Seldom in history an opportunity is presented to erase the legacy of war, conflict, division and bickering to one for moving forward into a new era of peace, progress, development and prosperity. It would perhaps be no exaggeration to say that the BCIM involving Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar is one such historic undertaking; one has to see this from a larger perspective given the breadth of its vision, implications and potentials to transform the countries comprising it and the region through, among others, comprehensive connectivity, economic corridor and people to people contacts.
Significantly, the idea of the BCIM began as a non-governmental track II initiative known as the Kunming initiative; this was subsequently joined by the governments of the countries in the BCIM forum. From Bangladesh side, the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) made notable contributions during its formative phase within the framework of track II initiative.
The credit for giving serious impetus to the BCIM should go to the Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang and the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh; both of them rose to the demand of time and history .Setting aside all manner of constraints they were able to perceive the larger benefits for their people and the region in peace and development; achieving this is a formidable task but there is no credible option if we are to successfully overcome the huge challenges of ,among others, poverty, development, food security, water scarcity, energy shortage, climate change , terrorism, militancy and extremism.
The BCIM involving an ambitious economic corridor project and physical connectivity when implemented is expected to redraw the economic and geopolitical map of Asia by releasing tremendous potentials for growth and infusing fresh dynamism for regional economic integration and global development. Physical connectivity and industrial zones are envisaged as the twin pillars of the economic corridor.
The corridor would cover 1.65 million square kilometres encompassing an estimated 440 million people in the regions of Yunnan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, west Bengal, Bihar and states in northern India.
The physical connectivity seems to be the main critical challenge to initiate the process given the poor state of infrastructures, roads and highways etc particularly in the Indian north east connecting Bangladesh and Myanmar. It would require careful and detailed planning involving infrastructure development, improving the transport linkages and mobilization of funds for the implementation of the projects. The need for close coordination, regular meetings and monitoring by the stakeholders and fully involving the development partners and the private sectors would be important ; the aim should be to transform the transport links into transport corridors and eventually economic corridors along the border points. In this context it would perhaps the useful to draw some lessons from the success so far achieved by Mekong Delta Project .It would be for the experts to incorporate and adapt for the requirement of the BCIM from some of the tangible success of the Greater Mekong Sub Regional Model.
The construction of the proposed industrial zones is expected to lead to industrial transfer boosting industries such as processing, manufacturing and commercial logistics; with the rising cost of labour in china labour -intensive industries such as textiles and agro processing units should be eventually relocated out of China elsewhere with competitive advantages. The building of the industrial zones along the corridor “will stimulate the economic growth of large and the medium size cities along the corridor."
The economic corridor is expected to be linked with the ASEAN FREE TRADE AREA, ASEAN-CHINA FREE TRADE AREA and ASEAN -INDIA FREE TRADE AREA.
BCIM countries hope to create a corridor that would combine road, rail, water and air linkages in the region which would facilitate cross border flow of people, goods minimize overland trade obstacles , ensure greater market access and increase trade .This will bring new economic opportunities and benefits for all the BCIM nations.
A number of meetings have been held including a study group setup to concretize the concept of the BCIM.
Business groups from the BCIM countries meeting at Kolkata in February 2012 signed an agreement for setting up the BCIM Business Council to boost economic trade and investment through visits and exchanges of trade information, participations in trade fairs and exhibitions.
The 11th BCIM forum held in Dhaka in February 2013 in its joint statement stressed the need for energy cooperation and noted that ensuring energy security remained a major concern for the all countries of the BCIM region. “The forum also reiterated the need for developing multi-modal connectivity through coordinated development of road -rail-water and air linkages within the region."
In this context Bangladesh highlighted the urgency for development of transit and transhipment with the neighbouring countries and for development of the port infrastructure of Bangladesh including construction of Deep- sea port to the land-locked countries. Bangladesh also stressed, among others ,the need for closer cooperation of Bangladesh particularly with North-East India under the aegis of the BCIM; this could play an important role in reducing the substantial bilateral trade deficit with India since the North-eastern Indian states are required to import almost everything from outside because of their weak production base .Geographical location of these states is such that they have to pay a high transportation cost to get supplies from their key source in Kolkata. Most Bangladeshi products could be exported to the North-East India because of large supply-demand gaps and the relative economic backwardness of the region.
Giving priority to physical connectivity the countries will need to identify realistic and achievable infrastructure projects to boost physical connectivity. It is significant that each country is expected to come up with a joint study report proposing concrete projects and financing modalities before the next meeting of the BCIM in June 2014 in Bangladesh. It is hoped that before the holding of the third joint study meeting in India towards end of 2014 the BCIM countries will come-up with an agreed cooperation framework including modalities for financing projects; this should pave the way for the practical work to begin on the ground. The proposed cooperation framework is expected to include concrete proposals for developing multi model transport, such as road-rail, water ways and air ways, joint power projects and telecommunication networks.
BCIM nations have drawn up specific plans emphasizing the need to quickly improve the physical and connectivity of the region. 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-model connectivity, harness the economic complementarities, promote investment and trade and facilitate people to people contacts", the four nations said following joint study group session.
Officials indicated that the improving road network is expected to be the priority. The holding of the first BCIM car rally from Kolkata to Kunming via Dhaka and Mandalay held in December last year was intended to highlight the importance of road connectivity.
The North East region of India due to topographic and geo strategic locations, significant improvement of connectivity would have positive gains for Bangladesh and the North East region including through people to people contacts, trade, investments and cultural exchanges. Restoring pre partition linkages of land, river and transit routes; reactivating trade into Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) of China; linking Bhutan, Nepal and Myanmar should give important boost to Sub regional cooperation. It is important to note that the North East region share 98% of its borders with the neighbouring countries of Bhutan, Nepal, China, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Eventually wider integration involving Bangladesh, SAARC, ASEAN,BIMSTEC and China would contribute to a stronger BCIM.
The BCIM project is an important part of the objectives of Beijing and Delhi to open up their landlocked regions to the neighbouring countries of Bangladesh and Myanmar. As is known the Yunan province of China is a landlocked region. BCIM, through its economic corridor and connectivity could facilitate China to give access to the sea to its south west province. This is a relatively poor and backward region far off from the costal areas of the east which needs to be developed. Similarly India's landlocked north east region has lagged behind compared to other parts of the country. Integration of the north east region with the neighbouring countries of Bangladesh Myanmar and China through border trade and connectivity would foster greater economic development and other benefits to the region.
Some experts feel that the progress of the BCIM is slow and inadequate. However, one has to take into account the magnitude and complexity of the undertaking both in the context of the past and the current ground realities. Combined political will of the leadership of the BCIM, active role of the nongovernmental organization, with the civil society and the media are vital to its success.
Strengthening bilateral friendly relationship and widening the scope of cooperation including resolution of the outstanding issues among the BCIM countries should pave the way for a viable and strong BCIM.
Bangladesh-China: There is a large potential for giving greater depth, dynamism and widening the scope of bilateral cooperation and friendly relationship between Bangladesh and China which needs to be fully tapped. China's economic prowess, among others could greatly assist in Bangladesh's transition from an under developed to a middle income and developed economy.We should seek China's financial,technological support and assistance, among others,for building our much needed physical, economic and social infrastructures. In particular with joint collaboration of China, India, other Development partners and agencies to build the Deep-sea port, direct road and rail connectivity between Bangladesh and china and for overcoming through trilateral cooperation the crisis of water, energy, food, agriculture and climate change. In this context there is need for serious follow-up action on visit of the Governor of the Yunan province Qin Guan Grang to Bangladesh at the invitation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina which took place in 2010.
From diplomatic perspective the forth coming Indian election is crucial; In case of change of government in Delhi it is hoped that the political will and commitment to the BCIM demonstrated by Indian Prime Minister MANMOHAN SINGH would continue.
In the context of Bangladesh India relationship it is of paramount importance that there is resulution of the outstanding bilateral issues particularly implementation of the Land Boundary Agreement and TEESTA water sharing Agreement between two countries;this would generate public good will for India. Vitally,India's support to strengthen the democratic process by assisting resolution of the ongoing political crisis in Bangladesh by holding of a free fair and participatory election should have a positive impact. A peaceful and stable Bangladesh is in the interest of India; instability, widespread chaos and violence in Bangladesh could negatively impact on peace and stability regionally and globally given the strategic location of Bangladesh, its history and size of its politically conscious population. There is imperative need to substantively strengthen economic trade, investment, cultural,educational exchanges ,people to people contacts, among others ,between the two countries; significant enhanced Indian investment in joint venture projects in Bangladesh, removal of tariff and non tariff barriers including facilitating visit of our businessmen to India by easing visa formalities should help in reducing the trade imbalance.
With Myanmar there is considerable scope for much expanded collaboration in areas of particularly physical connectivity, economic,trade, investments, tourism and culture .These needs to be fully explored and concretized for the mutual benefits of the two countries.In this context we have to move bilaterally with greater vigour to give impetus in the areas of economic, trade,Banking,culture and connectivity in the wider context of BCIM. It is imperative to resolve the issue of ROHINGYA Refuges. It is not only an issue of financial burden for Bangladesh but one of the moral, humanitarian issue including the ideal and experience of our liberation war; Myanmar government would have to be persuaded to restore the citizenship of Rohingyas which is the only durable solution. This would pave the way for a stronger friendly relationship between Bangladesh and Myanmar as well as strengthen the ongoing democratic process in Myanmar.
The success of the BCIM should pave the way for strengthened friendly relationship regionally with ASEAN,EC,OIC,US,JAPAN,KOREA,RUSSIA and rest of the international community.
For Bangladesh to be able to contribute meaningfully to the success of the BCIM putting its house in order is an essential prerequisite. Diplomacy in the ultimate analysis is an extension of domestic policy and structure; achievement of minimum national consensus on vital issues on foreign and domestic policies which have so far eluded us has to be achieved.
Immediate priority is for the government and the opposition parties is to reach an understanding on the modality of a fresh election which needs to be held without inordinate delay; this has to be achieved to ensure that we do not recede into pre election violence and unrest with which Bangladesh was plunged;citizen need peace , security to earn the livelihood; they are opposed to the politics of confrontation ,the brunt of which is largely borne by the poor and the marginalized; not by the elites . This is not democracy of the people but plutocracy; government of the elites,by the elites and for the elites.
It is time for a national consensus to achieve a workable polity and functional democracy by replacing the current First Past System with Proportional representation to get rid of the pervasive hold of money, muscle power and corruption which have corroded all vital institutions of the state and government; rule of law, strong economy with vibrant role of the private sector, strengthening of Grameen Bank by restoring its independence and autonomy and implementing Social Business widely to overcome the challenges of poverty, development , huge unemployment ,empowerment of women and for meeting pressing social needs beyond the reach of the poor
A national consensus on our Nobel laureate Prof Yunus and utilization of his valuable service at this crucial time would help Bangladesh to overcome its crisis and strengthen it.
To be able to meet and successfully overcome the formidable global challenges facing the humanity at large PEACE IS THE IMPERATIVE NEED OF THE HOUR; only in an environment of peace and stability we would be able to collectively pull our resources and wisdom to achieve the desired objective.
Connectivity is peace and development; no country can live in isolation; this is a truism which has now become an inescapable reality of the present century; the formidable challenges of peace and development; of overcoming poverty, inequity, access to safe drinking water, education and health care; of ensuring justice among others for citizens globally has become a collective responsibility of all nations, developed and developing alike.
In the context of Bangladesh , one of the least developed countries , to achieve the goal of a poverty free, middle income and developed economy we need to give priority attention to our neighbourhood ; to begin with regional and sub regional connectivity to a wider global one.
A reinvigorated, strong and stable Bangladesh on the bedrock of national consensus and unity would then be able to play a more active diplomatic role towards the realization of the BCIM into a concrete reality for regional, global peace and stability.
With our rich Bengali culture combined with the equally rich culture of its indigenous tribal population there is no room for terrorism, extremism and militancy in Bangladesh. Our people and its culture of peace and humanism are the best defence against these evil forces and tendencies.
The writer is a former UN Regional Administrator in Kosovo and Bangladesh Ambassador to Japan.