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BCIM hits speed bump as Sino-Indian geopolitics stalks

Mir Mostafizur Rahaman | June 20, 2019 00:00:00

The Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor has been put on the back burner because of the clash between China and India over their geopolitical interest.

The multilateral initiative is aimed at facilitating trade in the region.

The 2,800-kilometre corridor has been proposed linking Kunming in China's Yunnan province with the Indian city of Kolkata, passing though points such as Mandalay in Myanmar and Dhaka in Bangladesh.

The BCIM economic corridor is a sub-regional initiative, earlier known as "Kunming Initiative", or BCIM Regional Economic Cooperation.

The was launched in August 1999 in Kunming, capital of China's south-western Yunnan province by the leaders of China, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Experts said the strengthening of the Belt and Road (BR) initiative in recent years and India's isolation from the China-led scheme might have made the BCIM less of a priority.

But state minister for foreign Affairs, M Shahriar Alam, felt that the issues to be dealt under the BCIM are being handled bilaterally.

"The main spirit of the BCIM was to promote trade and commerce in the region through expanding regional connectivity," he told the FE.

"Now, we are doing this bilaterally. We have strengthened our connectivity with India, and we have taken initiative to expand Dhaka-Yunnan connectivity," he said.

"Our commerce minister Tipu Munshi was in Yunnan recently and he held meetings with Chinese officials on enhancing connectivity and trade between the two countries," he added.

In case of Myanmar, the process takes time due to its internal instability and security situation , the state minister said, adding both the nations have agreed to foster trade.

Ambassador Humayun Kabir said it is clear that the BCIM was caught in the trap of geo-politics between China and India.

There is a "trust deficit" between the two countries and for this India prefers to exclude itself from the BR initiative and consequently BCIM lost momentum, he argued.

Similarly, the current tension between Bangladesh and Myanmar over the Rohingya issue has prevented the two neighbouring countries from enhancing connectivity.

But India has signed a trilateral agreement with Myanmar and Thailand for road connectivity, which means that the BCIM countries are addressing the connectivity issue as per their geopolitical interest, according to Mr Kabir.

Under BR, China itself has undertaken three major connectivity projects in South Asia excluding India such as the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), the Nepal-China Trans-Himalayan Multi-dimensional Connectivity Network, including Nepal-China cross-border railway, and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

The 1,700-km CMEC provides China yet another node to access the Indian Ocean. It will run from Yunnan Province of China to Mandalay in central Myanmar. From there it will head towards Yangon, before terminating at the Kyaukpyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) on the Bay of Bengal.

After the emergence of the BR, China officially has shown BCIM as a BR project and in an official report it said, "Over the past five years or so, the four countries of the BCIM have worked together to build this corridor under the framework of joint working groups and have planned a number of major projects for institutional development, infrastructure connectivity, cooperation in trade and industrial parks, cooperation and opening up in the financial market. On top of these have cultural exchange, and cooperation in enhancing people's wellbeing."

The last meeting of the Joint Study Group (JSG) of the BCIM was held in April, 2017 in Kolkata, which dealt with sharing of the revised reports on the BCIM among the four member counties.

In that meeting it was agreed that the next meeting will be held in Myanmar in 2018, but that did not take place.

"The differing viewpoints expressed by the delegates highlight the main issues in economic relations between India and China … India's massive trade deficit with China continues to be a factor in India's consideration of the BCIM," said Roshan Iyer, a research assistant at CUTS International, an Indian think-tank.

In the last six months, India has repeatedly brought up the hurdles faced by Indian IT services, pharmaceuticals, and rice exporters to access the Chinese markets, Mr Iyer said.

Contrary to India's cautious position, China is looking for immediate action and commitment to spur on the initiative.

China may be facing greater domestic pressure over bringing its BRI, linked with the BCIM, to fruition.

The Chinese delegation highlighted the fact that the decision to create an Inter-Governmental Cooperation Mechanism was taken about 28 months ago, said Mr Iyer.

Geng Shuang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, talking to reporters in Kunming last April insisted discussions on BCIM are still going on and China has not abandoned it.

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