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Cooperation with neighbours vital for India's Northeast

June 03, 2013 12:54 IST

A sidelight of the Chinese prime minister’s India visit was official approval for expanding a well-functioning mechanism for regional co-operation, notes Kishan S Rana.

In contemporary diplomacy, bilateral summit encounters are tightly scripted, and prepared with attention to detail. Expectations are managed, to avoid surprise; the ‘deliverables’ are carefully orchestrated via an intensive pre-visit dialogue. But Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s 19-21 May 2013 India visit produced a minor surprise.

The 20 May India-China Joint Statement declares: ‘18. The two sides appreciated the progress made in promoting cooperation under the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar) regional forum. Encouraged by the successful BCIM car rally of February 2013 between Kolkata and Kunming, the two sides agreed to consult the other parties with a view to establishing a joint study group on strengthening connectivity in the BCIM region for closer economic, trade, and people-to-people linkages and to initiating the development of a BCIM economic corridor.’

Mr Li went further in his address to a meeting organised on 21 May by the Indian Council of World Affairs and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry; he connected China’s policy to develop its Western region and to look to neighbouring countries with India’s Look East policy, and again underscored this new notion of a ‘BCIM economic corridor’. 

What is BCIM? Why is this joint study group to look at connectivity, economic cooperation and an economic corridor in what amounts to a sub-region relevant for India? 

In 1999, China’s landlocked Yunnan province, bordering Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, launched what was then called a ‘Kunming Initiative’, backed by Beijing, in that country’s unique method of transferring to provinces some neighbourhood management tasks. The idea was that China’s south-west region, Myanmar, Bangladesh and India’s Northeast and eastern region, might explore prospects for working together, using emerging new transport linkages as a platform for stronger trade, socio-cultural and people-to-people exchanges.

Academics and scholars were invited to discuss this concept, and sensitise their governments, business entities and social organisations to the possibilities. 

This led to the BCIM Forum, which in the years since has held annual meetings, notionally at a Track Two or academic level -- though two of the countries, China and Myanmar, effectively join in these discussions with full official backing.

Thus one more acronym entered the lexicon of the international affairs specialist. The BCIM Forum met for the 11th time in Dhaka in March 2013, attended by two ministry of external affairs officials, joining what was otherwise a non-official delegation of Indian scholars and specialists. 

Why is this cooperation important? Has not China been a supporter of insurgency in India’s Northeast? Should we invite China to work closely in a sensitive region? These are hard questions that merit a serious response, which Professor Patricia Uberoi and I have attempted in a 140-page policy-oriented monograph: ‘India’s North East States, the BCIM Forum and Regional Integration’, September 2012 (the PDF file can be accessed on the website of the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi, at http://icsin.org/mono.pdf).

Road and other connections are burgeoning everywhere. Southeast Asia is the locus of two ambitious projects: an ‘Asian highway’ partly under construction, and a putative ‘Asian railway network’. The first will surely take shape well before rail lines, but even these may emerge, perhaps sooner than we imagine. (Who could have visualised a train service from Beijing to Lhasa? We may see in the coming years an extension of that connection to Kathmandu.) Already, China is constructing roads in Myanmar, which connect with the excellent network of Chinese highways, as one crosses from Myanmar into Yunnan. 

Myanmar has its own motivation in developing its much-neglected roads; it seems to act on the premise that new roads across the whole, mountainous country will bring development to its interior, and indirectly help eradicate the many small and not-so-small insurgencies that have held local populations to ransom in an environment of under-development and absence of infrastructure.

It is on this logic that India is engaged in road projects in Myanmar, including those agreed during the Indian PM’s 2012 visit. And one way or another, the famous Stilwell Road of World War II will also be redeveloped, as one of the short connectors between India, Myanmar and China.

The situation in our Northeast is similar in some respects. Not one kilometre of railway track has been laid in 66 years of independence, even while fine plans exist on paper. It is hardly possible to move from one state capital to another without going back to Assam. Air links are in similar disarray, lacking airports as well as flights.

We have placed the states of the Northeast in a situation of stasis. The people of the region call the rest of India ‘the mainland’ -- the wonder is that they do not feel less connected with this mainland than they actually do. As we see across India, Northeasterners thrive in all that they undertake, tolerant of the bursts of local prejudice they sometimes encounter.

We need to bring to this region the oxygen of development, to eradicate the last vestiges of a debilitating legacy of insurgency, and fold them into the Maha-Brahmaputra-Ganga that is India.

 Our Northeast cannot remain a hostage to a flawed notion of security. Security will come with development and with the actualisation of the eastward connections of this region towards Myanmar, as well as their Bangladesh connections.

This is the other real gain of sub-regional mechanisms, in that it legitimises, from the perspective of smaller neighbours, the virtue of working together with large neighbours. The BCIM Forum provides that platform. For example, the distance from Agartala to Kolkata is 300 km, via Dhaka; but avoiding travel through Bangladesh makes this 1,700 km. 

Let us also not forget that regional cooperation is a demand that resonates across the states of the Northeast, as we saw during a two-day March 2013 conference on India’s Look East policy at Shillong. Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Mohammad Quayes told the BCIM-9 meeting of January 2010, ‘Regional diplomacy is no longer hostage to the corridors of the foreign office.’ 

What of China? Framed within four-partner cooperation, surely we have the will and capacity to deal with Beijing and Yunnan, and to bend our collective energies to productive cooperation.

Diplomacy works for positive outcomes; India is not a passive actor, and has to use such regional mechanisms for projecting and protecting our interests, not withdraw into immobility. Meghalaya Governor R S Mooshahary, inaugurating the March 2013 Shillong conference, said cogently: “Impoverished and idle people are the greatest threat to security.”

Let us now pursue the BCIM mechanism in a positive spirit.

The writer, a former ambassador, is honorary fellow of the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.

Image: A Naga tribal family takes firewood to their village in a cart near Ukhrul town next to the India-Myanmar border.

Photograph: Reuters

Kishan S Rana
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