After a gap of three years, India and China last week concluded talks on "a proposed land corridor that would pass through Myanmar and connect Kolkata with south-western China's Kunming city in Yunnan province." Officials from the foreign ministries of India and China met in Kunming with officials from West Bengal and Yunnan to finalise the project. An action plan was approved, which also decided on the route that this road would take to establish connectivity with China. Analysts say that China has shown serious interest in building this road. So also has India as it will also connect it with South-East Asia. Curiously however, the Chinese are keen to have access to Kolkata port through this road in spite of the various bottlenecks in using the port.
The decision by India and China to have direct road links between their countries, bypassing Bangladesh, has implications for us. Our direct connectivity with China, besides geo strateg, 0, is important from the point of view of trade and mutual development. We had proposed to Myanmar to jointly construct a road from Chittagong to connect it to their main highway that goes from Mandalay to Kunming in China. This would have meant that the Chinese could have direct access to a warm water port, Chittagong, in the Bay of Bengal. The distance from Chittagong to Kunming is only 1,700 kilometers and loaded trucks could cover it in three to four days.
Thus, exports from China, loaded in Chittagong port, could sail to the Middle East and Europe bypassing the congested and often dangerous Strait of Malacca that straddles Malaysia and Indonesia. Today, all ships passing through the Strait are charged high insurance premiums. By using the Chittagong port China could reduce the cost of freight and its goods could be sold in Europe and the Middle East at lower prices. If India is able to build connectivity before us, then Chinese ships would use that land corridor, which has similar advantage for China, and deprive us of the revenue in port dues, low cost Chinese goods, etc. Today, China ships its exports originating from west and south-west China through its ports on the east coast, the nearest of which is Guangzou (Canton), 3,000 kilometers from Kunming.
Chittagong-Kunming connectivity would have helped us in several ways. First, it would have increased our exports and imports from China. Our trade with Myanmar would also get a huge boost. We would also have earned large revenue from servicing Chinese ships in Chittagong. Tourism to China as well as Bangladesh would have increased. Ideas and education would have flowed directly from China to Bangladesh and vice versa. Because of this connectivity we would have been able to go to South-East Asia by road and trade with them at lower costs. Bangladesh would in many ways become a communication hub between India, China and South-East Asia.
But Bangladesh had never taken up the proposal formally with the Myanmar and Chinese governments simultaneously. Nor did we ever host any tri-nation talks on this issue. The Myanmarese had been reluctant to go forward on this matter on three counts. First, they refer to security issues close to the border between China and Myanmar. They are therefore not ready at this point to stake their military assets to ensure safe passage to anyone along this route. Second, Myanmar has other priorities to attend to. They are therefore not willing to sink money in this project now. In any case, they are not in the business of building hundreds of miles of road through the dense jungle and mountains in western Myanmar to reach the border of Bangladesh. Technical talks between experts of the two countries seem to have drifted away.
The third reason why Myanmar may be reluctant to come forward and implement the project is because India has, in the past few years, helped it to build a reasonably modern port near Sittwe (Akyab) in western Myanmar close to Chittagong port. This facility has road connections to the eight provinces in north-east India. Hence, providing road connections to Chittagong port from China would only diminish the importance of the port in Sittwe and cut into its revenue expectations. Moreover, as Myanmar opens up politically more foreign ships would be calling at Sittwe. It would facilitate access not only to the emerging markets in north-east India but also to China. So why should Myanmar be interested in supporting Chittagong-Kunming road project?
However, we have procrastinated for too long over this project. All our neighbours are developing connectivity and building spanking new infrastructure with the hope of getting some benefits for their people. We, on the other hand, did not understand what was happening around us and are still sitting along the roadside with blueprints hoping that Myanmar and China would understand our need and come round to offer us the proposal of establishing connectivity between Chittagong and Kunming. This is never going to happen.
Instead, we should revisit the original proposal and see what we need to do to attract both India and China, as well as Myanmar, to help us establish connectivity. To start with, we may consider not only road connections between Chittagong and Kunming but also rail connections. We have a geographical advantage that most of the terrain from Chittagong to Kunming is not intolerably high. This is not always the case between India and Myanmar. There, the terrain is high and treacherous and at times can be impassible for railway tracks. The railway can be a cost effective way of bring goods from China to Chittagong.
The other thing that we may consider is giving Myanmar a revenue incentive to cooperate with us to build connectivity between Chittagong and Kunming. This could happen if we allow Myanmar to build natural gas pipelines to cross Bangladesh to supply points inside India. In that case Myanmar would be able to sell gas to India as well as to Bangladesh and rake in revenue that will be much more than what they could obtain by using the port in Sittwe.
What we need to do is to keep the interest of China in this project. This can happen if we propose to China that we can allow a crude oil pipeline from Chittagong port through Myanmar to Kunming. This could lead the Chinese to consider the matter as it would be cost effective to pump crude oil from Chittagong port straight into the underbelly of China. Both we and Myanmar could get revenue for allowing passage of this crude. The advantage for China would be great as oil imported from the Middle East would not have to pass through the Strait of Malacca and then be transported thousands of miles overland to various destinations inside China.
It is therefore time for our policy planners to go back to their drawing board and consider these new possibilities. Our diplomats should be able to sound out the respective capitals and see how many of these ideas are acceptable.
The writer is a former Ambassador and a regular commentator on contemporary issues.