India wants Bangladesh to join a key trilateral road link with ASEAN

India wants Bangladesh to join the India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT Highway) trilateral highway project, which aims to link South Asia and Southeast Asia to achieve the broader Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) agenda.

The ambitious three-country highway is one of the largest infrastructure projects in the region, which will connect India to Thailand via Myanmar. It is a key part of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Act East Policy,” which aims to boost trade and connectivity with Southeast Asia.

The 3,660 km long IMT Highway will connect Moreh (India) – Bagan (Myanmar) – Mae Sot (Thailand) and is scheduled for completion later this year.

Meanwhile, India has completed 50 percent of the construction of Myanmar’s 120-km Kalewa-Yagyi line at international highway level, rebuilding 69 bridges and adjacent access roads to the highway.

India and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) plan to expand this route to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam (which has been operational since 2015).

Development economists project that connectivity will generate an estimated US$70 billion in additional GDP and US$20 million in total additional jobs annually through 2025, and India has offered a US$1 billion credit line for the India-ASEAN connectivity projects. It is at the center of transport diplomacy between ASEAN countries.

In 2015, India proposed a Trilateral Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA) with Myanmar and Thailand for the seamless movement of passenger and freight vehicles between the three countries.

In December 2017, Myanmar stated that it needed time to review all of its connectivity arrangements before proceeding with the MVA.

The delays from Myanmar have enormously delayed the Imphal (India) – Mandalay (Myanmar) bus service, even though India and Myanmar signed the MVA in 2018.

On July 14, senior officials sat in the South Bloc in New Delhi to examine the physical possibilities of connecting Bangladesh to the highway project.

At the India-Myanmar Border Connectivity Meeting, a report by the Land Ports Authority of India (LPAI) was presented and modalities for connecting Bangladesh were discussed.

Prabhat Kumar, special secretary of the Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MEA), said at the high-level meeting that if Bangladesh is connected to this highway, it will serve as a unique trade link between all of South Asia and Southeast Asia, the Dhaka Tribune reported.

Bangladesh has expressed its desire to join the IMT highway to strengthen regional connectivity and achieve greater economic benefits with Southeast countries in 2020.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina first expressed her interest in a land link with Thailand via Myanmar during her virtual summit with her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in December 2020, the Daily Star reported.

It expressed keen interest in the ongoing India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway project and requested India to provide technical assistance to Bangladesh in connecting to this project to enhance connectivity between South Asia and Southeast Asia regions, the joint statement said.

Hasina is expected to discuss with Modi the formalities of joining the IMT Highway project and other pending issues when she meets with her Indian counterpart for a bilateral negotiation next September to attend the 18th G20 Leaders’ Summit in New Delhi.

Meanwhile, India and Thailand have agreed to include Bangladesh in the trilateral highway project.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister Masud Bin Momen said New Delhi and Bangkok are happy to have Bangladesh on the Trilateral Highway project.

Well, Bangladesh is waiting for a proactive nod from Myanmar. The neighboring country has not yet responded to Dhaka joining the project.

Previously, Bangladesh wanted to join the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor, which unfortunately made no progress. Also, India has omitted the Belt and Road Forum, resulting in the BCIM corridor being excluded from the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) list of projects. In any case, the BCIM existed before China introduced the BRI.

Remember a senior Chinese diplomat in Kolkata who boasted that he launched a high-speed train from Kunming to Kolkata via Bangladesh and Myanmar in 2015, the Press Trust of India (PTI) reported.

The diplomat assured that with the much-vaunted BRI, China does not intend to conquer the world or its neighborhood, but rather that the high-speed train project will be implemented through consultation and discussion. However, the project never saw the light of day.

Maintaining the Chinese plan, Bangladesh agreed to a rail link to the so-called Trans-Asian Railway, which was supposed to connect India-Bangladesh-Myanmar-China and has apparently lost momentum.

Recently, Bangladesh abandoned construction of a 129-kilometer railway from Dohazari to Gundhum on the border with Myanmar, instead redirecting the budget to build a high-speed rail line from the port city of Chattagram to the seaside holiday destination of Cox’s Bazar.

The crisis affecting the 1.2 million Rohingya refugees living in run-down camps in the south-east of the country has frozen ties between the two countries. Thus, the land and rail connection with Myanmar was given up for the time being.

It’s also clear that building railroads through Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine State will pose a challenge. The Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces) are fighting a multi-headed insurgency with armed ethnic insurgents and newly established nationalist resistance forces.

Armed uprisings intensified after the military junta overthrew the democratically elected Prime Minister Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021. Nobel laureate Suu Kyi was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Bangladesh, India and Myanmar, the three neighbors, share a common history, particularly when the British Raj dominated the region. Therefore, these neighbors can easily improve their ties in multidimensional aspects by fostering cooperation, writes Jubeda Chowdhury, a researcher on regional issues.

She goes on to say that if the Bangladesh-Myanmar-Thailand-India trilateral highway project and the BCIM corridor were integrated, ASEAN members could gain access to the markets of Bangladesh, northeastern India and the Himalayan landlocked countries of Bhutan and Nepal.

Related Articles

Back to top button