Event ReportsPublished on Dec 24, 2015
Building trans-regional corridors

Economic interests may be the driving factor of emerging trans-regional connectivity in the Indo-Pacific region, but a host of geo-strategic, political, social and environmental dynamics are at play when it comes to building such connectivity corridors. This was the general theme that emerged in the two-day international workshop held in Kolkata on December 7-8.

Organized jointly by Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), Singapore, the workshop was split over several business sessions. The inaugural session had the directors of the two organizing partners discuss the theme of the workshop. Mr. Ashok Dhar, Director of ORF, Kolkata defined connectivity by tracing back in  history the ancient Silk and Spice routes that had opened Asia to the Mediterranean and European world.  He emphasized on importance of Kolkata’s position as the capital of East India Company or how Tamluk in West Bengal formed an extension of the Silk route connecting it to Bay of Bengal.  He appreciated the renewed enthusiasm of Asian nations to revive the old routes. In this context, he considered the workshop highly pertinent and timely to chart out new approaches and ideas in determining future corridors in South and Southeast Asia. Mr. Dhar also mentioned several projects, reports and research papers produced by the Kolkata chapter relevant for the theme of the workshop.

Professor Subrata K Mitra, the director of ISAS, presented the scope and work of the institute. In offering the functional objective, he mentioned about how it covers space between scientific findings and policy options for Singapore and South Asian countries. He described Singapore as a small country with limited resources yet contributing towards an environmentally responsible planet. He expected the workshop participants to come up with half baked ideas rather than distilled wisdom to provoke our accepted premises on the theme which is not achievable through virtual gateways of exchange.

The first business session was on “Significance of Trans-Regional Corridors”. Dr. C Raja Mohan, Distinguished Fellow, ORF, began by drawing attention on reconstitution of overland connectivity with the rise of India and China. Maritime routes were discovered with the rise of British missions which laid out many colonies. China’s role is similar in the present century. He identified Singapore’s strategic location at the cusp of Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean.  He also pointed at the existing bottlenecks such as deplorable domestic connectivity, like that in the Northeast region in case of India and also regional connectivity. Together an intricately connected region will make more sense of connectivity corridors.  Mr. Zainul Abidin Rasheed, Singapore’s Non-Resident Ambassador to the State of Kuwait highlighted significance of connectivity corridors in establishing links with global economy by connecting markets, resources and people of various countries. In doing so, he singled out the importance of soft infrastructure such as telecommunications and customs in facilitating connectivity efforts. He regretted that despite having shared histories and agonies of the past, how South Asian nations have remained poorly connected. In recommending steps forward, while he considered cross border security issues and opacity of borders which need better management, he emphasized fostering greater harmony among the diverse countries in this region as absolutely essential.

The next session focused on the “Emerging Trans-Regional Corridors”. In this session, Prof. Shankari Sundararaman of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi spoke on the rising importance of Indo-Pacific corridor which became prominent during Indo-US strategic dialogue in 2013. She pointed out that Indian and Pacific Oceans are considered as constituting a single maritime entity in the US policy of rebalancing or the pivot to Asia strategy. This corridor, she believed, will enhance economic interdependence among various corridors running through this region.

Mr. Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedi of ISAS began by emphasizing how connectivity links had been established in Asia from ancient times through the spice and silk routes. The Maritime Silk Route initiative seeks to bolster those links and is already supported by more than 60 countries. According to him, China’s economic slowdown is expected to promote and invigorate this initiative to garner more economic muscle. He felt that although this initiative is yet to unfold itself, it holds promise for immense opportunity and interconnectivity among the South and Southeast Asian countries. Dr. K Yhome of ORF brought to the fore the impediments to a seamless connectivity in the sub-region involving Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar under the BCIM Forum. He recalled that in the 1990s, India and China were recalibrating their strategies towards neighbours when sub-regional initiative took root. However, the BCIM has been unable to set up an inter-governmental cooperative mechanism so far which could be leveraged for sub-regional cooperation. In this regard, Dr. Yhome called for a holistic approach to take this initiative forward.

The session on Economic Imperatives had taken up important issues like Free Trade Agreements (FTA), trade and transport costs, value chains, etc.  This session had three speakers to deliberate on the theme: Dr. Amitendu Palit of ISAS, Professor Mahendra P Lama of JNU and Dr. Nilanjan Ghosh of ORF. The session began with the historical backdrop of the maritime silk and old spice routes to string together the economic and non-economic facets of connectivity. The point made through the presentations was that the justification of economic corridors comes from the fact that these are instruments that connect resources and economic actors across contiguous geographies. One of the main objectives of corridors is to increase transport connectivity and reduce trade costs. Dr. Ghosh discussed the effect of India’s FTA on Southeast and East Asia’s value chains. In this regard it was pointed out that the success of FTAs should not be assessed through the lens of trade alone. Instead, an alternative framework has to be worked out which encapsulates host of parameters: macro-economic indicators, normative, ethical and many other considerations.

The next session was on Security Imperatives. In this session, Captain Martin A. Sebastian of the Maritime Institute of Malaysia dealt with the issue of maritime security of South and Southeast Asia. He recalled the importance of sea routes and particularly, the Strait of Malacca during colonial times. Maritime security has been recognized as an important issue since then. He identified maritime security issues as: traditional, non-traditional and intricately related to connectivity and corridors. He spoke about the importance of Indian Ocean communities (Indian Ocean Rim Association), through which 65% of oil and 33% of cargo move.  He identified several economic corridors in this region and rampant illegal cross border movement of people, wildlife, contraband goods, vehicle, timber, fuel, and weapons through them. Marine pollution, armed sea robbery and piracy are associated risks in these formations. He suggested a holistic framework in terms of identifying and understanding the problem, establishing normative framework, building technical capacity and fostering regional partnerships.

The next speaker, Ms. Darshana M Baruah of ORF, focused in large part on Maritime Silk Route (MSR) Initiative which China has launched as a major tool of charm offensive in this century. Talking about the churning of Asia-Pacific political scenario where the United States and China are the major players, she said that China is not willing to become a regional hegemon but create structures which have potential to become parallel with those of the US. In doing so, the MSR and Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) are the prime tools employed by China. The “Asia for Asians” slogan raised by China is to establish structures conceived and run by Asians but led by Beijing. Connectivity and corridor making are integral to the “China Dream” of the present regime in China. Analysing India-China relations, she felt that there is a high level of distrust because of unsettled border. Although military presence of China in Indian Ocean is not much but through massive investments in the Indian Ocean region countries, China is fast building a sphere of influence.

The final session was on Linking South and Southeast Asia. The speakers in the session stressed on the importance of the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) connectivity and welcomed the initiatives taken by these countries to improve connectivity. Ambassador Tariq Karim of Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi spoke about the barriers to connectivity in South Asia, which are centered on the “denial of the other”. Amb. Karim suggested the need for re-aggregation from disaggregation, the latter being a relic of the past. Mr. Madhukar Rana of South Asian Institute of Management, Kathmandu highlighted the benefits of trilateral connectivity between China, Nepal and India. Discussing the Trans Himalayan Economic Corridor (THEC), Mr. Rana stressed the need for China’s connectivity with SAARC. According to him, Nepal has for long been Asia’s gateway to Tibet. He highlighted the possibility of four economic corridors viz. one where Lucknow is the growth axis, second one using Gorakhpur as the growth axis, the third is using Bagmati using Patna as the growth axis and the fourth one is Kosi integrating Nepal with Tibet and using Siliguri as a growth axis.

Dr. Sreeradha Datta, Director of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies, Kolkata focused her intervention on the issue of India’s connectivity with Myanmar. She raised the peculiar problem of illegal trade with Myanmar being much greater than the official trade on the border posts at Moreh and Zokhawthar in the Northeastern states of Manipur and Mizoram. Dr. Datta called for concerted efforts toward seamless connectivity, instead of reinventing the wheel. All the presentations in different sessions were followed by lively discussion.

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