BCIM Economic Corridor and China’s New Transportation Channel

Dr. Puyam Rakesh Singh *

 BCIM Economic Corridor and China’s New Transportation Channel
Source: China Daily

China hosted the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing on April 25-27, 2019. An important outcome of the meeting is a Joint Communiqué issued by the head of states/governments who attended the Forum which includes an annexure of many connectivity projects.

The annexure reflects addition of new connectivity projects under Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as well as efforts to build synergy with other non-BRI connectivity initiatives. However, the annexure does not mention the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor. The reason behind its absence in the list is widely discussed in India. The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a clarification on June 10, 2019 in this regard stating that BCIM corridor has not been dropped.

BCIM is the transformation of the ‘Kunming Initiative’ which was established in 1999. Thus it actually predates the BRI initiative launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013. Its inclusion in BRI has caused trouble between India and China. After the third Joint Study Group (JSG) meeting held in Kolkata in 2017, the cooperation mechanism was put in slumber.

Unexpectedly, BCIM got a fresh lease of life in June 2019. On June 11, 2019, the Second China-South Asia Cooperation Forum was held in Yuxi City in China’s Yunnan Province. On the sidelines of the Forum meeting, stakeholders from the four countries convened for the 13th meeting of BCIM Regional Cooperation Forum, which also marks the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the cooperation mechanism.

As per the report published in the Hindustan Times on June 13, 2019, the meeting focused on four topics: Improving cooperation mechanism of the BCIM Forum, stronger cooperation on BCIM comprehensive connectivity, trade and investment facilitation for stronger competitiveness of the regional economy, and enriching BCIM cooperation in social and cultural sectors. Some important proposals include development of e-commerce among the four countries and holding of BCIM Film Festival.

Another outcome is the agreement to hold the fourth meeting of the JSG later this year in India. Holding the next round of JSG will enhance momentum of BCIM cooperation. The first two rounds of the JSG were hosted by China and Bangladesh in Kunming in 2013 and Cox’s Bazar in 2014 respectively. The third round was held in Kolkata on April 24-25, 2017 at Grand Oberoi Hotel in Kolkata.

Despite many roadblocks, BCIM has been on the agenda of several high-level exchanges since its inclusion among the BRI projects. At least, China explicitly discussed the matter with Myanmar and Bangladesh. In fact, the 13th meeting is a sign of some understanding between India and China to engage in cooperation for regional integration.

However, there has been no clear official statement on the latest development, especially in terms of jointly building the economic corridor. The parties also agreed to hold the 14th BCIM Regional Cooperation Forum meeting in India.

Route alignment of the economic corridor remains an issue. Although the 2013 BCIM car rally passed through northeast India including Manipur, holding the 2014 JSG meeting in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh is interesting as far as the alignment of the 2800 km-long corridor is concerned. The proposed southern route of BCIM passing through Cox’s Bazar and Chattogram (formerly Chittagong) could be a desirable option to some parties.

Topography, poor infrastructure and insurgency problems in northeast India must have been taken into account in deciding the route alignment. However, in the wake of the Rohingya crisis in Rakhine State of Myanmar and subsequent displacement of thousands of people into Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar, the southern route is also vulnerable. Besides, the armed conflict between the Myanmar Army and Arakan Army (AA) in Rakhine State (formerly Arakan State) and some areas of Chin State is another hindrance to construction of BCIM corridor.

In addition, clashes between the Myanmar Army and AA in Rakhine State and Paletwa Township in Chin State could also affect the operation of the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport Project undertaken by India in the region. Also, opening of the northern route of BCIM depends on agreement to revive the Stilwell Road built during the WWII which connects Assam and Yunnan Province through northern Myanmar.

Meanwhile, on August 15, 2019, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) of China released an overall plan for constructing a new western sea-land transportation channel to deepen the opening up and development of western China. It carries an embedded message for speeding up construction of the Lhasa-Chengdu railway to connect landlocked provinces in western China with sea ports in the Beibu Gulf.

The ‘overall plan’ covers the period from 2019 to 2025 with an outlook extended to 2035. It will connect the Silk Road Economic Belt, the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and the Yangtze River economic belt. Lately, Xi Jinping has emphasized development of the Yangtze River economic belt.

The proposed transportation channel is in line with the New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor jointly developed by western provinces of China and Singapore under the framework of the China-Singapore (Chongqing) Demonstration Initiative on Strategic Connectivity.

The New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor aims at connecting western region of China and Southeast Asia, and serves as a bridge between the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.

Besides, the corridor passes through the Yangtze River economic belt. The corridor connects many Chinese provinces, namely Chongqing, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Yunnan, Guizhou, Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Shaanxi and Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

In this regard, the Lhasa-Chengdu railway will connect Tibet and Sichuan under the proposed new transportation channel as well as the New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor. It is being developed to cut logistics costs and streamline transportation services. However, the connectivity initiatives will have geopolitical implications in the context of China’s efforts to entice Nepal and Bhutan to look northward following the construction of railway in the Qinghai-Tibet plateau region.

Development of railway and road infrastructure in western China is integral to China’s security, stability and balanced development across the country. China has invested $623 million for railway projects in Tibet in 2018 and it is committed to Tibet’s railway infrastructure build up in 2019. The policy is related to China’s efforts on governing the frontiers under the leadership of President Xi Jinping.

China-Nepal railway is a difficult project in terms of terrain, geology and cost. But Beijing has enlisted the China-Nepal cross-border railway in the Joint Communiqué of the Second Belt and Road Forum held in April 2019. Beijing also invited Thimphu to actively participate in the BRI in July 2018. But Bhutan did not attend the meeting. Without establishing diplomatic relations with China, Bhutan is unlikely to make such a move. This is further contingent upon settlement of boundary disputes between the small Himalayan state and its northern neighbour.

Again, China’s national defence white paper entitled “China’s National Defence in the New Era” issued on July 24, 2019, reveals that all is not well in China. The document states that fight against separatists in China is becoming more acute. The document also calls for building ‘a fortified national defence and a strong military’.

It signifies increasing concerns for stability in China’s peripheral provinces such as Xinjiang and Tibet. At present, China is dealing with Uighur Muslim problem, the Hong Kong protests and tension across the Taiwan Strait.

Stability in Tibet is a top priority at present. You Quan, a member of the Secretariat of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and head of the United Front Work Department of the CPC Central Committee, stressed ethnic solidarity and religious harmony during his tour in Tibetan-inhabited areas in Sichuan from August 19 to August 21, 2019.

During the same period, Wang Yang, a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, interacted with the villagers living in Ngari Prefecture of Tibet.

For China, leadership of the CPC, economic growth, strong military, and infrastructure development are central to stability in Tibet and Xinjiang. Besides, the Doklam standoff and the evolving security dynamics in South Asia seem to inform the plan for new western sea-land transportation channel.

China’s Joint Logistics Support Force will capitalize on such transport infrastructure to enhance military operational capability in the plateau region.

And last but not least, the BCIM Economic Corridor and the proposed western sea-land transportation channel underline China’s interest in integration with South Asia towards building the Chinese dream in the 21st Century.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council.

* Dr. Puyam Rakesh Singh wrote this article for
The writer is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi and can be reached at khuman_mei(AT)yahoo(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on September 21 2019.

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