As SAARC falters, BIMSTEC's seamless transport connectivity project a big step in regional economic integration
BIMSTEC gained importance and traction after progress in SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) got stalled following heightened frosty ties between India and Pakistan, writes Ranjana Narayan for South Asia Monitor
Seamless transport connectivity linking all the seven countries of the BIMSTEC is set to give a big fillip to the sub-regional grouping as it seeks to firmly establish itself, notwithstanding China's attempts to enlarge its footprint among most members of the bloc. The BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) countries -- Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal – are slated to adopt the Masterplan for Transport Connectivity during the summit to be held in Sri Lanka later this year, most likely in August.
The bloc, formed on June 6, 1997, in Bangkok, initially began with only Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand as members. Later, Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan joined in. It aims to boost economic growth and social progress among members across sectors like trade, technology, energy, transport, tourism, public health, counter-terrorism, environment, people-to-people links and climate change.
To mark the 24th anniversary of the bloc’s formation, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted that “as a manifestation of our collective will, BIMSTEC has emerged as a promising regional grouping to fulfill the common aspirations of its people and serve the shared interests of the member states”.
He expressed happiness that regional cooperation under BIMSTEC has “intensified substantially in the recent years” and that progress has been made towards the finalization of the text of the group’s Charter and the Master Plan on Transport Connectivity.
With a population of 1.6 billion, or 22 percent of the world total, and a combined gross domestic product of over USD 3 trillion, the bloc has held four summits so far, with the last one in Kathmandu, Nepal, in 2018.
BIMSTEC gained importance and traction after progress in the eight-nation SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) got stalled following heightened frosty ties between India and Pakistan. India called a BIMSTEC Outreach Summit and Leaders' Retreat, in Goa in 2016, on the sidelines of the BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) summit, and the bloc’s leaders were also invited to the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Modi in May 2019 for his second term.
The bloc, strategically placed between the SAARC and the 10-member ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), has most countries bordering the Bay of Bengal, the largest bay in the world.
Transport connectivity project
The BIMSTEC Transport Infrastructure Logistics Study (BTILS) undertaken with Asian Development Bank funding, has identified 167 projects for boosting transport connectivity among the member nations. It identified 65 “priority projects”, which include 16 in Bangladesh, four in Bhutan, 17 in India, nine in Myanmar, six in Nepal, five in Sri Lanka and eight in Thailand. Four of these six countries are members of SAARC.
One of the major connectivity projects to be taken forward is the Trilateral Highway, linking India’s Northeast to Myanmar and Thailand. Bangladesh, a SAARC nation, has evinced interest in joining the Trilateral Highway, that connects Moreh (in Manipur, India) to Mae Sot (Thailand) via Myanmar.
India has undertaken two projects in Myanmar under the 1,360-km Trilateral Highway project -- construction of the 120-km Kalewa-Yagyi road sections to highway standard, and upgrading of 69 bridges and approach roads on the Tamu-Kyigone-Kalewa (TKK) road section of 150 km.
Despite the military takeover in Myanmar since February 1, work is said to be progressing on the Trilateral Highway.
“A substantial part of the Trilateral Highway is in Myanmar. (Despite recent developments) we have learned that things are progressing on the ground (regarding the highway) and we are optimistic,” P. Dash, Associate Professor, Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS), said.
The expert had visited Tamu on the Myanmar side as part of an Indian delegation before the military takeover and participated in meetings with officials from both sides on the road widening projects.
“While the process (road building) has become slow, there is certainly progress. Some bridges have been newly built as they were narrow and could not carry lorries beyond a certain weight. This corridor is visualized as a transport and logistics corridor, and there would be heavy cargo traffic. The older bridges would not have been able to carry the weight of heavy cargo vehicles," he said.
Among the listed transport projects are: upgrading border roads between member states, dedicated road access to the main ports, prioritizing road development along key national arterial routes that are part of the trade corridor, and allowing landlocked countries (Nepal and Bhutan) access to the transit countries’ road networks for access to seaports.
Developing through-transport agreements between BIMSTEC members and their neighbors, encouraging the development of rail links between India and landlocked member states Bhutan and Nepal, and enhancing rail connectivity to the main ports, are also listed.
About maritime transport, which constitutes an important aspect of BIMSTEC as the members are littoral countries around the Bay of Bengal, the master plan outlines the need to develop newer ports, expand the existing harbor infrastructure to handle increased capacity, invest in modern container handling, among other things.
There is also reference to boosting inland waterways, expanding the aviation sector, development of low-cost carriers, increased access to international travel among member countries, improved freight services, etc. For trade facilitation, need has been cited for developing inland clearance depots at border posts, rationalization of documentation for trade, development of national single windows and increased customs automation.
According to an ADB report of 2018, there are three dominant existing or potential BIMSTEC trade routes: Route 1- Kolkata–Siliguri–Guwahati–Imphal–Moreh/Tamu–Mandalay–Bago–Myawaddy/Mae Sot–Tak–Bangkok–Laem Chabang; Route 2: Kolkata–Petrapole/Benapole–Jessore–Dhaka–Chittagong; and Route 3: Kolkata–Raxaul/Birgunj–Kathmandu.
Important for India
India is also pushing to complete the Kaladan Multi-Modal project, which will connect India’s landlocked Northeast with the southern coast of Myanmar. The project, for which India and Myanmar signed an agreement in 2008, is being implemented with an Indian grant of USD 484 million. It includes up-gradation of Sittwe port on the southwestern coast of Myanmar, and the development of a 225-km long waterway between Sittwe port and Kaletwa in Myanmar, along the Kaladan river. It envisages the creation of an inland water terminal at Paletwa, in Myanmar on the Kaladan river, and road connectivity from Paletwa to Zorinpui in Mizoram.
According to Dash, the first-ever BIMSTEC Ports Conclave held in November 2019 discussed port-led industrial development of the grouping, and MoUs were signed between the Indian ports of Visakhapatnam, Kolkata and Chennai, with Thailand’s Ranong port.
“The idea is to reduce the cost of transportation from 10-15 days of sea travel to 7 days. These MoUs contribute to reducing travel time to less than 7 days. This is one of the biggest tangible gains for the region,” he added.
“BIMSTEC officials and foreign ministers have approved the Master Plan of Regional Connectivity. If leaders adopt it at the forthcoming summit it will become a roadmap of how member states have to work with regard to the connectivity of ports, civil aviation, institutions, digital connectivity. It will be made clear at the summit,” said Rajiv Bhatia, a former Indian ambassador to Myanmar.
Highlighting the importance of seamless connectivity, Indian External Affairs Minister S.Jaishankar said at the April 1 BIMSTEC Ministerial meeting: “Robust connectivity is an essential pre-requisite for economic integration of the region with smooth cross-border movement of people and goods. I am delighted that the Member States have finalized the BIMSTEC Master Plan for Transport Connectivity which is expected to be adopted at the fifth BIMSTEC Summit. It would be an important step towards fulfilling the aspirations of the people of our region for better connectivity and integration.”
Once the Masterplan for Transport Connectivity is adopted, it would help boost trade and economic ties and people-to-people connect in a big way — making the bloc a happening place. Some other agreements, like the Free Trade Agreement, the Motor Vehicles Agreement, and the Coastal Shipping Agreement, are still being negotiated.
But will this economic integration happen at the cost of a moribund SAARC remains anybody's guess!
(The writer is a senior journalist. The views are personal. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)