The BCIM corridor: Any hope under the Modi government?


china-keqiang-indiaThe Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC) seems to have caught the imagination of policymakers in this sub-region with renewed vigour ever since Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh announced in their May 2013 joint statement about exploring possibilities for opening up this route for economic development of their underdeveloped peripheries. The statement of intent to push forward this potentially defining connectivity project was significant as China and India are the bigger partners in this initiative and their joint coordination would allow this process to move ahead, given the history of mutual suspicion and animosity between them over the past fifty years.

Subsequently,  the first meeting of the BCIM-EC Joint Study Group (JSG) was held in December 2013 in Kunming. It signalled, for the first time, the upgradation of the BCIM from a Track II to a Track I status, since previous attempts had borne no fruit owing to India’s concerns over China’s increasing assertiveness in South Asia, along with its growing economic prowess.

bcim-corridorWhat tilted the balance was the recognition by India of the fact that China is rapidly developing its infrastructure networks to its borders, and before long, even in an ideally peaceful scenario, its economic reach would engulf India’s peripheral regions. So, participating, albeit cautiously, was considered more prudent than either stalling or avoiding altogether. The then ruling party, Indian National Congress, was influenced by a number of factors – a Nehruvian worldview of maintaining harmony with its neighbours as well as non-alignment, in theory at least; and lingering hurt over the 1962 war with China, resulting in the policy of keeping the Himalayan borders underdeveloped to prevent Chinese troops from accessing the plains easily. Besides, there was an equally strong realisation that with Chinese all-weather roads and railways reaching close to the Indian borders, India needs to bolster its own border transport infrastructure.

The Modi Factor

The new government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is both nationalist and pragmatic. Given his background as an active member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and his tenure as the chief minister of Gujarat, a state known for its trading instincts and entrepreneurial zeal, Modi, the archetypal Gujarati, knows his priorities. With a strong majority in parliament, he intends to follow a policy of buttressing the Indian economy by inviting foreign investment. The new prime minister also wants to build up a strong defence industrial base to reduce India’s dependence on foreign companies for arms and ammunition. His government’s statements about building a strategically important highway from Tawang to Vijaynagar all along the Sino-Indian border in Arunachal Pradesh and repopulating these areas, to keep the Indian claim intact, shows his keen understanding of the Chinese way of practising diplomacy. After all, China is well-adept in nibbling away territories over a long period of time and populating these places with its own citizens. Before becoming the Prime Minister in May 2014, Modi made four visits to China and he was received well then by his Chinese hosts. He wants no war, but will not allow China to threaten India’s territorial integrity.

Lingering Concerns

modi-xi1These festering concerns explain the lukewarm Indian response to the BCIM-EC during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s  visit to India in September 2014. Out of the 16 MoUs signed between the two sides, not even one mentions the BCIM-EC. Only in the joint satement it was mentioned that the progress on the BCIM-EC since the first meeting of the JSG had been noted by both sides and efforts would be made to implement understandings reached at that meeting. This looks like a complete let-down from the hope generated during Li Keqiang’s visit in 2013. Most of the Chinese investments have been directed towards Mumbai and Gujarat, which are strategically safe from any direct assault by Chinese troop formations, unlike West Bengal and the Northeast. The Indian reluctance could be interpreted in two ways. It could mean a continuation of the earlier ‘military first’ policy of securing the periphery through a measure of infrastructure development and modernising the armed forces only to the extent of meeting this objective. Or, it could mean that given the vast differential in Sino-Indian economic prowess, Modi is following a policy that reminds one of Deng Xiaoping’s Opening Up China’s eastern coast first for investments and development before promoting the development of the western hinterland. India’s western coastal regions are better developed than the eastern coastal and hinterland areas, and following such a policy on a long-term basis might be considered beneficial for India’s overall development by the present government.

India’s Strategy

Where the Indian government needs to be cautious is that whether for good or bad, the Chinese economic and military might is way beyond the Indian capacity to confront. Therefore, the rate of completion of the pending and upcoming physical connectivity projects has to be faster. India’s northeast needs a different approach to development where the local people are made responsible stakeholders in their economic development. The cultural and psychological disconnect between the Caucasoid and Mongoloid racial stocks has to be bridged to ensure India secures this region from any external influence. Modi’s initial pronouncement of making the governments of India’s border states stakeholders in any regional or sub-regional mechanisms has to be put into effect by opening up a regional or state-level bureau of important ministries like External Affairs, Tourism and Commerce  in such areas.

China’s Yunnan province, the primary participant in the BCIM from its side, has a provincial bureau of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kunming to facilitate speedy decision-making when interacting with the South and Southeast Asian countries for economic cooperation. A hands-off policy by the Indian government will not help because a festering wound would ultimately paralyse the whole arms and the body as well. Modi is a pragmatic practitioner of realpolitik and hopefully, the BCIM-EC would see the light of the day by taking into consideration Indian military, economic, human and environmental security needs in the near future.

(Ambuj Thakur is a Doctoral Candidate at Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is currently in Yunnan on a research project)