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Millennium Post

Vacillating in South Asia

In recent years, a disconcerting 'blow hot, blow cold' approach on certain issues, has dominated India’s dealings with its south Asian neighbours like Bangladesh, Myanmar and China.

This needlessly arcane approach is currently affecting the performance of regional groupings, founded on the basis of collective co-operation. The outcome has been somewhat damaging in terms of India’s image building and diplomatic leveraging. It has contributed to a trust deficit at the level of bilateral relations, as well.

There were complaints from Pakistan and Bangladesh earlier about India’s lack of interest in developing a healthy regional neighbourhood, with particular reference to the functioning of the SAARC. More recently, China and Bangladesh have protested India’s perceived indifference to the progress and economic potential of the more recent Kunming initiative, which led to the formation of the promising BCIM grouping (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar). After a decade and more, the Kunming initiative has made little progress, thanks to a glaring contrast between India’s lofty rhetoric and poor follow-up. In 2005, China and Bangladesh went public in accusing India of 'stalling' the regionally promising initiative.

The provincial Yunnan authorities were the driving force behind the 'K2K initiative' which was launched in 1999. Kunming is the capital of Yunnan. Since Beijing was not directly involved at this stage, the project was launched at the track II diplomatic level.

The initial movements, with rotational meetings attended by representatives of the four countries, seemed positive enough. The idea was to ensure a hassle-free movement of people and goods within the four countries, with the objective of increasing trade and economic ties. There were proposals to rev up border trade and border area development in participating countries. Trade and other barriers were to be reduced or simplified to the extent possible, making greater market access available to all parties.

There was strong evidence to suggest that the new sub regional grouping would have succeeded in accelerating regional economic growth. To begin with, India’s business volume had gone up in the region from a mere $2.3 billion in 1992 to $58 billion in 2011, indicative of the rich economic potential of the Kunming-Yangon-Dhaka-Kolkata economic corridor that had been envisaged. (India’s trade with China, estimated at $70 billion in 2011, is scheduled to touch $100 billion by 2015). Incidentally, the project is also called the K2K (Kunming to Kolkata) initiative, linking a rising Chinese provincial capital to the former capital of British India.

There is now a direct two hour flight linking the cities, which means that by air Kunming is as close to Kolkata as New Delhi. West Bengal would have been a key destination, the final link in the trade/business chain. Then again, a similar initiative, the Greater Mekong Sub Region project, had been a great success, as it brought six mutually suspicious Southeast Asian countries together in a common economic enterprise.

With BCIM too, it was clear that among the areas that would benefit the most were the Indian northeast states and also states beyond West Bengal in E. India, which now suffer from relative backwardness. Road and rail infrastructure would need updating, helping development and the transit of goods. Communication would spread to and improve in even neglected border regions, the sanctuary of armed insurgent groups, leading to political stability.

No wonder, from well informed think tanks in Manipur to Delhi-based political leaders and analysts were full of enthusiasm about the BCIM’s potential. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said these developments would help Kolkata recover some of her earlier glory and importance, a sentiment echoed by Foreign Secretary Rajan Mathai, at the BCIM’s 10th meeting in Kolkata earlier this year. Historic old regional link roads like the Silk Road and the Sea silk road , would be revived. Representatives of the four participating countries pointed to the inevitable expansion of tourism, trade, investments, energy and transport linkages that would follow. This sub regional initiative was critical to the success effectiveness of India’s own LookEast policy as well. India would emerge as a major political and economic entity in the east, ranking next only to China.

But as commentator Vivek Sengupta pointed out, India’s follow up efforts did not match its high flown rhetoric, belying high hopes. Its efforts at the ground level remained paralysed, its interest in the progress of work lukewarm. Presumably India's 'Sinophobia' was a reason, he felt - strange reaction from a country that swears by the benefits of globalisation and economic reforms!

Sengupta is not alone in holding India responsible for the lack of progress, for all its supportive assurances in official meetings. Leaders of China and Bangladesh had arrived at the same conclusion even earlier. In 2005, Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh, Chai Xi, told newsmen in Dhaka that India 'did not support' the BCIM, till then a non- government initiative. It was not 'geared up' to meet the requirement of the project. About the same time, a Bangladeshi researcher made the same observation in one of his reports.

It was only in 2011 that finally the project, almost on the verge of abandonment, flickered into life again, as the route survey for the long awaited car rally from Kunming to Kolkata, a distance of 2500 kilometres, began. Ironically, sourpuss Indian businessmen complained that instead of car rallies etc, there should have been more fruitful programmes to ensure economic progress and consolidation, by this time. Why they did not press the Government of India to show more interest remains unknown.

So the initiative remains alive, on paper, but only just. There are official proposals for workshops along the long 2500 kilometre road route, to increase and kevel of public awareness (especially in India - the situation is markedly better in the neighbouring countries!) for organising fairs, festivals and exhibitions, arranging friendly sports contests and archery competitions, highlighting tribal traditions, among other things. A major achievement is also the setting up of a BCIM Business Council, comprising the major chambers of Commerce of the region in the participating countries. China is currently pressing for the initiative to be put on track I, assuring the project the full weight of Beijing’s support.

On 6 February this year, 13 participants - five Chinese, four from India, two each from Bangladesh and Myanmar - took part in the unique K2K car rally. Starting from Kunming, they covered the 2500 kilometres distance to Kolkata, through Myanmar and Bangladesh, in nine days. It was a significant milestone for the opening up of and improving connectivity within South Asia.  They spoke at length about their rich experience and gave suggestions for improvements that could be made along the route, to those who attended the 10th BCIM meeting in Kolkata.  Plans are on for a second rally some time later this year, from Kolkata to Kunming. It has been proposed that this time, not only car drivers, but bikers should be allowed to join.

The sooner Indian policymakers understand the importance of such regional initiatives seeking greater integration of different countries, the better for the people of this region. Any failure to appreciate this would result in greater isolation and increase India’s alienation in the East.
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