China’s silk road lends ur­gency to In­dia’s Asia am­bi­tions

Muscat Daily - - WORLD -

New Delhi, In­dia - When Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s gov­ern­ment ap­proved US$256mn to up­grade a sec­tion of a re­mote bor­der road last month, few took no­tice.

Yet In­dia’s de­ci­sion to re­vive plans for the tri­lat­eral high­way, part of an am­bi­tious 1,360km cross­ing to link north­east­ern In­dia with mar­kets in Thai­land and be­yond, marks the next phase in the jos­tle be­tween New Delhi and Bei­jing for eco­nomic and strate­gic in­flu­ence in the re­gion.

In the last two years alone, In­dia has as­signed more than US$4.7bn in con­tracts for the devel­op­ment of its bor­der roads, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment fig­ures, in­clud­ing the high­way which will run from Moreh in Ma­nipur through Tamu in Myan­mar to Mae-Sot in Thai­land.

The con­struc­tion has taken on new ur­gency as China pushes ahead with its own vast ‘One Belt, One Road’ in­fra­struc­ture ini­tia­tive, ex­pected to in­volve in­vest­ments worth more than half a tril­lion dol­lars across 62 na­tions. The in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal web of road, rail and trade links has raised con­cerns among strate­gic ri­vals In­dia, Rus­sia, the US and Ja­pan. Among the big­gest show­cases of the plan - an eco­nomic cor­ri­dor that runs through the Pak­istan-ad­min­is­tered part of dis­puted Kash­mir, which both In­dia and Pak­istan claim - has un­set­tled equa­tions in the South Asian neigh­bour­hood, where bor­der ten­sions of­ten sim­mer.

“With China’s grow­ing in­ter­est in the re­gion, as its wealth grows, its in­flu­ence is grow­ing be­yond its bor­ders,’’ said K Yhome, New Delhi-based se­nior fel­low at the Ob­server Re­search Foun­da­tion. So while China is push­ing for a north-south eco­nomic cor­ri­dor un­der the ‘One Belt, One Road’ ini­tia­tive, In­dia is aiming to build links with its east­ern neigh­bours, he said.

Un­der the Modi gov­ern­ment’s ‘Act East’ pol­icy, In­dia is in­vest­ing in road and rail links on its north­east bor­ders, where it rubs shoul­ders with Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, China, and Myan­mar.

But the plan for the In­di­aMyan­mar-Thai­land high­way is not a new one. It’s been on the draw­ing board since 2001 when

it was called the In­dia-Myan­mar Friend­ship Road, ac­cord­ing to Vi­jay Ch­hib­ber, In­dia’s former roads sec­re­tary.

New Delhi has now pro­posed to fur­ther ex­tend the Myan­marThai­land link to Cam­bo­dia, Laos and Viet­nam, short­en­ing travel from Mekong River to In­dia us­ing wa­ter trans­port, in its bid to bind it closer to the As­so­ci­a­tion of

South East Asian Na­tions and the Bay of Ben­gal Ini­tia­tive for Mul­tiSec­toral Tech­ni­cal and Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to Ch­hib­ber.

The road link will be funded by the Asian Devel­op­ment Bank un­der the South Asian Subre­gional Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion pro­gramme. In­volv­ing In­dia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Mal­dives,

Myan­mar, Nepal and Sri Lanka, the pro­gramme dou­bled in­vest­ments on in­fra­struc­ture to US$6bn since 2011 com­pared to US$3.5bn in pre­vi­ous decade, said Ronald Antonio Q Bu­tiong, Manila-based direc­tor at ADB’s Re­gional Co­op­er­a­tion and Op­er­a­tions Co­or­di­na­tion Di­vi­sion. The SASEC na­tions, not in­clud­ing Myan­mar which joined only this Fe­bru­ary, plan to in­vest a fur­ther US$4bn on in­fra­struc­ture projects over the next three years, Bu­tiong said. New projects in­clude the Kal­adan mul­ti­modal tran­sit trans­port project con­nect­ing In­dia’s Mi­zo­ram state with ports in Kolkata and Myan­mar’s Sit­twe. In­dia has fi­nanced the US$120mn Sit­twe port con­struc­tion, ac­cord­ing to SASEC.

“Re­gional co­op­er­a­tion is a slow process and you have to have a lot of pa­tience,” said Bu­tiong by phone from Manila. “You couldn’t imag­ine this hap­pen­ing a few years ago. But now it looks like it’s be­com­ing a re­al­ity.”

In­dia chose not to at­tend Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping’s two-day ‘One Belt One Road’ sum­mit in May. Three months later, the two nu­clear-armed pow­ers are man­ag­ing a tense mil­i­tary stand­off over junc­tion be­tween Bhutan, China’s Ti­bet and In­dia’s Sikkim.

The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment has re­peat­edly said its Belt and Road ini­tia­tive aims to en­hance re­gional con­nec­tiv­ity, bring­ing eco­nomic ben­e­fits for China’s neigh­bours. It urged New Delhi to shed ‘mis­giv­ings and doubts’ about the project.

Roads, bridges and rail­ways have been a weak link in In­dia’s in­fra­struc­ture in the north east­ern states. In part, it was left un­der­de­vel­oped as strat­egy to make the re­gion in­ac­ces­si­ble to Chi­nese troops if Bei­jing ever tried to re­peat the four-week 1962 bor­der war and en­croach into the ter­ri­tory In­dia sees as its own.

This has also meant poor ac­cess for In­dian busi­nesses to mar­kets of south-east Asia. Modi fast-tracked decades-old in­fra­struc­ture plans such as open­ing the na­tion’s long­est bridge span­ning 9.2km across the Brahma­pu­tra river to en­sure the smooth move­ment of troops to the north­east­ern state of Arunachal Pradesh, one of In­dia’s most re­mote re­gions that is claimed in full by China.

“For In­dia to im­prove its in­flu­ence, it needs to take some ac­tion oth­er­wise it will be left be­hind,” said Ra­jiv Biswas, Sin­ga­pore-based chief econ­o­mist at IHS Markit. “If In­dia wants to be part of growth dy­namic of Asia it needs to de­velop in­fra­struc­ture links and that is why this project is a very im­por­tant first step.”


A Bor­der Roads Or­gan­i­sa­tion worker drives a steam­roller while re­pair­ing a road sur­face on a sec­tion of the Leh Manali high­way in the Ladakh re­gion of Jammu and Kash­mir state, on Satur­day

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