A new turn for BCIM?

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A recent international forum in Mangshi, China’s Yunan province, held under the auspices of the BCIM (a grouping of Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar) on “Health and Disease Control” (11-12 December) perhaps points to a new direction that this multilateral grouping might take in future.

Born out of the new milieu in international relations which emerged at the onset of globalisation in the closing decades of the last century, the grouping looked forward to greater connectivity among these four close neighbours. In the 1990s such ideas led to the creation of a platform called the “Kunming Initiative” which produced the first meeting in Kunming in 1999 out of which evolved the BCIM.

After remaining in a limbo for the next few years, an interesting development took place in 2011 when a Kolkata-Kunming car rally, moving through Bangladesh and Myanmar, was organized. Following this, in December 2013 the grouping under the initiative of China drew up a plan for physical connectivity in the form of an economic corridor (EC) which would run through the car rally route, that is, from Kolkata to Kunming through Dhaka, Chittagong and Mandalay. While China took up the matter in right earnest putting it under Track I, India hesitated, for good reason, to show eagerness for the project. With her still unresolved border in the north and a hugely negative trade balance with China, India found no ground for over-enthusiasm either in constructing good roads to facilitate movement of Chinese vehicles into India or in creating an economic corridor which would help Chinese goods to flood Indian markets more than was already the case. Yet the UPA II, under prime minister Manmohan Singh, decided to give some traction to the idea when, in May 2013 during Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India, it agreed to mention the idea in the Joint Statement and repeating it  during PM Singh’s subsequent visit to China in October 2013.

Of course, there is reason to believe that India’s North East, China’s Yunan province plus Bangladesh and Myanmar would constitute a viable economic platform. Many in India started to look towards the BCIM idea as promising the ultimate solution for removing the isolation of and lack of development in India’s North East.

While this could very well be the case, a note of caution may not be out of place. There could be many unanswered issues regarding BCIM or BCIM-EC, although the latter looks like having been subsumed by the idea of the Southern Silk Road, publicised by China more recently. For instance, are we talking about connecting the four countries or certain sub-regions within these four countries? We are of course thinking about reviving the ancient ties, but then such ties developed out of necessities in the past, and now we want to recreate them through deliberate policies. But are there felt needs for the revival of those ancient links among the people who are supposed to be linked? Should we argue for integration of trade, transport and energy or for social and cultural connectivity, or for both but with differing orders of priority? That is to say, should we take an economy-centric approach or a people-centric approach?  Should this BCIM idea be considered as part of any grand strategy or simply as an approach to locally generated need fulfillment? When we are planning for enhanced trade and transit across the boundaries of these four states, are we taking into account the presence of transnational crimes, terror groups and insurgencies, arms smugglers, ethnic divisions and poverty of the local peoples? These will certainly affect the kind of goods that can be traded and the modes of trading them.

Further, usually, yet strangely, it is seldom considered that we are talking about four countries here which have different political regimes. The political structures, the decision making processes, the role of different interest groups and stake holders in the decision process, the part played by bureaucracy and the army in them, the role of the media and the  people within the political systems, and finally,  electoral compulsions in the  governmental process are completely different in these four countries. Neither should we discount the historical baggage they carry in their interrelationship nor surely their respective conceptions of and preoccupations with security. They are broadly at different stages in their political evolution. We cannot expect them to behave in an identical manner in their international or interregional relations. Economic decision making does not take place in a political vacuum and unless we factor in these very decisive political aspects in our analysis or understanding of the BCIM idea we are sure to lose our way.

Yet, what is special about the Forum in Mangshi is that by focusing on health and disease control issues and by inviting professional experts from these countries to talk about these and to share their experiences, the forum could safely bypass much of the complications and apprehensions that are usually attached to the connectivity and corridor building projects. It cannot by any means be denied that there are lots of health issues commonly shared by these countries, especially by the populations closer to the common borders. And these health problems will further accelerate with greater cross border population movement. So the medical professionals discussed about malaria, dengue, tuberculosis, HIV aids, blindness, different strains of hepatitis etc., drug resistant diseases and their surveillance and the studies and experiments they are conducting to better respond to them in their respective countries. India’s commendable role in disease control in the region and the strength and competitiveness of her pharma products was duly acknowledged by Chinese speakers although Indian medical profession was conspicuous by its complete absence from the forum. Possible areas of co-operation between India and China, as identified by Chinese experts, were diagnosis and disease control, development of medical centres, and production of equipments.

Medical professionals of the three countries present in this knowledge sharing exercise agreed that BCIM countries need cooperation on all cross border health issues as they also need to share best practices and capacity building. It was recommended by many participants that Central as well as the regional governments of these countries could actively engage in creating a BCIM health and disease control network or some intergovernmental mechanism for institutionalized co-operation.

This, in fact, is the functionalist path. This was the path suggested by scholars like David Mitrany and Ernst Haas in the very initial stages of European integration. They found in such an approach a way to enhance both mutual gains, and mutual commitment to further collaboration. The idea was to get around the view of international relations as a zero-sum game by sidestepping political and security issues and to transform it into a positive sum game by attending to issues which could be handled by professionals and which could impact the life of the common man in the shorter run.  If the BCIM governments, including India, can devise ways of such benign engagement it could go a long way in generating co-operation for benefits at the grass roots level.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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Rakhahari Chatterji

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