While the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM) has seen significant progress under the impetus of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) since 2013, its construction has been held back by misunderstandings and misjudgment on the Indian side.
Expecting bilateral differences to be bridged immediately may not be realistic, because India's misunderstandings of the BCIM haven't been completely eliminated. When it comes to advancing the BCIM and BRI, it is of strategic significance to fully understand and effectively address perception problems between China and India.
The basic driving force of such corridors as the BCIM comes from the flow of economic factors, and the cost of these flows is the core issue of economic development. For this reason, all parties involved in the BCIM have made active efforts and achieved initial results in trade and financing connectivity, albeit with relatively slow progress in infrastructure connectivity projects.
Bilateral trade between China and India increased from less than $3 billion in 2000 to $84.44 billion in 2017, and China has been India's largest trading partner for years. China has also become the largest trading partner, the largest export market and the largest source of imports for Myanmar, with smooth progress seen in major Chinese investment projects in the country.
As to Bangladesh, when Chinese leaders visited the country in 2016, the two sides signed 27 cooperation agreements and memoranda of understanding, covering areas such as trade and investment, the marine economy, road and bridge construction, power and energy, maritime cooperation, and communication technology.
Yet development of the BCIM faces bottlenecks and difficulties.
First, the BCIM passes through mountains and rivers, with complex and even dangerous geographical and geological conditions that pose obstacles to the construction of transportation infrastructure. Second, the BCIM spans different regions with complex mixes of ethnic and religious groups. Moreover, various countries maintain different standards for roads, railways and industrial facilities, a factor that has also restrained the progress of BCIM projects.
Third, although Bangladesh and Myanmar are both positive toward the BCIM, they lack the economic resources to support the project. Obsolete industries and scarce funds make it hard for them to fulfill the plan on schedule.
Beyond poor natural conditions, complex demographics and weak capacity, the main challenge and barrier to the BCIM rests in India's misconceptions and negative attitude toward the concept. Since the BCIM was proposed, India has never issued any specific plans or policies relating to the project, and there's nothing about the BCIM in its Look East policy.
Although top leaders from China and India have reached a consensus on BCIM construction, negative perceptions persist in India, which may stem from the following reasons.
First, a separatist history has limited India's understanding and recognition of China's "harmonious thinking" to a certain extent.
Second, British colonial rule reinforced India's sense of insecurity and opposition.
Third, from the end of World War II to the end of the Cold War, the geopolitical environment has shaped India's power politics.
The most important potential and foundation of the BCIM is based on the value concept of win-win cooperation. To break through any bottlenecks, it is imperative to persuade the Indian side to overcome misunderstandings and be wary of other powers' attempt to impose obstacles between China and India. It is also necessary to accelerate cooperation with Bangladesh and Myanmar to achieve a demonstration effect.
China must strive to gain recognition and shape public opinion so as to push the Chinese and Indian communities into properly handling differences and focusing on cooperation and consensus.
First, by using public diplomatic and human exchanges, China can seek a path to bilateral consensus, based on historical experiences.
Second, within the multilateral frameworks of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the G20, it can build a contemporary concept of cooperation and win-win outcomes.
Third, China should strengthen strategic dialogue mechanisms so as to enable all circles in both countries to overcome the negative influence of other powers.
Fourth, under the general framework of the BCIM, China may promote China-Myanmar-Bangladesh cooperation, achieving a demonstration effect and guiding the Indian side to recognize the fact that "development is the key to addressing security problems."
Yao Yao is director of the Center for National Soft Power Research at the China Foreign Affairs University. He Xianqing is assistant research fellow with the Research Center for Maritime Silk Road of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies.
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