BCIM-EC in hibernation while Gwador deep sea port nearing completion

Sayed Kamaluddin | Published: May 21, 2017 20:24:57 | Updated: October 22, 2017 00:49:34

The Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation (BCIM) Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC) was first mooted in 1999, much before the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was launched by China and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) was even conceived. Meanwhile, the BRI, first announced in 2013, has successfully held the first BRI Forum for International Connectivity in Beijing, China on May 14-15. It was attended by over than 100 countries and large number of international agencies and became the most talked about event the world over.
The Belt and Road Initiative is a grand plan to connect Asia with Europe and Africa along and beyond the ancient Silk Road trade routes by putting in place an unprecedented network of infrastructure projects along the way. It hopes to face the challenges of sluggish trade and investment, uncertain economic globalisation, more unbalanced development and many others. This cannot be solved by one country and the idea is to sort the problem out by way of developing interdependence between nations. Sceptics, however, say it is easier said than done.
Likewise, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the $57-billion dollar BRI initiative, is to link China's far-western Xinjiang region with Pakistan's Gwador deep sea port in the Baluchistan province and thus with the Arabian Sea. The port has already carried out trial operation and is expected to begin full operation by the next month (June). As Reuter reported from Islamabad quoting Nadeem Javaid, adviser to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on CPEC programme,  "about four per cent of global trade to pass through Gwador port by 2020". Indeed, a very ambitious target; more so as Pakistani security officials have admitted that 'militants' have killed 44 Pakistani workers to disrupt construction on the CPEC since 2014.
Now, compare this to the progress achieved by BCIM-EC since 1999. The third meeting of the Joint Study Group (JSG) of BCIM-EC was held in Kolkata late last month to finalise the report. The First meeting of the JSG was held in China in 2013 and the second in Cox's Bazar in December 2014. No meeting was held in 2015 and 2016.
THE BCIM-EC AND ISSUES CONNECTED TO IT: The BCIM-EC is to link Kunming, capital of China's Southwestern state of Yunan with Kolkata, West Bengal via Mandalaya in Myanmar, Dhaka and Chittagong in Bangladesh. Though the idea of BCIM-EC was born 14 years before the launching of BRI in 2013, China made it a part of BRI for greater connectivity, economic cooperation and development.
Though nothing much is known officially about the lack of progress concerning BCIM-EC, major Indian English-language daily the Hindustan Times in a report on  April 19 quoting a retired Indian diplomat said: "the BCIM preceded the BRI so it should be pursued as an autonomous initiative rather than as a subset of BRI." While this can be argued now given the latest development, there is no explanation available why India was dragging its feet over the BCIM-EC project proposal between 1999 and 2013 before BRI was launched.
While India's views were known to the Chinese, they were optimistic about a change in Delhi's policy. Guo Suiyan, Associate Professor at the Yunan Academy of Social Sciences (YASS), told the Indian newspaper that while the JSG (Joint Study Group) dialogue didn't take place, the Trach II dialogue between China and India has never been closed. He said: "At this particular point of time, we need to re-emphasise that BCIM-EC is a cooperative platform for development and prosperity of the region and does not involve some of the sensitive issues that exist between China and India."
But that was before the Beijing BRI Forum was held in mid-May and India officially refused to attend. The official reason for not attending the meeting was that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes through Gilgit which has been 'illegally occupied' by Pakistan since 1947. Attending the meeting would, therefore, risk conceding sovereignty over 'Pakistan-occupied Kashmir' (POK).
Noted Indian political commentator and journalist Prem Shankar Jha, however, derided the statement as "poppycock." He argued: "The CPEC passes through the same territory as the Karakoram highway that China built in the 1960s. India has been lodging formal protests over the past 50 years. But it has not prevented it from increasing its trade with China by more than 20 times, and cooperating with it on all kinds of strategic and environmental issues in various international fora. Modi could have safeguarded India's legal position on Gilgit by issuing a similar formal caveat…..".
BANGLADESH AND BCIM-EC: The geostrategic position of the Bay of Bengal signifies Bangladesh's importance in the BCIM-EC sub-region and beyond. Once BCIM-EC is developed, Bangladesh can help facilitate unhindered access of the landlocked Northeast Indian states and China's Yunan province to the sea. Both the region can save huge time and enormous amount of transportation cost by availing the shortened land and river corridor to make good use of port facilities in Bangladesh.
To meet this increasing demand in Bangladesh and on its ports, adequate infrastructure facilities such as improved connectivity, power plants and development of deep water port facilities closer to the sea lane and related other   infrastructure facilities would be needed. Country's largest port Chittagong lacks the draught to handle bigger vessels and therefore, construction of an expensive new deep sea port is a necessity. But that is unlikely to pose a problem because already China, Japan and India have offered to help build such facilities and preliminary works have started.
The BCIM-EC projects a kind of win-win situation for all when all participants maintain their part of the bargain. Being the entry and exist point of sea connectivity of the group, Bangladesh enjoys an advantage as well as responsibility to ensure smooth maintenance and navigability of the corridor which falls within its territory. This also needs substantial investments.
All the partners of BCIM-EC are developing countries and all of them have to consider their own peculiar economic and geopolitical situation which differs from each other. However, they also have one common problem to consider - scarcity of resources.  Scarce resources come with the difficult choice of making priorities. Though the BCIM's emphasis is on economic development and not geopolitics, nobody would suggest disregarding geopolitics altogether. However, one should very well remember the observation of Dr. Dan Steinbock, the founder of the Difference Group: "Living standards seldom rise fast in countries that favour geopolitics." [Who are the biggest military spenders, really?, Financial Express, May, 18, 2017]

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