China’s ambitious One Belt One Road project is drawing a lot of attention due to its scale as well as strategic implications. What is often overlooked is efforts being made by other countries in the context of enhancing connectivity within Asia, Japan’s Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (PQI) may not appear to be as grand as the OBOR, but it has the ability to create not just top class infrastructure, but also enhance the level of connectivity within Asia.
Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor: Role of US, India and Myanmar
The US has also been seeking to enhance connectivity between South Asia with South East Asia and beyond, through the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor (IPEC). The project complements India’s Act East Policy, and also its desire to play a role in the Indo-Pacific. In 2015, a release by the State Department clearly highlights IPEC as an important priority for the US. Says the statement, “Complementing India’s Enhanced Look East Policy, the United States envisions an Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor that can help bridge South and Southeast Asia – where the Indian and Pacific Oceans converge and where trade has thrived for centuries’.
While the US and India are key stakeholders, other members include Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal. The US has also recently asked Sri Lanka to become part of this project
Myanmar, India’s bridge to South East Asia is a key player within this project. India and Myanmar have had a number of high level interactions with Indian Foreign Minister, Sushma Swaraj visited Myanmar, this was followed by Myanmar President Htin Kyaw visit to New Delhi. Amongst the key issues, there was an emphasis on accelerating the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, and upgradation of key sections of the highway. During the ASEAN Summit at Laos, Prime Minister Modi spoke about the emphasis his government is laying on robust connectivity between India and ASEAN. Significantly, the PM proposed the setting up of a Joint Task Force on connectivity to work on extension of India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
Aung San Suu Kyi US visit
While during the upcoming visit of Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi to the US, the focus is likely to be on the lifting of sanctions and key challenges which Myanmar is facing.The economic reforms being undertaken are also likely to be discussed and the US President is likely to encourage enhanced trade relations with the outside world as well as connectivity. A number of US investors are keen to invest in Myanmar, and they could benefit through Myanmar’s integration with other markets in South East Asia as well as South Asia. While IPEC may not find specific mention during their meeting the project seems to be high on the US agenda.
Only recently, Neha Desai Biswal Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs while commenting on the US role in IPEC stated:
“We see ourselves as a convener and a partner. We can help identify projects that have multiplier effects, bring all stakeholders to the table, support and catalyse the early stages of development, and provide the necessary technical support to make sure it gets done right,”
Role of India and US
All stakeholders need to play an important role. India needs to focus not just on land connectivity with Myanmar, but seamless connectivity within India itself. India needs to accord higher priority to stong maritime connectivity between Southern India and South East Asia, this can complement the current efforts to connect North Eastern India with Myanmar. Apart from physical connectivity, India also needs to integrate with the larger Asia-Pacific region by becoming part of APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation). The US needs to back India’s membership a number of other countries like Australia have strongly backed the same.
For any substantial progress, the stakeholders will also have to decide the appropriate forum for IPEC. While Myanmar, India, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh have been working jointly in BIMSTEC, it is doubtful whether this would be appropriate. A forum bereft of infighting is needed for ensuring that IPEC is successful.
In conclusion, while India-US and other countries in ASEAN may have found common ground in the strategic sphere, there is no clarity with regard to enhanced connectivity and integration. ‘The US and other key stakeholders in IPEC should not get distracted by OBOR. The thrust should be on accelerating connectivity between South Asia and South East Asia through a pragmatic vision and efficient implementation.India and Myanmar which would benefit significantly from IPEC would be advised to take the lead.