Originally Published 2014-09-29 00:00:00 Published on Sep 29, 2014
That economic diplomacy through the Northeast has over-shadowed security-related concerns in India's regional diplomacy is a major departure from the past. Connectivity has been identified as a priority area of the Modi government.
Northeast's growing salience in regional diplomacy

India's Northeast is increasingly emerging as a critical factor in regional economic diplomacy. Until now, whenever the region has figured in regional diplomacy, it would invariably be related to security issues. This is slowly changing -- a result of changes both in the Northeast region as well as in New Delhi's regional approach as also the growing interests among regional players in this geo-strategic, yet underdeveloped landlocked region.

As the new government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi brings in a renewed focus on the neighbourhood since coming to power in May this year, the Northeast region has further gained prominence in India's regional diplomacy. A major emphasis of the Modi government has been to woo regional players to play a greater role in India's economic development. One of the key focuses has been connectivity within and with the neighbourhood. It is in this context as India's "gateway" to Southeast and East Asia that the Northeast region as a vital connector is now being pushed vigorously. A few recent developments clearly indicate this trend.

In probably a first, the Northeast region has figured in a joint declaration between India and Japan. The Tokyo Declaration issued during Prime Minister Modi's visit to Japan earlier this month stated that the two countries put special emphasis on "Japan's cooperation for enhanced connectivity and development in Northeast India and linking the region to other economic corridors in India and to Southeast Asia, which would catalyse economic development and increase prosperity in the region."

Again, during Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to India this month, Modi and Xi "agreed to continue their respective efforts to implement" the BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar) Economic Corridor--a corridor being planned to connect the four countries that will traverse through Northeast India. China also agreed to open up a new route to Tibet via Nathu La (Sikkim) for the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra for Indian pilgrims. Increasingly finding a place in important bilateral statements and declarations signifies the importance New Delhi places on the Northeast in its regional diplomacy.

It is true that India's Look East Policy (LEP), launched in the 90s, brought the region in the forefront of regional diplomacy, but it is only now that the real interests on and importance of the region are being realised. As part of the LEP, the Northeast region emerged as an important element in India's bilateral relations with Myanmar, Bangladesh and other Southeast Asian nations. This has also been seen in New Delhi's engagements with regional and sub-regional multilateral forums such as Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), the BCIM, South Asian Subregional Economic Cooperation (SASEC), and the India-Mekong Cooperation.

Continuing the LEP and in keeping with the "enhanced" version of the policy, the Modi government has given a new push in engaging the neighbourhood. During her visit to Singapore in mid-August, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had sought Singapore companies to invest in connectivity and infrastructure projects in Northeast India along with other major corridors in the country. In fact, the External Affairs Minister suggested the need for launching air-connectivity between Singapore and the Northeast city of Guwahati.

During her visit to Bangladesh in June, Sushma Swaraj proposed a second bus link connecting the Indian states of Assam and Meghalaya with Bangladesh. When the Bangladeshi Foreign Minister visited India last week, Prime Minister Modi has underscored the need to improved connectivity through development of transportation (road, rail, inland waterways, shipping and air) links to facilitate economic cooperation and strengthen people-to-people ties between the two countries.

Recently, Minister of State for External Affairs V.K. Singh has reassured that the two ongoing trans-connectivity projects—Kaladan Multi-modal Transit and India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway—would be completed in 2016, the first assurance from the new government since coming to power. The two projects once completed will link Northeast India with Myanmar and further to Southeast Asia and also open up sea route to the landlocked Northeast region.

Giving a major boost to the railway projects in the Northeast region, during a recent visit to Gawahati, Union Railway Minister DV Sadananda Gowda announced that all capitals of the North-eastern states would be connected with railway services within the next five years--only three capitals (Guwahati, Itanagar (Naharlagun) and Agartala) are linked by railway today. The Minister also assured that he would re-visit the region to monitor the progress of the 34 ongoing railway projects, including 11 national projects, of Northeast Frontier Railway.

On its part, the Northeast region needs to recognise that it must leverage the opportunities that are present today. As this would mean moving out from the isolation that has kept the region cut-off from the benefits that are present in the larger region around it. It is in its interest to extend all possible support to these initiatives. All stakeholders--both government and the civil society--in the Northeast need to take the lead in ensuring the smooth implementation of these projects. In fact, the Northeast region need to propose connectivity projects both within as also with the neighbouring countries and take ownership of the projects. This is an effective response to fight back the long harboured sense of being marginalised.

That economic diplomacy through the Northeast has over-shadowed security-related concerns in India's regional diplomacy is a major departure from the past. Connectivity has been identified as a priority area of the Modi government -- the challenge is: How the government can sustain the focus and implement the various initiatives on the ground?

(The author is a Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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K. Yhome

K. Yhome

K. Yhome was Senior Fellow with ORFs Neighbourhood Regional Studies Initiative. His research interests include Indias regional diplomacy regional and sub-regionalism in South and Southeast ...

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