Another failed India-China platformMember countries may have had great hopes for the BCIM Corridor, but apprehensions killed it from the outset.
Mahendra P Lama
Even after two decades of lively discourse and debate, 12 rounds of Track II Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Forum meetings during 1999-2015 and the setting up of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC) Study Group, this grouping remains far from being formalised. Started as the Kunming Initiative in 1999, it is still a living idea that has huge potential, surrounded by uncanny scepticism and inexplicit 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 the 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 the Car Rally in 2013 and the 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 southwestern province of China, with its high officials as the pivot. India’s apprehensions range from history to national security, the legacy of conflict, Chinese economic dominance to socio-cultural disturbances and, more critically, a subliminal level of trust and confidence. The fear of wanton exploitation of the rich natural resources and biodiversity of the Eastern Himalayas, dislocation of traditional relations based on bilateralism and loathing that it will invite the permanent presence of China are impinging upon this project. India’s North-East—a key region for this grouping to succeed—is an insurgency prone region, and India’s suspicions of foreign interference in this area have always been an insurmountable block.
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. First, it provided appropriate fitting in China’s grand scheme of the Belt and Road Initiative 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 km that provides access to the Pacific through Strait of Malacca and the Atlantic, via the Mediterranean, through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.
Then, there is the apprehension that the hurriedly built Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka in 2010 with a massive Chinese loan by the China Harbour Engineering Company, a state-owned enterprise, had already started facing severe underutilisation 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 from 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 a 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 the BCIM-EC, could durably feed the Hambantota and substantially upgrade its capacity utilisation. Since this would be a much shorter route to viable markets, it could even attract the Greater Mekong Sub-region of Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand to use this route and connect with China’s Belt and Road. However, connecting with these new ports around the Indian Ocean, considered to be a traditional Indian stronghold, would clearly provide a permanent thread to China in accomplishing what the US calls the ‘string of pearls’ strategy. This apprehension has been one significant reason to explain India’s position against the Belt and Road and the BCIM as well.
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 it. Myanmar is the bridge in this ‘amphibious’ route. This is where the BCIM Corridor evolves to have cascading ramifications, including the encirclement of the 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 forms. The oscillating trend is quite typical of India-China relations. The intricacies within the 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 the BCIM after 2015 and Myanmar after 2016. Myanmar, while highlighting its border of over 2000 kilometres and special relationship with China, moved forward with the bilateral venture labelled the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) since 2019.
The first meeting of the joint study group, held in Kunming in December 2013 decided that a third meeting had to take place in India in 2014 to adopt the final report and to sign the intergovernmental cooperation framework. However, the third meeting was only held in Kolkata in April 2017. Since then, there has been no visible movement.
Since China is the only country in the BCIM which has had a protracted experience of building such cross-national corridors, with an outward foreign direct investment flow of $118 billion in 2019 alone and foreign exchange reserves of $3.40 trillion in 2020, the fear that China would move towards bilateral relationships after the joint study group report was accepted seems to have been felt by all other potential members of this grouping. 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.
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