8-14 April 2016 #803


A fresh look at the map will show how Bangladesh-China-India-Nepal could now be connected
Kanak Mani Dixit in Dhaka

The railway to the sea roadway. (Research for map by: dipesh khanal)

The acronyms that have invaded the diplomatic and Track Two discourse hold the promise of converting ‘connectivity’ from a goal to reality. BIMSTEC, BCIM and BBIN represent efforts to link the northeastern quadrant of South Asia through transport, energy grids, services and seamless commerce, all of which would lead towards economic growth and social justice.

While some may be wary or skeptical of the bilateral steps taken by Nepal recently with India and China, they could be a trigger for regional commerce. Despite geopolitical and practical obstacles, we may finally be seeing the energising of societies through efficiencies and economies of scale made possible by bilateral, trilateral and multilateral trade in goods and services.

BIMSTEC is 20 years old, and was evolving like the ponderous SAARC, but now it has new energy with the democratic evolution of Myanmar, and the grouping has just opened its secretariat in Dhaka, the city that would be fulcrum to this particular sub-region. BIMSTEC holds the prospect of linking Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar and Nepal, but first we need the tension between Kathmandu and New Delhi to subside.

Started as the Kunming Initiative, BCIM is an effort to bring China (mostly Yunnan) into collaboration with Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar. A look at the map shows why this is geographically sensible: Beijing would find it more convenient to connect to the sea via Chittagong than reaching all the way to Gwadar in Pakistan.

The BBIN motor vehicle agreement (for passenger, personal and cargo transfer) has unexpectedly emerged these past two years as a possible catalyst. It would boost commerce between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal, and also pave the way for future BIMSTEC-wide and SAARC-wide connections.

The breakaway moment came when Indian PM Narendra Modi told SAARC’s Kathmandu summit in November 2014 that sub-regionalism was the answer if all eight member countries could not agree on strategy and action: “either all of us or some of us”. Pakistan had reservations on the SAARC Motor Vehicle Agreement then under negotiation, and, under India’s urging, the other countries moved with unexpected speed. The BBIN agreement was signed in Thimphu in June 2015.

The BBIN agreement allows for protocols to provide unhindered road and rail transport across the borders of the four countries. Prime Minister KP Oli deserves credit for having created an enabling environment for BBIN with his trips to New Delhi and Beijing in February and March. In India, besides inaugurating the Dhalkebar-Muzaffarpur 400 KVA line, which allows two-way transfer of power, New Delhi agreed to rationalise Nepal-to-Bangladesh transit for both truck and rail transport.

To the north, besides a 400 KVA transmission line linking Kathmandu to Kerung, Beijing agreed to study the feasibility extending the Qinghai-Tibet railway line into Nepal. Much more immediately significant was the agreement to build what could be called the Kimathanka Highway, running from Biratnagar along the Arun River to the northern border.

Connecting with the Chinese railway network, and given the emphasis of Beijing’s leaders on cargo movement by rail, the Kimathanka Highway would be an all-weather link between China/Tibet and Nepal. This would work as much for Nepal’s benefit as the larger economies to the north and south. President Xi Jinping told PM Oli across the table in Beijing that he was interested in fostering a “trilateral relationship” including India, but it would actually be quadrilateral including Bangladesh.

There are hurdles. Is Beijing actually confident enough on Tibet to allow open international commerce? The evident reluctance to reopen Kodari after the earthquake and throughout the five-month blockade should give one pause. Will Kathmandu have the good sense to follow through on agreements just concluded with Beijing and New Delhi, or will it go into relapse as in the past?

Regionalism requires India and China to loosen up their visa regimes, which is easier said than done. While the scale of trade between India and China may seem to be a guarantor of the proposed connections, there is as yet an undertow of distrust between the two powers.

It is important to ensure that the BBIN motor vehicle agreement is implemented as soon as possible, to create facts on the ground, making reversal difficult. While the three larger countries have ratified the agreement, Bhutan is holding back, apparently fearful of market and demographic inundation. The diplomats are presently contemplating addressing Thimphu’s fears with protective protocols, or going in for a ‘BIN’ without Bhutan for the time being.

The proof of connectivity will, of course, be in the implementation. But following Kathmandu’s recent initiatives to the north and south, it may be appropriate to add one more acronym to the mix, bringing together Bangladesh, China, India and Nepal – ‘BCIN’.

Also read:

Dhaka to Kathmandu (and back), Kanak Mani Dixit

The sky is the limit, Kanak Mani Dixit

Unintended Trans-Himalayan Consequences, Kanak Mani Dixit

South Asia beyond SAARC, Kanak Mani Dixit