Connecting with ASEAN Through India-Myanmar-Thailand Highway and Beyond

“The changing circumstances have forced both India and ASEAN to come together; deepen their engagement beyond trade and tourism and explore the potential in the areas of defence and infrastructure development. The rise of China as the economic and maritime powerhouse has created great opportunities as well as threats to its Asian neighbours. China’s trade with ASEAN is more than USD 470 billion and is expected to touch USD 1 trillion by 2020. China is miles ahead of India in its engagement with ASEAN in the areas like trade, tourism, investment and joint ventures.”

The leaders of all countries of the ten-member ASEAN group, comprising Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, and Vietnam attended this year’s Republic Day celebrations as the guests of honour in New Delhi. It was a massive show of strength of India’s deepening engagement with the East. India sits at the centre of the Indian Ocean. Its cultural and economic relations with the ASEAN countries date back to several millennia. Hinduism, Buddhism; universities like Nalanda, literary works like Ramayana, temple architecture, trade of silk and spices were some of the connecting dots since the ancient times. Indian soldiers, under the British rule played an important role in liberating the region from the Japanese occupation during the WW2. India’s independence, democracy, and vision for peaceful coexistence inspired leaders of many ASEAN countries.

However, India’s policies of non-interference and economic self-reliance limited the potential for cooperation between the two. After the death of Prime Minister Nehru, India’s engagement with the East lost the momentum. Last year, the ASEAN bloc marked its golden jubilee completing 50 years of its existence. Even though it has several diversities in terms of religions, populations, economy and the systems of governance, the bloc has shown remarkable resilience. The rapid economic growth of Asian tigers in the 1980s caught India’s attention. But it was only in 1993, that India framed its Look East Policy. ASEAN’s collective economy is close to USD 2.4 trillion; the seventh largest in the world. There are huge diversities with regard to population, religion, standard of living and governing styles but they have not come in the way of political stability and rapid economic transformation of the region. Last year, India’s trade with ASEAN crossed USD 70 billion. The block constitutes more than 10% of India’s exports.

25 years after the formation of Look East policy, the changing circumstances have forced both India and ASEAN to come together; deepen their engagement beyond trade and tourism and explore the potential in the areas of defence and infrastructure development. The rise of China as the economic and maritime powerhouse has created great opportunities as well as threats to its Asian neighbours. China’s trade with ASEAN is more than USD 470 billion and is expected to touch USD 1 trillion by 2020. China is miles ahead of India in its engagement with ASEAN in the areas like trade, tourism, investment and joint ventures. However, China’s expansionism in the South China sea through land reclamation and building artificial islands and using them to create maritime and defence assets far away from its mainland have put it in conflict with the ASEAN countries with whom it shares maritime borders. Under the Belt Road Initiative (BRI), which is the dream project of President Xi Jinping, China has committed an investment to the tunes of one trillion dollars across Asia, Africa and Europe to bridge the infrastructure gaps in the world. More than 62 countries including all of the ASEAN countries have joined the BRI. However, lack of transparency and apprehensions about China using this infrastructure for defence purposes have worried everyone.

It has brought India, Japan, and USA close together with regional powers in the Asia-Pacific like South Korea, Australia, Indonesia and Singapore. The only way to compete with China is to offer infrastructure projects which are financially and environmentally sustainable, use resources efficiently and create more jobs for local populations. The Mekong sub-region of ASEAN consists of five countries i.e. Myanmar, Thailand, Lao, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It is connected by the land border with four Indian states i.e. Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram in North East and shares a maritime border with the eastern coast of India. Although India’s air and sea connectivity with the South-East ASEAN countries namely Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines have significantly improved, its connectivity with the Mekong region through land route still remains poor. Geography, insurgency and decades-old neglect of the North Eastern states by the Central government of India are reasons behind it.

“Visa Free Travel” ASEAN Dream

ASEAN was formed as a region with a long history of colonisation and conflict, and aimed to promote peace, stability, security, and prosperity through greater regional cooperation.

The region is spread on a total land area of 4,488,839 and has an estimated population of around 628 million as of 2015.

From the 5 founding countries that established the regional organization, ASEAN now has 10 member states: Despite efforts towards closer integration, ASEAN residents still do not possess the level of borderless travel as their European counterparts in the European Union do. While ASEAN countries don’t require a visa to residents of neighbouring countries, there are still restrictions and limitations.

The goal of a more borderless ASEAN community is in progress, through the proposals of visa-free travel for all ASEAN citizens, special ASEAN immigration lanes at the airports around the region, and a common ASEAN visa for foreign tourists — to boost tourism and business within the region.

Since it came to power in May 2014, the Modi government prioritised speedy development of the North East states. It has set up a special ministry for development of the north-eastern region (DONER). The broader objectives of government’s North East doctrine are ensuring political stability in the region, encouraging greater cooperation between the Centre and the states and among the states themselves, bolstering national security, ending isolation by creating linkages with important cities in India and neighbouring countries through air, land and rail route and promoting tourism. To attain these objectives, the government has given a major push to infrastructure development in the North East states and neighbouring Myanmar. It has joined hands with countries like Japan, Thailand, and Singapore in funding and jointly executing the projects.

The projects aiming to improve connectivity between the Mekong region and North East India such as India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway; which has now become a part of Trans Asian highway, Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project (KMTTP) and Delhi-Hanoi Rail Link and Mekong-India Economic Corridor (MIEC) are pivotal in India’s Act East strategy. India completed the India-Myanmar Friendship road in 2001 at a cost of Rs. 90 crore. It connects Moreh, a border town in Manipur with Kalewa and Kalemyo in Myanmar. This 160 km road was built by the Border Roads Organisation with funding from the Ministry of External Affairs, India and handed over to Myanmar government in 2009. However, the road was underutilised as Myanmar failed to repair the 71 bridges on the road built in the British Raj and were in dilapidating condition.

In 2012, India announced a package of USD 100 million to repave the existing road and repairing the bridges. The India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway was proposed for the first time in 2002.

However only after wasting 10 years, a joint task force was set up between the three countries. The project involves a series of repairs and rebuilding to make the 1360 km road to the standard of highway. The project has multiple stretches. Kalewa to Yagyi, a 120 km stretch to be reconstructed by the Indian government. On the backdrop of Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Myanmar last year, the National Highway Authority of India awarded the contract worth USD 176 million to a joint venture of the Punj Lloyd and Varaha Infra companies to upgrade the existing road to the standard of highway. Yaggi to Monywa, a 64.4 km stretch, which passes through the Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park, is developed by Myanmar. The project will use the existing road between Monywa to Mandalay and the expressway from Mandalay to Yangon in the Bago region.

India is interested in developing Dawei port in Southern Myanmar, which will connect Myanmar to countries in the southern Mekong region. This will save time and cost because once completed, there will be no need to cross the straits of Malacca. India is going to upgrade the National Highway 8, which connects Payagyi in the Bago region to Myeik, south of Dawei. (verification needed) The stretch from Payagyi-Yangon-Thein Za Yet-Thanton-Mawlamyine falls on the National Highway 8. Myanmar has secured a loan from the Asian Development Bank to complete the road from Thanton to Mawlamyine connecting it to Kawkareik. Thailand has agreed to finance the upgradation work of the existing roads.

The road from Kawkareik to Myawaddy on the border with Thailand was completed in 2015. The work to connect the 20 km stretch Myawaddy with Mae Sot in Thailand is in progress and is expected to be completed soon. From Mae Sot, it can use the existing road infrastructure, which is also going through a rapid upgrade – to connect to the mainland ASEAN countries. The length of the India-Myanmar-Thailand highway connecting Moreh with Mae Sot is close to 1360 km. The distance from Mae Sot to Bangkok is just 502 km; Vientiane, capital of Laos is 645 km; Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia is less than 1100 km and Hanoi, capital of Vietnam is less than 1400 km. It can transform the North East India, which has close cultural ties with the Mekong region for centuries. The project will also benefit India’s South Asian neighbours like Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh by giving them wider access of ASEAN countries and China.

There are 24 projects in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) connectivity and work is in progress on 14 to 16 projects. Most of the projects are funded by the Asian Development Bank.

“Integrated Connectivity to boost Regional Markets

India, Iran, and Afghanistan are working towards integrated development of connectivity through infrastructure projects including ports, road, and rail networks to open up greater opportunities for regional market access and the integration of their economies. India has already completed the Zaranj-Delaram highway in Afghanistan, which would facilitate land-based trade to Kabul and eventually farther areas to Central Asia. At a time when China’s Belt and Road Initiative is attempting to redraw regional boundaries, India and other regional players are looking at enhancing their own regional connectivity profiles.”

The India-Myanmar-Thailand highway and the Trans-Asian highway project have great potential to connect BBIN with ASEAN. However one must assess the project and its benefits realistically. This and other connectivity projects in the Mekong region are stalled for decades due to inadequate funds, faulty planning, red-tapism, environmental permissions, the insurgency in the North Eastern states and Myanmar and apprehensions by local populations about getting displaced. The trilateral highway was supposed to get completed in 2016, but now it seems that the work on it will start only by the end of 2019. Even if India continues to experience political stability and rapid economic growth, it will have to compete with China in costs and speed. China’s footprint in infrastructure development in the Mekong region is far wider and deeper. It connects its Kunming province and industrial belts in Chongquing, Guangzhou and Chengdu in the region. India will have to achieve rapid economic development in the North Eastern states, as well as peripheral states like Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, and Odisha.

It is equally important to complement road connectivity with digital connectivity and culture. The Mekong region has majority of Buddhist population and the people are very religious. India should intensify its efforts to connect the region with the Buddhist circuit in India, Nepal and Bhutan. It should offer more scholarships to the students from the region and offer its expertise in soft skills development; particularly in the areas of English and IT. Rapid industrialisation and urbanisation on the road-corridor will ensure their economic sustenance. Rich countries in the ASEAN group, Japan, Korea and USA can play an important role in it. India organised the first North East Development Summit in Manipur on the backdrop of the Sangai festival on November 21 and 22. Apart from President Ram Nath Kovind, senior ministers from the Modi government, chief ministers or representatives of the states attended the festival.

“Vibrant ASEAN

The Association of Southeast nations in Asia (ASEAN) is an organization formed by ten nations to promote economic, security and political cooperation. The ten ASEAN countries have had fluctuating numbers in terms of development and economic growth over the years. A close analysis is required to monitor the development policies of these nations.”

A special effort was made to reach out to the ASEAN countries to participate in a summit. Prime Minister Modi’s invitation to the heads of the ASEAN group will spread the message loud and clear that India is eager to play a larger role in the economic development, stability and security of the Indo-Pacific region. The trans-Asian highway will play a major role in realising this dream into reality.

– Anay Joglekar

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