design the BRI projects, in all three other countries the foreign ministries have been driving and monitoring.
China’s Overkill
BCIM-EC will “advance multi-modal connectivity, harness the economic complementarities, promote investment and trade and facilitate people-to-people contacts.”  This Corridor would run from Kunming in the east to Kolkata in the west, broadly spanning the region, including Mandalay, Dhaka and Chittagong and other major cities and ports as key nodes. With the linkages of transport, energy and telecommunication networks, the Corridor will form a thriving economic belt that will promote common development of areas along the Corridor.  Myanmar is the bridge in this “amphibious” route and also to the ocean route enshrined in China-IndoChina Peninsula corridor to accomplish the idea MSR. This is where the BCIM corridor evolves to have cascading ramifications including encirclement of Indian Ocean and the littoral states.
At the same time,  since 2013 there have been confusing developments and contradictory postures within the group.  A clear image of the BCIM and where does it actually stand has been reflected in various bilateral joint statements and speeches by leaders of these countries in various fora after the initiation of  the JSG. The oscillating trend is quite typical of India-China relations. The intricacies within BCIM have become more complex, suspicions have deepened and individual country’s stands have turned ambiguous. The initiative seems to have lost purpose, ownership and direction.  India stopped mentioning about BCIM after 2015 and Myanmar after 2016. Myanmar while highlighting its border of over 2000 kilometers and special Pauk-phaw relationship with China moved to a bilateral venture China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) since 2019.
The First Meeting of the JSG held in Kunming in December 2013 decided that by end December 2014, the 3rd JSG meeting had to take place in India to adopt the final report and to sign the inter-governmental cooperation framework.  However, the third meeting of the JSG was held almost after three years in Kolkata in April 2017. Since then there has been no visible move.
Since China is the only country in the BCIM which has had protracted experience of building such cross national corridor, ship building, port construction, an outward FDI flow of $118 billion in 2019 alone,  and foreign exchange reserves of $ 3.40 trillion in 2020,  the possibility that once the JSG report is accepted by all China would adopt bilateral route in actual negotiations, implementation and financing started reeling the minds of other partners.  The CMEC agreement in April 2019 proved this right. In the Leaders' Roundtable of the 2nd Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held in Beijing in April 2019, the BCIM was formally dropped from the list of 35 BRI projects.
(Lama participated in several BCIM Forum Meetings as a Member of the Indian Delegation. Courtesy: Kathmandu Post)

Sikkim at a Glance

  • Area: 7096 Sq Kms
  • Capital: Gangtok
  • Altitude: 5,840 ft
  • Population: 6.10 Lakhs
  • Topography: Hilly terrain elevation from 600 to over 28,509 ft above sea level
  • Climate:
  • Summer: Min- 13°C - Max 21°C
  • Winter: Min- 0.48°C - Max 13°C
  • Rainfall: 325 cms per annum
  • Language Spoken: Nepali, Bhutia, Lepcha, Tibetan, English, Hindi