Lessons for India

One Belt One Road : At present, India has neither the resources nor the political and economic weight for a competitive connectivity network.

Lessons for India
China’s One Belt One Road initiative can transform the world economy, given its span from across Asia, Africa to Europe, the connectivity could provide enormous boost to trade, tourism and business. The initiative has two components; first being the New Silk Road Economic Belt connecting China with Europe through central and western Asia and the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) that will connect China and Southeast Asian countries, Africa and Europe.

One Belt One Road (OBOR) is an overambitious agenda which wants to build bridges across the rest of the world except the Americas. It is designed to further strengthen the Chinese role in economic integration with these nations and play a larger role in global political affairs.

Once the infrastructure is ready, the Chinese are not only looking to push its indigenous technologies but also find means to export its surplus manufacturing. No doubt this is an important strategy by the Chinese to remain strategically as well as globally an important player in the world economy. In such a situation what should be India’s perspective?

At present, India has neither the resources nor the political and economic weight to put in place a competitive and alternative connectivity network on a global scale. Therefore, for the time being, it may be worthwhile to carefully evaluate those components of OBOR which may, in fact, improve India’s own connectivity to major markets and resource supplies and become participants in them just as we have chosen to do with the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank (NDB) in China.

It may prove more prudent to deploy India’s limited resources to build an Indian Ocean network of ports, with connecting highways and rail routes, exemplified by the Mekong-Ganga corridor and the Sittwe-Mizoram multi-modal transport corridor. The Kaladan multi-modal Transit Transport Model is expected to be fully completed by 2016. The India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway corridor is also one such project that may be ready by 2016 which will provide India a great opportunity to conduct trade and investment in the region.

There have been longstanding plans to develop the deep water port at Trincomalee, on Sri Lanka’s eastern coast, as a major energy and transport hub and yet, despite the warning message in the shape of China building the Hambantota port in southern Sri Lanka and expanding the Colombo port, virtually no work has been undertaken since Indian Oil acquired the tank farm located at the port.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands lie at the very centre of the Bay of Bengal and could be developed to serve as a regional shipping hub for the littoral states and beyond. And yet, India continues to treat these islands as a distant outpost rather than leveraging their unique location at the very centre of one of the most strategic stretches of ocean space.

Safeguarding assets

Similarly, India should launch a “Spice Route”, a “Cotton Route” and even a “Mausam Project” tying the countries around the Indian Ocean and bind them together by the monsoon winds. Instead of spreading limited resources thinly over criticising the initiative taken by China in relation to OBOR, it may be wise to focus on limited but strategically key routes and ports along our adjacent seas and islands to safeguard our most important assets.

The first priority of the government should be to develop the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as a modern transport and shipping hub for the Bay of Bengal Basin. At the next level would be Chahbahar port to the west with road/rail links to Central Asia; Trincomalee port to the east, with shipping links to the Bay of Bengal littoral ports and beyond; the Mekong-Ganga corridor linking India’s east coast with Indo-China; and the Kaladan multi-modal transport corridor in Myanmar’s Rakhine province, including the port of Sittwe. The proposed Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor could then become part of this broader network.

One is already aware of the economic prosperity that the ancient “Silk Route” brought to the regions. It could well be repeated in a much more impactful manner. The Indian government is progressive and is looking to connect internally with initiatives such as “Digital India” and “Make in India”.

It can marry gracefully with “Information Silk Route” where telecom connectivity between the countries through fibre, trunk line and under-sea cables is also a key component. This will expand the bandwidth capabilities for India significantly, without which offering e-governance and delivering public services in an efficient manner will remain only a pipe dream.

To be a part of this global infrastructural initiative would mean India will have great connectivity of various transport modes, and a great facilitator to “Make In India” initiative. Success for India will depend on how efficiently it uses these channels to find and grow new export markets for our products and enable efficient trade routes.
The benefits to India while participating in a globally challenging project such as OBOR is immense. For one, the technical know-how they will bring back could be used to develop or iron out issues facing domestic infrastructure sector or for envisioning projects that India never had an opportunity to pursue before.

It is fair to say that China, in deploying the OBOR initiative, has demonstrated a level of ambition and imagination which is mostly absent in India’s national discourse. It is time both scholars, policy makers and practitioners started to think and act strategically on issues such as OBOR which will have a significant impact on India’s vital interests.

(The writer is Professor, Lal Bahadur Shastri Institute of Management and former Senior Faculty, Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, New Delhi)

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