The lack of strong political commitment from the Central Governments is among the factors that impede the smooth working of the regional grouping BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar), according to a Chinese scholar.
Participating in the second ORF-RIIO Think-Tank Forum in Kolkata on July 8, 2016, Prof. Ye Hailin from the Research Institute of Indian Ocean (RIIO), Kunming, made a realistic appraisal of the sub-regional groupings with particular focus on BCIM. He said since the local governments in the provinces have to rely mostly on Central Governments for investment and resource generation, no sub-regional grouping is likely to succeed without strong support from the Centre. The Central Governments do not pay adequate attention to trans-border collaborative ventures, he felt.
The other major problem is the involvement of too many actors that often makes it difficult to arrive at a consensus. So, Prof. Hailin suggested the adoption of a step by step approach and promoting gradual people to people contact, the removal of bureaucratic hurdles in order to enable traders and investors to engage in smooth financial transactions across borders. Joyeeta Bhattacharjee, the second speaker of the panel, on the other hand, pointed out that BCIM could learn from BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) particularly in the realm of connectivity and energy-cooperation.
The theme of the ORF-RIIO Think-Tank Forum this year was “Role of State/Province in India China Relations”. Mr. Ashok Dhar, Director, ORF Kolkata, said the reasons for choosing this theme was two-fold. First, India and China established the state/Provincial Leader’s Forum during the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to China in May 2015. This was closely followed by the holding of the first India-China provincial leaders’ forum in the same month in the presence of the two leaders. Second, collaboration between ORF and RIIO represent a new phenomenon: that provincial level institutions can play a role in taking foreign relations forward. Geographical location and other factors bring with them new perspectives and complement the views emerging from national capitals, Mr. Dhar pointed out.
Prof. Rakhahari Chatterji, Advisor, ORF, Kolkata, raised few pertinent questions like the limits of provincial jurisdiction, the willingness of Central Governments to share sovereign authority with the provinces and whether provincial-level activism should be restricted to governmental institutions, etc.
The Consul General of the People’s Republic of China in Kolkata, Ma Zhanwu discussed the broad framework of relations between India and China in his inaugural remarks. The visits of the Chief Minister and the Governor of Chhattisgarh marked the ongoing interactions within state/province relations between India and China. The Consul General highlighted the surge in the number of tourists from India visiting China and Chinese tourists visiting India. He also mentioned the manifold increase in Chinese investment in India. Ma felt that there was still a huge scope for further improvement.
Mr. H. H. S. Viswanathan, Distinguished Fellow, ORF, and a former ambassador called for finding more synergies in India-China relations. He recommended a bottom-up approach to diplomacy, citing the example of California in the United States and Bengaluru in India. According to Mr. Viswanathan, diplomacy was too important to be left to diplomats alone; academicians and researchers must also play an important role in shaping foreign policy. He suggested a decentralised approach to diplomacy with inputs from think-tanks, cultural organisations and the media.
Introducing the concept of para-diplomacy, Dr. K. Yhome, Fellow, ORF, said a cooperative and willing environment will enhance both the nature as well as the quantum of the engagement between the concerned states. Para-diplomacy can also be termed as informal diplomacy. In order to strengthen this informal process, new actors and institutions should be incorporated into the framework. The efforts involving para diplomacy should not run counter to the interests of the State. Mr. Yang Yishuang, the second speaker, drew attention to the fact that it must be remembered that the success of para diplomacy will ultimately depend on the level of autonomy that is permitted to local governments. Countries should therefore invest in building the capacity of local governments to engage in para-diplomatic efforts.
In the session on State/Province Role in Foreign Policy: Sharing Experiences, Ms. Swagata Saha, ORF Kolkata, traced early records and present magnitude of provincial interaction. Like provincial governments having foreign affairs departments in China, she suggested Ministry of External Affairs in India can have its cells in Indian provinces too. Considering border trade as an important component of provincial interaction, she suggested infrastructural developments to improve border trade at Nathula Pass between India and China. Mao Siwei, former Consul General of the People’s Republic of China in Kolkata, highlighted the strengthening relations between India and China in the past two years. Border stability, economic cooperation and expanding people to people relations have been three major areas of collaboration. According to him, border incursions have declined. Issues like China Pakistan Economic Corridor or Azhar Masood’s case has negatively affected bilateral relations somewhat. He felt a more clear and cooperative approach from India to China’s One Belt, One Road initiative would be helpful. He concluded by stating that both nations need to mutually respect each other’s core interests and important concerns to further enhance bilateral relations.
In the concluding open discussion session, Mr. Ashok Dhar called for more frequent meetings to upgrade the forum to track 1.5 level. For this, he suggested a fast paced approach as an incremental approach is of no avail. The role of civil society, NGOs and individual actors operating at more micro-level than states also need to be expanded. The merits of sub-national forums were appreciated by all but central support was considered by and large indispensable.
This report is prepared by Swagata Saha, Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata.