New Delhi: India has invited the leaders of BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) countries for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony Thursday.
Behind this invitation lies India’s renewed focus and growing footprint in the Bay of Bengal region.
ThePrint looks at the importance of BIMSTEC by overviewing the several infrastructure and connectivity projects India is involved in around the region.
What is BIMSTEC and why is it important for India?
BIMSTEC is a regional organisation comprising Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. It was set up in 1997, but was effectively dormant until the Modi government sought to give it a renewed thrust after cross-border terrorism from Pakistan threw a cloud over the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
From ancient times till mid-20th century, the Bay of Bengal region was deeply integrated, its trade ties flourishing on the surplus agricultural output entailed by regular rain.
However, 1950s onwards, the countries of the region adopted different political systems and pursued divergent alliances, inhibiting trade and crossborder movement of people.
The Bay of Bengal region subsequently got split between two distinct blocs: South Asia, represented by SAARC, and Southeast Asia, catered to by ASEAN, the Association for Southeast Asian Nations.
Currently, BIMSTEC countries’ intra-regional trade accounts for only 5 per cent of their total GDP, as opposed to 29 per cent within the ASEAN bloc. Physical connectivity, too, is abysmal.
BIMSTEC not only allows India to facilitate connectivity across South Asia, but also creates the opportunity to integrate South Asia with Southeast Asia, a key point of the Modi administration’s Look East policy.
Leveraging its Belt and Road Initiative [BRI], China is now a prominent power in South Asia, challenging some of India’s core strategic interests. By spearheading connectivity projects in BIMSTEC countries, India is trying to provide an alternative to Chinese investments in the region.
India is involved in several rail, road, maritime, and energy projects in the BIMSTEC region.
These connectivity projects are underpinned by a two-fold idea: Facilitating connectivity in eastern and northeastern India, and then further connecting them to neighbourhood countries.
India’s eastern and northeastern projects
The northeast is seen as India’s gateway to Southeast Asia, which is why connectivity in this region is key to the Look East Policy.
India is spending Rs 10,000 crore to build a 1,000-km rail network in the northeast, with plans to connect this to the country’s eastern neighbours.
Another Rs 10,000 crore is being spent on facilitating power generation in the northeast.
In eastern India, the East Coast Economic Corridor (ECEC) is being constructed with the help of the Asian Development bank (ADB), which would be a multi-modal, regional maritime corridor from Kolkata to Kanyakumari.
The ECEC will be complemented by the development of four ports along the Bay of Bengal coast under the Sagarmala project: Sagar Island (West Bengal), Paradip Outer Harbour (Odisha), and Sirkhazi and Enayam (Tamil Nadu).
A train link between Bangladesh and North Bengal is being built, while one between Khulna and Kolkata was flagged off in 2017.
Rail and road projects
In terms of cross-border road connectivity, the two key projects India is involved in are the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and Kaladan Multi Modal Transport Project.
The former is a 3,200-km highway, connecting Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand, passing through large parts of Myanmar. The idea is to leverage Myanmar’s location and turn it into a land bridge between India and Southeast Asia.
The Kaladan Multi Modal Transport (KMMT) Project seeks to connect Sittwe in Myanmar to Mizoram in India, and has four components: A shipping transit between Kolkata and Sittwe, inland water transport connecting Sittwe and Paletwa in Myanmar through River Kaladan, a road connecting Paletwa to the Indo-Myanmar border, and another road connecting Lawngtlai in Mizoram to the Indo-Myanmar border.
Other than these two key projects, India is helping build three corridors through SAARC countries and two Asian highways.
India has already concluded a Motor Vehicles Agreement with Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal, which allows personal and commercial vehicles to cross borders with minimum permits, while negotiations for a similar BIMSTEC framework are also underway.
If the agreement is reached, it would allow vehicle movement across all BIMSTEC countries with just a single permit, which would be available online.
To facilitate maritime connectivity, India is helping build a Chittagong-Kolkata-Colombo corridor, besides being involved in the construction of a trade route connecting Nakugaon Land Port in Bangladesh to Gayleyphung in Bhutan via India.
There are a couple of projects India is developing with Japanese collaboration, including the Trinacomale Port in eastern Sri Lanka and Dawei Port that is part of a joint Myanmar-Thailand project.
Although it is still at a proposal stage, the most ambitious maritime connectivity project involving India is the Mekong-India Industrial Corridor (MIIC), which seeks to develop several ports connecting Vietnam to Chennai via Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar. The plan is to eventually link MIIC to the trilateral highway and the proposed Chennai-Bengaluru Industrial Corridor.
Inland waterways and air
The Modi government is working towards developing direct air connectivity between Dhaka, Chennai and Colombo, covering the entire western Bay of Bengal coast.
The Waterways Authority of India, working to make 106 rivers navigable, is closely coordinating with Myanmar and Bangladesh to facilitate water connectivity through River Barack in Bangladesh and River Irrawady in Myanmar.
India is currently laying optic fibres from Bhutan to Bangladesh via the northeast. Additionally, India has extended a $1 billion line of credit to lay a high-speed optic-fibre network in the remote areas of Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Malaysia.
The BIMSTEC region comprises developing states, which have significant energy demands, and India and its private companies are trying to address them.
For instance, in Bangladesh, India is working on gas grids and supplying high-speed diesel through pipelines. In Sri Lanka, it is building the Trincomalee oil storage tank farm and setting up an LNG terminal and a 500-megawatt LNG-fired power plant near Colombo.
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