Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar-Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC) seeks to deepen friendly cooperation among the four member nations and connect South Asia with South East and East Asia by establishing multi-modal connectivity, harnessing economic complementarities, promoting trade and investment and enhancing people-to-people contacts. The proposed economic corridor would run from Kunming, a south-western Chinese city, to Kolkata via Mandalay and Dhaka.
This regional grouping has unique features which could potentially bring huge benefits to the participating nations through integration of their economies. The BCIM region is home to 40% of the world’s population. It covers 9% of the world’s total area and contributes 7.3% of the global gross domestic product. There has been commonality of interests between the two rising global economic powers, China and India, on the one hand, and Bangladesh and Myanmar, the two Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in the group, on the other.
The idea of creating such an economic corridor was first conceived by Chinese scholars in Yunnan by the end of 1990s—then called the “Kunming Initiative”. It converted into BCIM Forum for Regional Cooperation when its meeting was first convened in 1999, with the objectives to: a) build a forum where the key stakeholders could meet periodically and discuss issues related to the enhancement of economic growth and trade in the BCIM region; b) identify specific sectors and projects that would promote greater collaboration among the BCIM nations and c) strengthen cooperation and institutional arrangements among major players and stakeholders to deepen BCIM ties.
The forum was basically a Track-II exercise involving scholars, technical experts, business leaders and government officials designed to explore and enhance cooperation between India and China on one side and Bangladesh and Myanmar on the other in the regions which are geographically contiguous. Subsequently, a series of conferences and workshops had been organised as part of “Track II Diplomacy”. Reports say ten BCIM forums held annually in rotation among the member nations till 2011. The successive BCIM forums contributed to generating awareness about the potential benefits of sub-regional cooperation.
The government officials began to participate in the debate and discussions organised by non-governmental actors. The idea of BCIM soon started to figure in inter-governmental discussions at the highest decision making level. Another crucial development in the process of evolution was the creation of BCIM Business Council consisting of leaders from business and trade organisations.
Despite such efforts, the forum’s primary focus on Track-II coordination failed to bring desired results. Consequently, during the 2011 meeting, it was agreed that a multi-track initiative was required involving Track-I (governmental actors) that would ensure a “high- level official meeting system and joint work force system”. The BCIM-EC received a new lease of life when Chinese Premier Li Keqiang proposed to construct the corridor during his meeting with the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi on 18 May 2013. The Chinese initiative was promptly received by India. The high-ranking officials of both the countries discussed various aspects of the proposed corridor for the first time. The Chinese officials subsequently discussed the same proposal with Myanmar and Bangladesh and received similar positive responses from Nay Pyi Taw and Dhaka.
The main focus of the BCIM is to facilitate trade and connectivity between the landlocked and undeveloped southwestern parts of China and Northeast region of India. The leaders of the four nations have been making concerted efforts to revive the ancient “Southern Silk Road”, which emerged as the shortest journey between China and India and served as highway for Chinese merchants carrying gold and silver in the 12th century. A government-sponsored K2K (Kolkata to Kunming) car rally was organised in February 2013 to showcase the proposed corridor’s immense future potentials. The four nations want to transform the route into a robust economic corridor by reviving the old commercial ties.
The member nations emphasised the need to quickly improve physical connectivity in the region in the 1st Joint Working Group (JWG) meeting in the Chinese city of Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan which shares border with Myanmar. The first inter-governmental meeting held on December 18-19, 2013 was perhaps the most significant development in the evolution of BCIM as it saw the smooth transition of the initiative from Track II to Track-I. The BCIM scheme entered into new phase with governments of the four nations was now playing the leading role. A number of major decisions were taken for institutionalisation of the BCIM cooperation and establishment of the economic corridor.
In order to enhance regional connectivity, the member nations decided to build multi-modal transport—road, rail, water ways and air ways, infrastructure. They also underscored the need of cooperation in energy and power sectors to tap local resources. Moreover, the development of telecommunication network along the corridor was emphasised. In an effort to facilitate intra-regional investment, the member nations agreed to broaden the participation of public and private sectors.
To improve the livelihood of people and reduce poverty along the corridor, the member nations sought cooperation in agriculture and environment-friendly industries to create a basis for sustainable development. They agreed to boost exchanges and cooperation in areas such as education, science and technology, culture, healthcare, sports as well as human resource development. Furthermore, infrastructure facilities would be upgraded and the tourism potential of the region would be explored to create BCIM tourism circle.
In their bid to strengthen physical connectivity, all the member nations are presently engaged in identifying realistic and achievable infrastructure projects. The 2nd JWG meeting was held at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh on December 17-18, 2014. The meeting tried to explore ways for early operationalisation of the K2K route. Reports suggest that the 2,800 km-long economic corridor is almost ready. A segment of less than 200 km, from Kalewa to Monywa in Myanmar, has to be improved. The second is the section between Silchar in Assam and Imphal in Manipur, which India is up grading.
The diplomats involved in the BCIM talks are optimistic that the regional forum would receive a fresh impetus through the four nations’ joint efforts in the 3rd JWG meeting, which was scheduled to be held in India by the end of 2015. Though such meeting is yet to take place, the 12th Forum of BCIM was held in Yangon on February 10, 2015. It is expected that before the 3rd JWG meeting, all the four nations will reach an understanding on the modus operandi of cooperation for the actual work to begin. The member nations are hopeful that a BCIM Framework Agreement will be inked in the third meeting paving the way for an institutional shape to the BCIM-EC.
There is no denying that the BCIM project has been facing some challenges too. Unlike China, Myanmar and Bangladesh, which have shown keen interests in the regional cooperation framework, the Indian government’s response has been lukewarm, partly due to Beijing’s growing involvement in strategic infrastructure development and military assertiveness in South Asia. It appears that there are security reservations in some quarters of the Indian establishment. India is worried that its strategic adversary China will gain direct access to the Indian Ocean through Bangladesh under the BCIM scheme.
Concerns had also been raised regarding the security situation in the insurgency-infested parts of Myanmar during the BCIM meetings. However, the representatives of the member nations expressed optimism that this issue would be sorted out in due course. The procedural delays remain another critical area for the proposed economic corridor. Bangladesh Prime Minister’s Adviser on Foreign Affairs Gowher Rizvi observed that the infrastructure projects envisaged under the BCIM initiative would require huge investments. According to him, construction of roads might be “technically feasible”, but it would take time to get funding. He further added that coordination among the four governments could be “time-consuming”.
Nevertheless, the enormous prospects of the economic corridor outweigh the problems. The BCIM-EC could usher in a new era of inter-connectedness in the region once it becomes fully operational. Many believe that with the linkage of roads, railways, airlines, water ways, telecommunication networks and power and hydro-carbon pipe lines, the BCIM-EC is likely to emerge as the largest free trade zone of the world by combining the ASEAN Free Trade Area, ASEAN-China Free Trade Area and ASEAN-India Free Trade Area. The project is still in its embryonic stage and it needs concerted efforts on the part of member nations to realise the goals.