Gateway to prosperity
In contrast to India’s failed endeavours towards making NE the gateway to East Asia, Bangladesh is leading the race through connectivity infrastructures like Padma Bridge
On June 25, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated a 6.15-km long rail-road multipurpose bridge over the Padma River. This bridge has reduced travel time not only for the citizens in 21 districts across the river, but has also opened up vistas of seamless connectivity from India to South East Asia. "Padma Bridge is not a pile of brick and cement, but a symbol of Bangladesh's pride, capacity and dignity," she said.
After the World Bank and other funding agencies had pulled out of the project in 2012, Hasina had resolved to build the road bridge with Bangladesh's own funds. In 2014, a deal to construct the main bridge was struck with China's Major Bridge Engineering Co. Ltd., and Sinohydro Corporation Ltd. got the contract for river training work. The construction began in December of that year. In 2016, Bangladesh and China signed eight projects costing more than USD 9.45 billion, financed by China. These included the Padma Bridge rail link worth USD 3.3 billion; the power plant in Payra worth USD 1.9 billion, digital connectivity worth USD 1 billion, and power grid network strengthening project worth USD 1.32 billion.
According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), 27 per cent of the total population of Bangladesh, which lives in the south-west, will be the direct beneficiaries of the bridge. In addition, the Padma Bridge will reduce the distance from Mongla Port to Dhaka by more than 100 km to only 170 km, whereas the current distance between Chittagong Port and Dhaka is about 264 km.
The changes in the economy of the northern part of Bangladesh — resulting from the Jamuna bridge — have contributed about two per cent to the GDP growth of the country. Similar contribution has also been estimated in the case of Padma Bridge. According to many economists, the Padma Bridge's contribution will be more than the Jamuna bridge. Experts believe that many small and big industries will grow in the south-western part of the country along the Padma Bridge route, including manufacturing businesses, readymade garments, assembling plants, storage facilities and ship-breaking units. According to a report, if demand for gas, electricity, internet, and infrastructure in the south-west can be met, trade between India, Nepal, and Bhutan with Bangladesh through the region will increase. As a result, the economic landscape of south-west Bangladesh will change.
The Padma Bridge will improve Bangladesh's connectivity with India, Nepal, China, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand. It will be a major link in the trans-Asian highway network. The Asian Highway Network now comprises over 1,45,000 km of road passing through 32 countries. The rail route of Padma Bridge is going to be added with the Trans-Asian Rail Route to connect China with Myanmar. The proposed route will connect India through the Petrapole (West Bengal) border and will join the Benapole-Jessore-Narail-Bhanga-Mawa via Narayanganj-Dhaka-Tongi-Akhaura-Chattogram-Dohazari to Gundam border in Myanmar. The distance to Dhaka from the Indian border at Benapole by road will now be reduced by 150 km and travel time by 4.30 hours. It will also reduce the Kolkata-Dhaka train journey time by half once the rail bridge is inaugurated.
It may be recalled that on September 12, 2018, the Chinese Consul-General in Kolkata, Ma Zhanwu, said his country was mooting a bullet train service between Kunming and Kolkata, traversing through Myanmar and Bangladesh. Now it does not look like a dream.
NE no more a gateway to East Asia
Analysts believe that Padma bridge has changed the geostrategic importance of Bangladesh which is fast emerging as a gateway to East Asia. In the race to connect with the East Asian countries, Padma Bridge and other infrastructure projects around China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Bangladesh have pushed the land-locked Northeast India to the back seat.
It may be recalled that the Indian government and a section of think tanks have repeatedly expressed their resolve to make Northeast a gateway to East Asia. The Kolkata-based Indian Chambers of Commerce, in one of their reports, argued that since 98 per cent of the states in the area share international boundaries with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar and China, and were also rich in natural resources, NE enjoyed a locational advantage to be promoted as an international trading and commercial hub.
In September 2016, the then Chief Minister of Assam said that in tune with the Centre's Act East Policy, Guwahati, the largest city in north-eastern India, would be developed as the gateway to Southeast Asia. Contrarily, in February 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the Centre was working to make Arunachal Pradesh a major gateway to Southeast Asia.
Recently, the Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has said that his government was striving to position the state as the expressway and gateway to the ASEAN bloc against the backdrop of the Centre's Act East policy. Inaugurating a conclave on Act East through Northeast in the presence of ambassadors and high commissioners of ASEAN countries on May 27, Sarma said the development narrative generated by the Act East policy had given new hope to people of the Northeast to align themselves with the Centre's development initiatives.
For the last decade, the leaders in Delhi wanted to promote NE as the gateway to East Asia, avoiding the Siliguri corridor (the Chicken's Neck) in West Bengal which connects the landlocked North eastern states to the country's mainland. The first major initiative towards this end was the initiation of the Kaladan project. One of India's most ambitious projects — Kaladan Multi Modal Transit Transport (KMMTT) project (approved in 2008) — was expected to link India and Myanmar via the Bay of Bengal. The USD 484-million project is being constructed by India, under the Grant in Aid Scheme. Once completed, it will link Kolkata with Sittwe port in Rakhine state in Myanmar over the Bay of Bengal – covering over 500 kms. However, there is a stretch of land where a 109-km road needs to be constructed, between Paletwa (Myanmar) and Zorinpui (Mizoram's border), to complete the project. The stretch of area where the road needs to be constructed is a bit challenging as it is an area that often sees a conflict between the Military Junta and the ethnic groups. This stretch of road is in Chin state, parallel to Kalandan river. Post February 2021, after the military coup, the challenges intensified in terms of safety and security. As a result, there is apprehension whether the 2023 deadline for the completion of the KMTT project would be met or not. Moreover, one of the joint venture partners of the appointed contractor — Ms C&C constructions — has gone bankrupt. Over Rs 3,200 crore is already spent on this project.
The other alternative route to East Asia was the development of rail links between Northeast and Myanmar, connecting the same with the Trans Asian Railway Network. At present, there is no rail link between India and Myanmar. Rail connectivity exists till Jiribam in Manipur. The 125-km Jiribam-Imphal broad gauge project was sanctioned in 2003-04. The project will be on the Indian side. About two-thirds of the work has been completed with an investment of Rs 13,809 crore. The rail link will have 52 tunnels and 149 bridges — including the world's tallest girder railway bridge and India's longest tunnel.
Two other projects — Imphal to Moreh and Moreh to Tamu-Kalay — are at the proposal stage. "Our work is not showing results because of lack of interest from their side", commented an Indian railway official.
In January 2022, the International Railway Journal has reported that the Indian Railways (IR) has sanctioned the final location survey (FLS) to construct a strategic 111-km broad-gauge line from Imphal to Moreh — located on the Indian-Myanmar border — as part of the initiative to improve international rail connections in South Asia. The project had been on hold after an earlier survey conducted by the Rail India Technical and Economic Services (RITES) concluded that the project was not financially viable. The status of the Moreh-Tamu (Myanmar) rail link is still not known.
Though the government of India has repeatedly mentioned the importance of NE as an emerging gateway to East Asia, such intentions were not backed with proper planning and serious implementation of essential infrastructure projects. Moreover, strained relations with two major neighbours — China and Myanmar — have made the situation more complicated. Meanwhile, Bangladesh has taken the lead in connecting with East Asia which has emerged as the epicentre of the global economic activities.
Rising importance of B'desh to Japan and China
Currently, Indian investment in Bangladesh stands at USD 3.11 billion and the bilateral trade between the two nations is estimated in excess of USD 10 billion. Bangladesh imports nearly nine times from India than it exports. The total amount of Bangladeshi exports to India was worth around USD 1 billion in 2019. Compared to this, Japan has emerged as one of the major partners of Bangladesh. Financial assistance from Japan saw a boost after the initiation of Comprehensive Partnership with Bangladesh in 2014. In fiscal year 2020-2021, Japan provided more aid to Bangladesh than any other country, amounting to USD 2.63 billion. Since Bangladesh's independence, Japan has provided a total of USD 24.72 billion, almost evenly split between grants and loans. In FY 2018-19, Bangladesh's export to Japan was worth USD 1.3 billion while imports were worth USD 1.8 billion.
Analysts argue that any disturbance in the Indian Ocean — considered a lifeline for Japan as almost 80 per cent of its maritime trade passes through the region — will complicate Japan's international trade scenario. Bangladesh, with growing economic and political influence on the world stage, is important in Japan's strategic calculus — not simply because of its unique location in-between South Asia and Southeast Asia but also because of its direct access to the Indian Ocean. At the same time, sound diplomatic ties with Japan will help Bangladesh in successfully implementing its "Look-East" Policy.
Japan's Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (BIG-B), an initiative for changing South Asia's economic outlook, is aimed to play a key role in transforming Bangladesh into the heart of the regional economy by creating a gateway between South Asia and Southeast Asia, ensuring closer interregional cooperation, and incorporating Bangladesh into regional and global value chains. The major projects being implemented under BIG-B in Bangladesh are the MRT line in Dhaka, the deep-sea port at Matarbari, terminal three of the Dhaka airport, and the economic zone at Araihazar.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)-related activities in Bangladesh began immediately after the Chinese president Xi Jinping's visit in October 2016 when several investment agreements were signed between Bangladesh and China. During his visit, Bangladesh and China have signed 27 deals and memorandum of understandings (MoUs) — totalling USD 13.6 billion. These spanned financing infrastructure, energy, information and communication projects. China considers Bangladesh as an important player in implementing its BRI. Xi's trip was a strategic move to ensure Dhaka did not slip away, given that Bangladesh's close ally, India, had already expressed her reservation for the China-led grand project.
During 2009 to 2019, China invested an estimated USD 9.75 billion in various transportation projects in Bangladesh. China is assisting Bangladesh to build a runway in Cox Bazar. The extended runway, the longest in Bangladesh, is to be built by a joint venture between the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation and Changjiang Yichang Waterway Engineering Bureau. Under the agreement, the Chinese firm will extend the existing 9,000-foot (2,743-meter) runway by 1,700 feet (518 meters) through coastal land reclamation from the Bay of Bengal. Referring to Singapore, Bangkok and Dubai, Prime Minister Hasina said Cox's Bazar has the potential to be the next significant destination for the entire world as it is considered a suitable location for the planes travelling from the East to West or the West to East. Moreover, it is reported that China is eyeing high-speed rail network projects in Bangladesh following Bangladesh Railway (BR) feasibility study for constructing the railway network between Dhaka and Chattogram. China has proposed carrying out the project under the government-to-government-Public Private Partnership (G2G-PPP) framework.
'Look East' to 'Look West'
India and China were roughly at the same economic level in 1978, with similar GDP and per capita income. Though China began to grow much faster thereafter, the gap between the two countries was not very significant even a decade later, when the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi paid a historic visit to Beijing in December 1988. It was then possible for Deng Xiaoping to declare that there could not be an Asian Century without India and China growing together and playing a resurgent role. The former foreign secretary, Shyam Saran, thinks that the new Chinese approach is at odds with what the country's revolutionary leader Deng Xiaoping had advocated. "Today, China, under Xi Jinping, sees only one pillar… And that is the Chinese pillar," Saran said. He further added that "China is reverting back to looking at the world in a hierarchical fashion" and "If India is seen as not accepting its place in that hierarchy and contesting China's dominance in Asia, that will mean the tensions between the two countries will continue."
Probably, sensing this change in strategy between Deng and Xi, and anticipating China's 'inevitable' global dominance, the Indian government has shifted its focus from Look East to Look West policy. In addition to this, according to political commentator Sanjay Baru, in most ASEAN countries, ethnic Chinese practise Islam, Buddhism or Christianity. The growing assertion of a Hindu personality by India's present ruling dispensation has weakened India's soft power, globally and in this region. It seems India has decided to move away from East Asia and focus more on the West to avoid any tension with China. This could be one of the reasons why India did not join China-led RCEP and allied with the USA initiative of Indo-Pacific Economic Cooperation (IPEE). The US considers the geographic expanse of the Indo-Pacific stretching from its west coast to the western coast of India. This gels with India's 'Look West' policy.
Over time, Indian political and business leaders have realised that countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar could supply more than oil and gas, respectively. The wealth these countries and the UAE had accumulated also made them potential sources of foreign investment. Such interests might well have contributed to the then Manmohan Singh government's relative silence in relation to the Arab uprisings in 2011. The broad parameters of India's Middle East policy were largely in place when Modi was elected in 2014. Rather than taking a different path, the new government followed the same course, but intensified what has come to be known as Look West policy, by focusing on three main axes — the Arab Gulf countries, Israel and Iran. India's move to join Israel, the US, and the UAE in a new bloc (I2U2) is a continuation of this Look West policy of the government. In October 2021, a meeting of the foreign ministers of the four countries took place when External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar was visiting Israel.
It seems that the land-locked Northeast states should also look to their West — Bangladesh. Better transit facility between Bangladesh and NE states and people-to-people contact are the prerequisites to the latter's economic development. But for a long-term cordial relationship with Bangladesh, India's ruling party should change its attitude towards Bangladeshis, and leaders must abstain from using analogies like 'termites' for the Bangladeshi immigrants. Though the immigrant issue has been central to BJP's agenda, and helped the party score its first win in the northeast in 2016 Assam assembly elections, it will hamper India's relation with its trusted neighbour Bangladesh which has emerged as a strategically important nation in South Asia.
Padma bridge will also help West Bengal regain its prominence in the region, which was lost after the Partition in 1947. As the rank of East Asia in the global economy is bound to rise further in future, it is expected that, along with Bangladesh, the importance of West Bengal will also increase to the emerging super powers of Asia.
Views expressed are personal
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