Why India, Myanmar, Bangladesh Need To Pursue A ‘Trilateral Cooperation’ Strategy – OpEd
Connectivity is the cornerstone of any regional economic cooperation and integration. The effectiveness of regional networks in facilitating the flow of goods, services, people and knowledge can be defined as regional connectedness. Countries can benefit from regional and sub-regional cooperation through connectivity for sustainable economic development, terrorism prevention, climate change mitigation and poverty reduction. Geographically, Bangladesh has two neighbouring countries, having two seaports. When it comes to leveraging connectivity initiatives in South and Southeast Asia, Bangladesh has huge potential. Trilateral cooperation between Bangladesh and its two neighbours, India and Myanmar, can boost the region’s regional socio-economic and security status.
The foreign policy of Bangladesh suggests continued friendship with all countries and the government is strongly following the policy of ‘friendship to all, malice towards none’. Myanmar is Bangladesh’s next-door neighbour, with which Bangladesh shares a border with India. Myanmar and Bangladesh are almost on the same geopolitical axis, yet trade and other bilateral issues have never been effectively handled. Bangladesh and Myanmar’s relationship has changed in the twenty-first century. The initial lack of convergence between India and Bangladesh’s energy policies aided China’s successful implementation of a Myanmar-China gas (and oil) pipeline project.
Beyond trade and other collaborations, national security is another aspect of Bangladesh-India relations. Bangladesh shares 1,879 kilometres of border with India’s north-eastern region. India’ north-eastern region is home to 475 ethnic groups which makes the region complex from socioeconomic and security perspectives. Bangladesh and India are now focusing on connectivity to enhance and secure their bilateral trade and address security concerns. For an improved trade relation between Bangladesh and the Seven Sister region, according to the ministry of external affairs, a total of 31 projects are at various stages of implementation. The government of India is actively involved in over a dozen projects in Myanmar. Among them, most prominent are the 160 kilometre long Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road, the construction of the Rhi-Tiddim road in Myanmar and the Kaladan Multimodal Transport Project.
Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar, the three neighbours, have shared history. Therefore, these neighbours can easily improve their relations in multi-dimensional aspects by promoting cooperation. India has the ‘Act East’ policy to promote connectivity of the Northeast region with its neighbouring states. Bangladesh is also promoting its ‘Look East’ policy to utilise the geographic advantage of Bangladesh in terms of its location as the gateway between the Western Asia and Eastern Asia. On the other side, Myanmar has natural resources with solid regional connectivity. However, the domestic turmoil, sudden regime change, sanction from the international world and the Covid outbreak have lessened the economic growth of Myanmar.
By promoting trilateral cooperation, the door for opportunities will open for all. The four possible opportunities are highlighted here. Firstly, trilateral cooperation will boost connectivity. The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation and the Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar Economic Corridor, regional organisations require regional connectivity for effective operation. The interconnectivity would reduce the cost and time of transporting consignments. According to BIMSTEC’s official web site, the BIMSTEC Master Plan for Transport Connectivity is a comprehensive 10-year strategy and action plan (2018–2028) supported by the Asian Development Bank for improving the subregion’s transport linkages, which includes (1) roads and road transport, (2) railways and rail transport, (3) ports and maritime transport, (4) in-land water transport, (5) civil aviation and airport development, (6) multimodal and intermodal transport, (7) trade facilitation, and (8) human habitation.
The Asian Highway, another development project for connectivity, which is being built with funding from the Asian Development Bank, will improve land connectivity between the two countries and improve trade relations. Bangladesh’s Dohazari-Cox’s Bazar railway line is nearing its completion. The BCIM is also a proposed network of roads, railways, waterways, and airways that would connect India’s Northeast, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and the Chinese province of Yunnan under an appropriate legal framework.
The BIMSTEC and BCIM promote connectivity, which encourages businesses to invest more in cross-border businesses. The Northeastern region is important for India for two reasons. First, its physical location and another is its natural resources. India’s north-eastern region shares its border with Nepal, Bhutan, China, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. After opening Integrated Check Post in Agartala and Srimantapur between Bangladesh and India’s north-eastern region, Moitri Setu will improve trilateral relations in the region. The ICP Sabroom and ICP Agartala will become commercial hubs of international commerce in South and Southeast Asia. A multi-modal connection through Ashuganj in Bangladesh to Tripura and the Sithwe–Kaladan River Project to Lunglei in Mizoram is planned for improved connectivity. It will energise the re-connections of other road networks through Moreh (Manipur) and Ledo (Assam) to Myanmar. This can then further be linked to Thailand and to the road network system in Southeast Asia.
Secondly, from economic perspective, Bangladesh is a better choice for foreign investment because of its geographical location and political stability. As it is now known, Myanmar has long been noted for its abundance of natural resources. Suvarnabhumi, which means ‘Golden Land’ in Sanskrit, has been associated with Myanmar for over two millennia. Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a border trade agreement in May 1994 to enhance border trading. In September 1995, they established regular border trade between Maungdaw, a town in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, and Teknaf, an upazila in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district.
In the 5th summit of BIMSTEC, Sri-Lanka invited Myanmar and proposed ‘walk-and-talk’ for the sake of regional connectivity and trade. The revival of old silk corridors within Bangladesh, China, India, and Myanmar is currently a contentious topic. However, the regional experts predict that the BCIM-EC will cost about $22 billion to build, and its trade potential stands at $132 billion. In 2020, India exported $871M to Myanmar and imported $742M from Myanmar. According to 2020 report, India and Myanmar have agreed to collaborate to introduce India’s RuPay Card in Myanmar as soon as possible and to investigate the construction of a digital payment gateway. On March 15, 2022, the government of Myanmar made a decision to make the Indian rupee convertible to boost border trade with India. According to the commerce ministry, border trade between Myanmar and India reached US$1.42 million as of October 22, 2021.
Thirdly, from a national security perspective, the trilateral relations can improve the border security of three countries and the region. The close ties between China and Myanmar is a concern for India. In addition, Myanmar shares a border with India’s Northeastern states. In November 2021, India became more concerned after the attack on the 46 Assam Rifles by Manipur ‘terrorist’ group, People’s Liberation Army. To contain insurgent groups in the Nothereastern region and to tighten security to control the Rohingya exodus in India, India follows her ‘dual-track’ policy with Myanmar.
Bangladesh also participated in the Armed Forces Day parade of Myanmar in 2021. Bangladesh is working to make a platform for a fruitful negotiation with the Myanmar Junta for a successful and sustainable Rohingya repatriation. According to strategic analysts, therea are about 30 insurgent groups in Northeastern region. Members of these groups reportedly took shelter in the neighbouring countries which demand cross border cooperation. The trilateral cooperation therefore will create collective security for counter-terrorism effort in the region.
The regional connectivity and cooperation will bring about win-win results in trade, communication, security, energy, tourism, science and technology for Bangladesh, Myanmar and India.