Belt and Road Initiative: A big opportunity to reap benefit for South Asia

DHAKA (The Daily Star/ANN) - Experts say India’s indifference to join BRI poses a challenge as Bangladesh has to objectively measure both benefits and concerns.

The China-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) comes as an opportunity for the South Asian nations, but cooperation of all the countries in the region is needed to reap benefits from it, observe international relations analysts.

Speaking at an international conference in the capital, they, however, said India’s reluctance to join the BRI poses a challenge to promoting connectivity and trade in the region.

The conference titled “BRI: Positioning Bangladesh within Comparative Perspectives” was organised by the Centre for Policy Dialogue at a city hotel yesterday.

“In South Asia, all the countries, except for India, are enthusiastic about the Belt and Road Initiative… There will be certain challenges to implementing the initiative unless India joins it,” said Maj Gen (retd) ANM Muniruzzaman, president of Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies.

He also mentioned that Bangladesh was excluded from a proposed corridor connecting four countries -- China, India, Myanmar and Bangladesh -- through maritime routes.

“We should try to talk to China so that the corridor is extended up to Chattogram via Rakhine,” Muniruzzaman told this correspondent on the sidelines of the conference.

Chinese President Xi Jinping introduced the concept of the BRI in 2013 in the light of the ancient Silk Route to connect Asia with Africa and Europe through land and maritime networks.

Bangladesh is one of the 129 countries that have already joined the initiative. Some of the big powers, including the US and India, are yet to become part of it. India, however, is involved in some other initiatives that partly overlap the BRI.

Muniruzzaman said that though the BRI has been termed a trade project, it has significant political and strategic ramifications.

“We must carefully analyse these aspects as we move towards implementing the projects under the initiative,” he said.

According to the CPD, Bangladesh, located in a sub-region that includes economic powerhouses India and China, is a gateway to the Maritime Silk Route that passes through the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh has a unique opportunity to emerge in the region as an important economic hub of the century.

While engaging itself with the BRI, Bangladesh will have to take into consideration its relationship with its big neighbour India, said the thinktank.

“Thus, an effective balance of relationship with two big regional neighbours will also be a major task to be taken into consideration by the policymakers of Bangladesh,” said the CPD in a paper presented at the conference.

The BRI is likely to have implications for the interests and engagement of extra-regional powers, such as the USA and the EU, in Asia. It is of interest to observe the role of the proposed Maritime Silk Route in ensuring security in the Indian Ocean, it pointed out.

“In this respect, there is possibly a need to have an effective multi-stakeholder platform to discuss the interests and concerns regarding the BRI in South Asia, particularly in Bangladesh.

“It is important to have an objective analysis focusing on both economic and political aspects of this ambitious initiative. This will help the government adopt informed policies to reap the fullest benefits of the BRI and mitigate the risks associated with it,” the CPD said.

CPD Distinguished Fellow Debapriya Bhattacharya said the BRI should have clear norms such as openness, transparency, no corruption and no conflict of interest in commercial deals.

The BRI also should have multilateral framework for all stakeholders that will have equal footing in the decision-making process, he said.

“We need to understand what keeps India away, and how Indo-Pacific strategy affects the BRI.

“Rohingya experience taught us geo-political realities… We need to see how we can really exploit our advantages, how we can prepare better, and how we can manage our relationship in certain ways that we can optimise not only in the long run but also in the short run,” Debapriya added.

Dr Kalyan Raj Sharma, president of Nepal-China Friendship Forum, said a lack of trust among countries in South Asia is a major problem that’s hindering regional growth. And India’s role is crucial in implementing the BRI.

For example, if there is a rail link from China to Nepal, it won’t be of much benefit unless it links India or Bangladesh, he said.

“Division creates poverty, unity creates wealth,” he said, stressing the need for unity among the South Asian nations.

Former ambassador Munshi Faiz Ahmad, chairman of Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies, said the BRI is flexible because each country can have its own projects, maintaining the common principles of the initiative.

If India has any objection to any component of the BRI, it can raise that and eventually join the initiative. “If not, it will create a lot of hindrances,” he said.

Another former ambassador M Humayun Kabir, acting president of Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, said India and several other countries have security concerns that may discourage them from joining the initiative.

But if there is an open environment for trade governance, things could move forward, he added.

Economic relations between China and India are transforming. “I hope India would find some form of modus operandi. On the other hand, the BRI may also have to change, and those opposing it may find space to join it,” he said.

Abul Hasan Chowdhury, former state minister for foreign affairs, said China and India are large trading partners in the region, and they should work together for regional development.

The conference was also addressed by Prof Rehman Sobhan, chairman of the CPD; Mahfuz Anam, editor and publisher of The Daily Star; Lailafur Yasmin, professor of international relations at Dhaka University; and Guo Suiyan and Dr Lin Yanming, both associate professors at Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences in Kunming of China.

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