Charting a new Asian history

Rich dividends in terms of peace and development can be reaped if India and China work together to synergise the proposed regional cooperation projects that interconnect Bangladesh, Pakistan and other neighbouring countries.

Updated - August 31, 2016 11:14 am IST

Published - September 01, 2015 12:09 am IST

A file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

A file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

All history is geographically located and influenced. Similarly, all geography is shaped, defined and redefined by history. This is evident not only from world history but also from the history of Asia — the glory of old Asia, its decline in colonial times, and its more recent rise again.

The dialectic between history and geography manifests itself through the interplay of three factors — geopolitical, geo-economic and geo-cultural/civilisational. In the case of Asia, for nearly three centuries, the geopolitical and geo-economic realities were negatively impacted by Europe and the West in general. However, that is largely a thing of the past. Asia has begun to write its own destiny now. The 20th century was marked by Asia’s liberation from colonial rule and imperialist subjugation. The history of the 21st century will chiefly be the story of Asia’s rise, a process that is already underway in some parts of the continent. The other underdeveloped parts of Asia, especially in South Asia and South-East Asia, are craving to become a part of this story.

Geography as ally of history Until now, the political boundaries carved out on the geography of South Asia and South-East Asia had become barriers for the countries in this vast region to overcome socio-economic underdevelopment caused by history. Now, thanks to advances in trade, transport and technology, the geography of this region can be made an ally to create a new history of shared prosperity, progress and peace, in addition to a revitalisation of age-old, cultural-spiritual-civilisational ties.

This is what has been envisaged, on a broader expanse of Asia-Europe-Africa connectivity, by the super-ambitious ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ and the ‘21st Century Maritime Silk Road’ plans that have been unveiled by China’s President Xi Jinping. India also has been evolving its own regional cooperation initiatives such as ‘Mausam’ and the ‘Spice ‘Route’ in the Indian Ocean region and beyond, although these are nowhere as comprehensively projected, nor backed with requisite investments yet, as China is doing in the case of its ‘One Belt One Road’ vision. [The ‘Mausam’ project envisages the re-establishment of India’s ancient maritime routes with its traditional trade partners along the Indian Ocean. It was launched in June 2014. The ‘Spice Route of India’ visualises the India-centered link-up of historic sea routes in Asia, Europe and Africa.]

Be it China’s strategy or India’s, neither can fully or smoothly become a reality in South Asia without a strong partnership between the world’s two most populous and civilisationally rich nations.The key to the success of this strategy is the early implementation of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor, which envisages a network of modern road, railway, port and communication and trade connectivities in a region stretching from Kolkata to Kunming in southern China. Even though BCIM is one of the richest regions in the world — in terms of natural and human resources and home to nearly 500 million people — it is also one of the least integrated areas, economically as well as socially.

Before history changed its map in the last century, the people of this region not only shared a geography without rigid borders, but also close racial, linguistic, cultural and spiritual interconnections. Sadly, while the neighbouring Association of South East Asian Nations community has become a zone of prosperity, the BCIM region (barring southern China) is mostly underdeveloped, India’s seven north-eastern States providing a stark example.

The potential of BCIM India will benefit from BCIM, which was conceptualised 16 years ago, in many self-evident ways. For instance, Agartala is 1,650 kilometres from Kolkata when one travels through the ‘Chicken’s Neck’, the narrow strip of land north of West Bengal, which is only 23 km wide. In contrast, the distance gets reduced to just 350 km if the journey passes through Bangladesh. Similarly, India’s north-eastern States have no access to the sea, even though Tripura’s southernmost border town, Sabroom, is only 72 km from Chittagong, an international port in Bangladesh. At least one major reason behind Kolkata’s economic decline after India’s independence is its unnatural isolation from its natural eastern neighbourhood. Apart from denting the development of West Bengal and India’s north-east, this has hurt Bangladesh too. Landlocked from three sides, and with only sea access to the rest of the world, this potential economic powerhouse (its population of 160 million is greater than that of Germany and France combined) is facing severe constraints in its overall development.

BCIM also benefits India and Bangladesh in other ways. With natural gas reserves of about 200 trillion cubic feet, the largest in the Asia-Pacific, Bangladesh could become one of the major energy exporting countries. Yet, today it imports 500 MW of electricity from India and is planning to import an equal amount from Myanmar. Tourism too will get a boost. Bangladesh attracts less than one million foreign tourists in a year. For India’s north-eastern States, the figure is less than 2,00,000. Contrast this to the fact that Vietnam attracts 8 million, Cambodia 5 million, and Thailand 26 million foreign tourists annually.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi should prioritise BCIM because it can not only be a game-changer for this region in Asia, but is also pivotal for his ‘Act East’ Policy.

Cooperation possible, essential In the last week of August, I participated in a conference in Beijing on BCIM and its interconnection with “One Belt One Road”, organised by the Institute of World Economics and Politics (IWEP). Besides arguing for BCIM’s expeditious implementation, I emphatically said that the logic of India-China regional cooperation needs to be extended westwards through India by connecting BCIM with the ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). During Mr. Xi’s visit to Islamabad in April 2015, China pledged to invest $46 billion on CPEC — roughly one-fifth of Pakistan’s annual GDP. CPEC’s main infrastructural corridor, running over 3,000 km, will connect Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang province to the Gwadar port in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. India should welcome this initiative. CPEC will no doubt boost Pakistan’s progress and prosperity. It will also help Pakistan tackle many social and other internal problems, including the menace of religious extremism and terrorism. It is in India’s vital interest to see a stable, prosperous, progressive, united and democratic Pakistan, which is at peace with itself and also at peace with all its neighbours.

However, CPEC in its present form, unlike BCIM, does not comprehensively capture the benefits of regional cooperation. It needs to be extended into landlocked Afghanistan, which is in urgent need of national reconstruction after several decades of war. It should also be extended into India through Kashmir and Punjab, the two provinces which are today divided between India and Pakistan. Its linkage with the Indian side of Kashmir is especially important. At present, many in India have objected to CPEC passing through a part of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), on the ground that it is disputed territory. We should know that India is in no position to stop CPEC. A better strategy would be to turn this reality into an advantage by proposing the construction of a sub-corridor bringing CPEC into the Indian side of Kashmir and beyond. This will help make the disputed India-Pakistan border in Kashmir largely irrelevant, a solution that India under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had been actively pursuing with Pakistan. Simultaneously, extending CPEC into India through Punjab and Sindh will make the remaining stretches of the India-Pakistan border porous with modern transport and trade connectivities. In addition, sea transport linking Pakistan, the western coast of India, Sri Lanka, the eastern coast of India, Bangladesh and Myanmar should be strengthened.

Enhancing security Interconnecting CPEC, with its extensions into Afghanistan and India, and BCIM is not really a novel idea. It is simply a 21st century version of the 16th century road, built by Shershah Suri, the Afghan emperor, connecting what later became the capitals of four countries — Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. As a new component of this regional cooperation architecture, the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, which is already a part of CPEC, should be extended into India. New Delhi has until now remained cool to this flagship proposal by Tehran, partly due to perceived security issues and partly on account of American pressure. However, with the likely thaw in relations between Iran and the United States after the Iran nuclear deal, and with China playing the driver’s role in CPEC (and hence in a position to exert pressure on Islamabad), the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline can indeed become a reality. Thus, the CPEC-BCIM interconnection has the potential to immensely bolster India’s energy security both on the western and eastern flanks.

Indian critics of BCIM and CPEC state that China cannot be trusted, and cite the divergent positions of the two countries on Arunachal Pradesh and PoK. I firmly believe that India’s concerns can be better addressed by constructively engaging, rather than by trying to confront, China. Mutually beneficial regional cooperation builds trust, and trust in turn helps nations resolve their disputes amicably. Moreover, when two big nations such as India and China cooperate in a regional cooperation framework, it generates confidence among other countries in the neighbourhood. They become crucial stakeholders in making India and China stable and irreversible. It may also be noted here that China’s stakes in cooperating with India have become higher because of its slowing economy.

Recent months have produced three encouraging signs of an India-China convergence on the issue of regional cooperation. In the joint statement issued after Mr. Modi’s visit to China in May this year, “the two sides welcomed the progress made in promoting cooperation under the framework of the BCIM”. Second, Beijing has expressed its willingness to work with India to explore the synergy between its own “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” plans and India’s “Mausam” project with a view to addressing New Delhi’s strategic concerns and gaining “common benefits”. Third, India has become an important founding member of the Beijing-promoted Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which can fund BCIM, CPEC and other projects. Hence, the emerging regional cooperation agenda in South Asia, if pursued with sagacity and sincerity, promises to become a win-win game promoting development and security for all.

(Sudheendra Kulkarni was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. E-mail: )

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