Four nations have for the first time drawn up a specific timetable on taking forward plan

India and China have taken the first step towards pushing forward an ambitious corridor linking the two countries with Bangladesh and Myanmar, as representatives from the four nations held the first ever official-level discussions about the project this week.

The four nations have for the first time drawn up a specific timetable on taking forward the long discussed plan, emphasising the need to quickly improve physical connectivity in the region, over two days of talks in the south-western Chinese city of Kunming – the provincial capital of Yunnan, which borders Myanmar – on Wednesday and Thursday.

The corridor, it was agreed, will run from Kunming to Kolkata, linking Mandalay in Myanmar as well as Dhaka and Chittagong in Bangladesh. The plan would “advance multi-modal connectivity, harness the economic complementarities, promote investment and trade and facilitate people-to-people contacts”, the four nations said following Thursday’s Joint Study Group session.

The BCIM project, which has been the subject of discussions and debates for more than a decade among scholars from the four countries, finally received official support earlier this year, highlighted as a key initiative during two meetings between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang, in New Delhi in May and in Beijing in October.

The Chinese have appeared to take the lead in pushing forward the corridor, choosing to highlight the proposal as a key outcome of Mr. Li’s visit to India – his first overseas trip as the new Premier.

China, officials say, sees the corridor as a platform to not only boost strategic ties with India, but also as a means to inject vitality into its landlocked southwestern provinces, which have the highest poverty rates in China.

In the months following Mr. Li’s visit to India and in the lead-up to Dr. Singh travelling to Beijing, both India and China held separate consultations with Bangladesh and Myanmar, agreeing to hold a first official meeting in China. India was represented at this week’s talks by Joint Secretary (East Asia) at the Ministry of External Affairs Gautam Bambawale, who was joined by the Deputy Planning Minister of Bangladesh, the Vice Chairman of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, and a senior economic affairs official from Myanmar.

To underline that no country will dominate the initiative, the four nations said the corridor will be taken forward on “the principles of mutual trust and respect, mutual interest, equitable sharing of mutual benefits”.

As a first step, the four countries will identify realistic and achievable infrastructure projects to boost physical connectivity.

Over the next six months, each country will come up with a joint study report proposing concrete projects and financing modalities, before the next meeting of the four nations in June 2014, hosted by Bangladesh.

The hope is that before the holding of the third joint study meeting, in India towards the end of 2014, the four countries will have agreed upon a cooperation framework – including modalities of financing projects – that will pave the way for on-the-ground work to begin.

This week’s talks saw the four countries come up with an ambitious proposal that included developing multi-modal transport, such as road, rail, waterways and airways, joint power projects and telecommunication networks.

Officials suggested that improving the road networks would likely be a first priority. Earlier this year, a first ever BCIM car rally was held between Kolkata and Kunming.

The corridor is likely to follow the rough route of the rally, which served to highlight the inconsistent road conditions, especially in parts of Myanmar. Officials acknowledged that security concerns in parts of Myanmar were one likely obstacle, although representatives from the country also expressed optimism that this issue would, in time, be overcome.

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