China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), BCIMEC and India’s Gambit
How North-Eastern Region (NER) of India Should Response to it?
AUGUSTINE R|Op-ed |This Politics
The Federal-state governments in the NER must assist India’s union government in building a confident measure, particularly between the Nagas and India, because the Naga political issue, which predates India’s independence, is the region’s most serious unresolved political issue, with the potential to stymie policy implementation of either China’s BRI or BCIMEC, or even India’s Act East Policy (AEP). India is concerned that the BICMEC project will increase China’s geopolitical influence in the region and, in the worst-case scenario, support Naga aspirations as it did in the 1960s, potentially suffocating India through the “chicken’s neck corridor.”
While there is a growing body that examines the benefits, drawbacks, and consequences of
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and given China’s current global hegemony, the BRI is expected to have a significant impact on a vast geopolitical region. Clearly, this will reshape global trade, providing the world with a new perspective.
The Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIMEC), proposed by China at a sub-regional forum in 1999, is an important economic corridor that China saw as closely related to the BRI after its announcement. Despite numerous intergovernmental discussions on the BCIMEC, no concrete steps have been taken to realize the project, owing primarily to India’s opposition. The NER has strayed from economic connections, and the region should examine how to respond to the problems, speculations, and issues surrounding BRI and BCIMEC.
About China’s Belt and Road Initiative
Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed the concept of the “Silk Road Economic Belt” in a speech titled “Promote People to People Friendship and Create a Better Future” during his official visit to Kazakhstan on September 7, 2013, at Nazarbayev University. The following
month, in an address to the Indonesian Parliament the following month on October 3, 2013, he proposed the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” in a speech titled “Constructing Jointly the China – ASEAN Community of Common Destiny.” The above two proposals are known
collectively as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), or One Belt, One Road 一带一路 (yīdài yīlù) in Chinese. The BRI represents a significant strategic departure in China’s external policy, and it is one of the world’s most ambitious economic initiatives, aiming to connect Asia with Africa and Europe via land and maritime networks in order to improve regional integration, increase trade, and stimulate economic growth.
The Silk Road Economic Belt: It is a long-term vision for Eurasia’s infrastructure development,
connectivity, and international economic cooperation that spans six development “corridors”
and “passageways” namely:
- New Eurasian Land Bridge (NELB)
- China – Mongolia – Russia Economic Corridor (CMREC)
- China – Central Asia – West Asia Economic Corridor (CCWAEC)
- China – Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor (CICPEC)
- China – Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)
- Bangladesh – China – India – Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIMEC)
The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road: It spans the South China Sea, the Malacca Strait, the
Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea envisions a network of interconnected markets linking the ASEAN, South Asia, West Asia, North
Africa, and Europe, and a strategic partnership for the South China Sea and the Pacific and Indian oceans.
The Polar Silk Road: On January 26, 2018, the People’s Republic of China’s State Council Information Office published a white paper titled “China’s Arctic Policy,” vowing to actively participate in Arctic affairs. The document serves as a blueprint for China’s Arctic strategy, as well as its ambition to build a “Polar Silk Road” as part of the “Belt and Road Initiative.”
Cooperation Priorities: The Belt and Road Initiative is based on five major cooperation priorities:
- Policy coordination
- Facilities / Infrastructure connectivity
- Unimpeded trade
- Financial integration
- People-to-people ties
The Belt and Road Initiative’s funding: It will be secured through a variety of institutional
- Policy Banks
Agricultural Development Bank of China (ADBC)
China Development Bank (CDB)
Export-Import Bank of China (CHEXIM)
- State Owned Banks
Agricultural Bank of China (ABC)
Bank of China (BOC)
China Construction Bank (CCB)
Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC)
- State Owned Funds (selection)
China Investment Corporation (CIC)
Silk Road Fund (SRF)
- International Financing Institutions (selection)
Asian Development Bank (ADB)
Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB)
New Development Bank (NDB)
BRI Progress Report: As of July 2020, there are over 2600 BRI-related projects worldwide, with a total value of US $3.7 trillion. As of January 2021, 140 countries are involved, including 40 from Sub-Saharan Africa, 34 from Europe and Central Asia (including 18 from the European Union (EU), 24 from East Asia and the Pacific, 19 from Latin America and the Caribbean, and from South Asia. These BRI members, including China, account for 40% of global GDP and
house 63% of the world’s population. As a result, BRI has become a truly global endeavor. One of the criticisms leveled at China’s BRI is that it has been solely focused on boosting China’s exports, with no regard for assisting BRI member states with their own exports. However,
data compiled from the World Bank’s TDC360 website demonstrates that this is not the case. Indeed, from 2016 to 2019, Belt and Road 135 member countries increased their exports by 28.8 percent on average. The information provided below explains: (view table of countries)
It is also worth noting that BRI “with a view to building a global community of shared future, the Belt and Road Initiative upholds the principles of extensive consultation, joint contribution, and shared benefits” had achieved a global acceptance. As a result, there is no doubt that China has made a positive contribution to the reform of the current global governance system and economic globalization.
India and BRI: The Gambit
The Belt and Road initiatives in which India has participated include the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), in which it is the second largest investor after China. It has also taken a stake in the BRICS New Development Bank (NDB) and is a full member of the Shanghai
Cooperation Organization (SCO). Despite its practical involvement, India has diplomatically “downplayed” China’s Belt and Road Initiative and refused to sign a Belt and Road MoU.
However, India is unquestionably a player in the Belt and Road Initiative, albeit through proxies. India’s moves to align with the AIIB and NDB also serve as a useful cover for the extent of Chinese involvement in infrastructure development in India. These include projects to upgrade power supplies and invest in Indian businesses, either with or without bank assistance. The AIIB and NDB has also been active in India, for instance, the Beijing-based AIIB and
Shanghai-based NDB has:
- AIIB approved USD 304 million for India’s North-Eastern state of Assam Intra-State Transmission System Enhancement Project on January 28, 2021.
- On September 29, 2020, NDB approved the Delhi-Ghaziabad-Meerut Regional Rapid Transit System Project, which will be funded by loans from NDB, ADB, and AIIB totaling USD 2,049 million, a grant of USD 3 million from the Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction
administered by ADB, and counterpart funds totaling USD 1,707 million from the government and other sources.
- Government of India and AIIB sign agreement for USD 500 million Mumbai Urban Transport Project-III to improve the network capacity, service quality and safety of the
suburban railway system in Mumbai on August 24, 2020.
- AIIB approved USD 750 million loan to India for Covid-19 response on June 17, 2020.
- NDB approved USD 300 million on July 8, 2019, for Assam Bridge Project.
While all South Asian countries have expressed “extensive support” for the BRI, India and Bhutan are the only holdouts. India’s opposition stems from its adversarial relationship with
China, which is also characterized by suspicion and competition rather than cooperation. As a result, India is the most critical BRI country in South Asia, and, interestingly, India is the largest loan taker from the China-led and Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). As AIIB celebrates its fifth anniversary in January 2021, it has supported approximately USD 6
billion in projects in India. Six billion dollars, or nearly one-third, of the total $20 billion in AIIBapproved projects have gone to India.
The Importance of North-Eastern Region for BRI and BCIMEC
Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, and Tripura are the eight states that comprise the North-Eastern Region (NER). The region shares an international border with several neighboring countries, including China in the north, Myanmar in the east,
Bangladesh in the south-west, Nepal in the west, and Bhutan in the north-west, totaling 5,182 kilometers (3,220 miles). It is 262,230 square kilometers in size (101,250 sq mi).
The North-Eastern Region undoubtedly holds a strategic position on a logistical and supply chain that can control the flow of resources along international trade routes. A realization to develop the southwest province of China, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIMEC) was proposed by China during a sub-regional forum in 1999 to connect the economically backward regions of southwest China and India’s North-Eastern region via the infrastructure-deficient countries of Myanmar and Bangladesh. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during his visit to India in May 2013 formally proposed to promote the construction of BCIMEC by setting up a joint working group, and the following year in September 2014,
President Xi during his visit to India issued a “Joint Statement of China and India” where the two countries jointly initiated the construction of the BCIMEC. With the visit of India’s Prime Minister Modi to China in May 2015, China and India inked a series of cooperation
agreements, which injected new vitality into the BCIMEC, however, to date no concrete steps taken to bring the project to fruition.
India is concerned that the measure will increase China’s geopolitical influence and, in the worst-case scenario, support Naga aspirations, suffocating India further through the “chicken’s neck corridor.”
The difficulties in implementation: BRI and BCIMEC in North-Eastern Region
Despite all the discussions and the prospect associated with the BRI or BCIMEC, at present there some difficulties which maybe even decades away for successful implementation of
the initiatives or the project. First, for China, BRI focuses on constructing “smooth, secure, and efficient transportation routes connecting major seaports” along the Belt and Road. Therefore, the China-Pakistan
Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIMEC) are closely related to BRI, and China has emphasized the importance of closer
cooperation and greater progress. While India is practically involved in the BRI, it will not recognize it diplomatically or officially due to border disputes and the CPEC agreement with Pakistan, which runs through disputed territory under Pakistan’s control but is fiercely claimed
by India. It will also refuse to recognize BCIMEC if it is included in BRI projects and has refused to take any concrete action on BCIMEC. According to India’s logic, recognizing the BRI entails
recognizing the CPEC agreement, which will recognize the disputed territories as either Pakistani or Chinese.
Second, during the 1960s, China openly supported the Naga movement, a political issue that predated India’s independence from Britain in 1947. As a result, despite promising infrastructure investment and increased market connectivity through BRI or BCIMEC as part of BRI or as a standalone BCIMEC project, India is concerned that the measure will increase China’s geopolitical influence and, in the worst-case scenario, support Naga aspirations, suffocating India further through the “chicken’s neck corridor.”
The absence of the BCIMEC project from the list of BRI projects presented to 37 heads of state and governments at the 2nd BRI forum in 2019 can be interpreted as a “win for Indian
diplomacy.” Deals worth USD 64 billion were signed, and the meeting was attended by the heads of the United Nations (UN) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). While India has
no reservations about participating in the standalone BCIMEC project because it sees it as a project that predates the BRI, however, on the other hand, India’s opposition remains the main impediment. Even though intergovernmental talks on BCIMEC have begun, India remains hesitant to grant competing geopolitical rivals access to this sensitive region. As a result, India has taken no concrete steps to bring the project to fruition, pushing the BCIMEC
or BRI projects decades away due to non-commitment and an ongoing border dispute.
How India’s North-East Region Should Response to It?
At the China’s Central Economic Work Conference, the annual agenda-setting economic summit for policymakers to address China’s uneven regional (province) development, China
officially incorporated the “One Belt, One Road” initiative into China’s national economic development strategy in 2014. Following the strategic development adoption, nearly every province mentioned in the project strategy is vying for OBOR-related projects. As a result, India, and particularly the North-Eastern Region faces competent Chinese-built infrastructure
all the way up to its borders with the Tibet Autonomous Region of China (TAR), Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. The observation is that China appears to be waiting for India’s
approval to be connected to matching India’s infrastructure. For instance, as part of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), a local sub-pillar of
the BRI, the opening of a new rail line on August 25, 2021, brings China’s high-speed railway (HSR) network to the country’s border with Myanmar, which is also close to India’s NorthEastern Region. The completed HSR connects Chengdu, China’s South-West Sichuan
province’s capital, to Lincang, a prefecture-level city in Yunnan province opposite the town of Chinshwehaw in Myanmar’s Shan State. It also launched the first road-rail transport link to
the Indian Ocean with a China-Myanmar New Passage “test cargo,” a transport corridor involving a sea-road-rail link that arrived at the Chengdu rail port in Sichuan province on August 27, 2021. Goods from Singapore arrived at Yangon Port by ship via the Andaman Sea
in the northeastern Indian Ocean and were then transported by road to Lincang on the Chinese side of the Myanmar-China border in Yunnan province. In competing with the China’s BRI, India has been promoting its own strategic route by funding and developing Iran’s Chabahar Port, which will connect to the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), then into Armenia and on to Russia, east into Afghanistan, or west into Europe. However, if India is to truly take up a position as a leading nation of the 21st
century, instead of remaining wary and critical of China or BRI, it requires a relationship with China to be more functional than it had been in the past.
While India’s diplomatic response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative is NO, it has made a practical strategic decision (practically YES) in support of the BRI. Even though the NER accounts for only about 8% of India’s land area, its strategic importance as a logistical and
supply chain that can control the flow of resources along international trade routes cannot be ignored. The federal-state governments in the NER should support and work jointly:
- Formed a “effective committee” of elected representatives and strategists (multidomain) from the NER for necessary planning, reaction, and dialogue with the Union Government of India on China’s BRI or BCIMEC, as India appears to be stuck (gamble) by the “logic” of India’s military security implications, conscious of budgets, and prefers to play up with a China threat approach on the ground that connects the security sensitivity to the NER. As a result, India’s fervent media frequently yelps at such claims, alarmed the country’s vocally democratic population.
- The federal-state governments in the NER must assist India’s union government in building a confident measure, particularly between the Nagas and India, because the Naga political issue, which predates India’s independence, is the region’s most
serious unresolved political issue, with the potential to stymie policy implementation of either China’s BRI or BCIMEC, or even India’s Act East Policy (AEP). India is concerned
that the BICMEC project will increase China’s geopolitical influence in the region and, in the worst-case scenario, support Naga aspirations as it did in the 1960s, potentially
suffocating India through the “chicken’s neck corridor.” The Naga people occupy a significant strategic trade route in India’s current four
north-eastern states and Myanmar’s north-western region. Despite the signing of the Indo-Naga Framework Agreement in 2015, there has been little progress even after 6 years of signing the “historic” agreement due to growing distrust between the
negotiating parties. In this regard, the federal-state governments represented by the NER’s elected political representatives could form a committee to seriously support and engage in assisting the government of India/Prime Minister of India and the Nagas for a peaceful acceptable political solution to the ongoing issue. A conducive sociopolitical environment of peace and good governance is required because the region requires massive infrastructure development and investments to create a secure and
efficient all-around development environment in order to bring any project to fruition.
- Finally, one major source of concern is India’s failure to demonstrate genuine political will to resolve the pre-independence political issue by failing to appoint a political
negotiator to lead the negotiation for an issue requiring political decision.
Conclusion: A simple fact is that India is not powerful enough to respond to BRI in the global community on its own; instead, the country should focus on fully maximizing the benefits of this global commercial strategy preparation plan rather than using the threat strategy and
continuing to use banks such as the AIIB, NDB, and ADB as a cover. As India and China become more reliant on one another – with China shifting toward high-tech and intelligent manufacturing, China will require India to be a low-cost source of manufactured goods, and
India will require Chinese investment to help improve its infrastructure – projects like the BCIMEC will provide India, particularly the NER, with better overland access to China and the
immediate neighboring countries.
About the Contributor
Augustine R. is an independent researcher on the India-Naga-Myanmar political issue, as well
as on broader Asian security and strategic issues, and a keen observer of China and India’s
relations with ASEAN, South Asia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European