Oped

Sub-regional junctions

  • Cooperation amongst regions is the best solution to socio-economic laggardness
- MAHENDRA P LAMA

Oct 10, 2018-

Two distinct yet intimately interconnected sub-regions are emerging. The first sub-region comprises Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) and is within the larger regional framework of SAARC. And the second, Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM), still at a conceptual stage, brings together members from the extended neighbourhood. Interestingly, both China and Myanmar, which have common borders and have established historical linkages with South Asia, remained more engaged with South East and East Asian countries.

BBIN constitutes the eastern and north eastern flanks of India and BCIM incorporates India’s 10 eastern-north eastern provinces and China’s five South Western provinces.  This implies that constituent geographies—the ‘peripheries’—in this sub-regional plan are far away from their respective national capitals—the ‘core’. Unlike cooperation and economic exchange at the national level, under such sub-regional topographic dynamics, political risks are likely to be localised and traditional constraints frozen. Failures too can be locally owned without damaging national interest in a big way. Hence, it will not be necessary for a participant to change its macro policies, ideological profile and long-term objectives of collective development.

Both imagined and planned geographical configurations of these two sub-regional entities have rich endowments, varying from bio-diversity to water, cultural ecology to mineral resources, established historical connectivity from trade routes and pilgrimages and traditional medicinal practices to agricultural heritage. They also have the highest concentration of poverty and inequality and for long remained outside the core development glare.

Defunct connections

Both BBIN and BCIM sub-regions have had enormous degree of connectivity which were largely dismantled or not used after 1947.  These include the Sikkim-Tibet trade route via Nathu la pass; the Stillwell (Ledo) road connecting Assam with Mandalay, in Myanmar, and Yunnan, in China, built during the Second World War; and Bengal and NER’s connections through land route and waterways with the East Bengal (now Bangladesh). The sudden post-partition disruptions disconnected families and communities, heightened the cost of economic exchanges and made the huge tract of interactive borderland virtually a no man’s land.

These were interspersed with much deepened trade and socio-cultural contacts across the borderland and even cross-border settlements of various communities and tribes. People of Tibetan descent are found on both sides of the border in the Eastern Himalayas, Nagas in the Sagaing Division and Thangdut states in Myanmar and in the Kinjung, Kingpao and Pang villages of Tuensang district in Nagaland along the Indo-Myanmar border. All these only hint at the potentials for their revival and rejuvenation.

Both these sub-regions have their own domestic and cross border conflicts that injected instability and withdrawal syndrome among its constituents. Wars like the Sino-India War, in 1962, and the India-Pakistan War to liberate present day Bangladesh, in 1971. and the Naga, Manipuri and Mizo insurgency and ULFA movement in the NER of India; Tibetan uprising in China; Maoist movement in Nepal; Chittagong Hill Tracts conflict led displacements in Bangladesh; refugee exodus from Bhutan and armed conflicts in the North Western regions of Myanmar continue to influence and harden the thinking of strategic policy makers. Many of these conflicts remained protracted and have had serious cross border implications.

Path to revival

However, member countries and their respective sub-national units have vigorously started pushing for more openness in the borderlands. They crave for strong interventions in laying varieties of connectivity means and rejuvenation of markets and growth poles within and across the borders. These sub-national actors, like various provinces and other federal units, are now pressing for more federal autonomy both in terms of making development decisions and facilitating cross border linkages. They perceive borders as emerging opportunities rather than a source of orthodox variety of national security threat. Provinces like Yunnan, in China, and Tripura and Assam, in India, and countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh are in the forefront of this new regionalism process.  

The relatively quicker and tangible progress made by other sub-regional groupings influenced these sub-regions too. The effective role of private investors, clear cut government policies, newer provincial roles and legal regimes and visible impact on the local economies are the reasons why  sub-regional cooperation has become relatively successful. There are the success stories of Johor state of Malaysia, Singapore and Riau islands of Indonesia i.e., JSR Growth Triangle; Hong Kong, the Guandong and Fujian provinces of China and Taiwan i.e. South China Growth Triangle; and Greater Mekong Subregion consisting of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam and Yunnan province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region of China.

The reforms led to a more open market that could harness local and sub-regional resources more effectively. The strong possibility of creating a value chain in areas like readymade garments, tea, rubber, jute, bamboo, traditional medicines, automobiles and telecommunication equipments has remained a major attraction. The internal pressures from within their provinces and their rising aspirations have forced them to try out more diverse development means including the revival of their trans-border historical linkages.

The national (private apex bodies, cultural agents), regional (SAARC, ASEAN) and global (WTO, World Bank, IMF) institutions and civil societies are seen penetrating these sub-regions with liberal thinking and bold actions. Multimodal connectivity through Asian Highways and ADB’s far reaching interventions through programme like south Asian Subregional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) have resurrected a variety of stakeholders to act and participate in these ventures.

The uniformity and single-mindedness that seemingly prevail in the perception and handling of border concerns at the national level are now very often diluted and blunted by local and micro-understanding and interactions at border areas. Many a time local conditions and essentialities are so different that national policies and institutions fail to effectively manage them. The North East Region Vision 2020 emphatically states that “Given that the fortunes of 38 million people depend on good neighbourliness, the bureaucratic and defence dominated approach to relationships must give way to the one based on mutual economic gains. A qualitative change in the relationship is necessary to improve connectivity, provide  better management of water resources of the region including flood control, foster trade and improve cultural exchanges.”

Chinese quest

A major driving force for China to open its border for more trade and investment intercourse in the 1990s has been the urgent need to bring its own western provinces in the periphery to the national mainstream. These provinces and autonomous regions—comprising Gansu, Guizhou, Ningxia, Qinghai, Shaanxi, Sichuan, Tibet, Xinjiang and Yunnan in addition to Chongqing Municipality—cover two-thirds of the nation’s territory, and 23 percent of the national population. It has plenty of land and natural resources, including oil and gas. The idea has been to transform this 3,500 km land frontier into a second golden area of reopening, after the Eastern China’s 14000 km long coastlines brought fortunes to China. Chinese government therefore launched “develop-the-west” campaign in 2000.

The new generation that is gradually taking over the decision making process in these countries are willing to widen the scope and nature of interactions and exchanges. In both India’s Act East Policy and China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the core focus is on cross-regional physical connectivity that touches key geographies, untouched communities and resource centres; expansion of market and strategic linkages; diversification of partnership through various projects and a more critical enhancement of inter-dependence and integration. The sub-regional cooperation is now seen as a practical solution to its socio-economic laggardness and could inject a major dent into the shallow regionalism in the moribund institutions of the SAARC and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation. BIMSTEC.  

Lama was India’s nominee in the South Asia Forum, established by the 10th SAARC Summit in Thimphu in 2010.

Published: 10-10-2018 08:17

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