INDIA-JAPAN EYE JOINT INFRASTRUCTURE PUSH AFTER OBOR SKIP
China's pan-Eurasian infrastructure initiative is one of the most discussed giant projects of the 21st century. Nearly 70 countries and international organizations have signed up for the infrastructure project. The more conspicuous is the abscence of big players like India and Japan. Which plans do they have alternatively?
When Chinese President Xi Jinping formally announced his Belt and Road Initiative (also referred to as the OBOR - One Belt One Road) in Beijing, one of the notable absentees was India. Though Japan had sent a representative from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, it has not yet formally joined the same. However, now that India skipped the OBOR party, does it have a Plan B on the infrastructure front? It seems that now, for the first time, the contours of such a plan are beginning to take shape.
1. India is revving up the India- Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) trilateral highway. This highway will connect Moreh in India’s Northeastern state of Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar. The highway, which originally started as the India-Myanmar Friendship Road way back in 2001, has been repeatedly delayed, but is finally expected to take shape by 2020. In the future, there are also plans to connect it with pre-existing highways and take it all the way to Vietnam.
2. New Delhi has announced that it would be working with Japan in the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) which gels well with Japan’s “Partnership for Quality Infrastructure” initiative. The AAGC aims to develop quality infrastructure in Africa, which has now emerged as a new theatre of competition among Asian giants like China, Japan and India. During Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to India in September 2017, the two Prime Ministers “underlined the importance of all countries ensuring the development and use of connectivity infrastructure in an open, transparent and non-exclusive manner based on international standards and responsible debt financing practices, while ensuring respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, the rule of law, and the environment”, in an not-so-hidden reference to Beijing’s moves on the infrastructure front.
3. India is participating in the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) which aims at moving goods between India, Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia. New Delhi is already helping with the construction of the Chabahar port in Iran as Pakistan has not allowed India transit rights through its territory. New Delhi has already sent its first shipment of wheat to Afghanistan through Chabahar, in a development which is bound to change the geopolitics of this region. Meanwhile, Tokyo has also expressed an interest in collaborating in the development of the Chabahar port in Iran. Central Asia is key for India in terms of its energy security and also for strategic reasons.
4. Japan has been helping India to improve the infrastructure in the Northeastern part of India, which is lagging behind other parts of the country in terms of infrastructure. The joint statement issued during the visit of the Japanese PM Shinzo Abe to India last month devotes a significant amount of attention on India’s Northastern region. It notes that the two Prime Ministers welcomed the India-Japan cooperation on development of India’s North Eastern Region (NER) as a concrete symbol of developing synergies between India’s Act East policy and Japan’s Free and Open Indo Pacific Strategy.
Tokyo has provided funds for construction and repair works on some of the National Highways in Northeast India. It is important to note here that other foreign countries have not been granted access to India’s strategically located Northeastern region, which shares borders with China, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh respectively. It is also worth noting here that China claims the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh in Northeast India and created a huge ruckus when the Dalai Lama paid a visit to Arunachal earlier in April last year. Meanwhile, India has constructed its longest river bridge (9.15 km across) across the Lohit river in Northeast India which can withstand the weight of 60 ton battle tanks.
WHAT’S AT STAKE FOR INDIA?
1. Connectivity will be key if the Indian economy is to grow at its present growth levels. In addition, adequate infrastructure is important to ensure that all parts of the country grow at the same pace. At present, infrastructure in India’s Northeast is much less developed than in other parts of the country.
2. India faces a huge trade imbalance with China. Hence, it needs to diversify its trading partners within its immediate neighbourhood and beyond. This is why improving its physical connectivity with the economically- vibrant ASEAN nations is very important. Four Northeastern states, namely Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram share a more than 1600 km border with Myanmar.
3. China’s rapid inroads into what New Delhi has seen as its own backyard (both on land and in the maritime realm) has forced policy planners in New Delhi to sit up and take notice. Japan has the “Partnership for Quality Infrastructure” initiative and is already participating in a big way in India’s infrastructure sector. Earlier in September last year, PM Abe also laid the foundation stone for India’s first high speed railway corridor between the cities of Mumbai and Ahmedabad in western India. Japan also has the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy” which is crucial for Japan’s continued economic growth.
However, the terrain in the Northeastern region to India can pose significant challenges. Add to that, frequent landslides and flooding could also prove to be formidable challenges to infrastructure development in Northeast India. In addition, different Indian states have different local laws and this may create problems in the smooth execution of projects between India and Japan. Land acquisition has also been a thorny issue in India.
That said, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Both India and Japan will have to ensure that they deliver quality infrastructure and that too within fixed timelines, in case they are to provide an alternative to China’s ambitious One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative.