The BIMSTEC nations are collaborating through bilateral and multilateral agreements to develop ports, terminals, and direct linkages across the Bay of Bengal, or BoB, for quicker and efficient exchange of goods and services. This article examines the growing prominence of BIMSTEC in the South- and Southeast Asian region while simultaneously exploring the significance of maritime connectivity projects in the BoB pertaining to the littoral nations in order to understand the coherence of these ventures in promoting regional growth. The article fills a gap in research on Thailand’s missing role in regional connectivity projects. It explores whether maritime connectivity strengthens ties between the BoB littorals in general and the BIMSTEC organization in particular. It concludes that progress is being held back because of, first, the belated political willingness by member states to bring development to this region, and secondly due to slowness in the functioning of BIMSTEC.
Indian foreign policy has recently been running on two tracks. On the one hand, post-1991, India has strengthened ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asian countries. On the other hand, India’s “Neighbourhood First” policy looks to forge closer cooperation with its immediate neighbors, particularly the BIMSTEC states, in trade, security, infrastructure, culture and regional connectivity. The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, or BIMSTEC, comprises Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand who collectively focus on fourteen core areas of trade, transport, economy, energy, environment, agriculture, counterterrorism and culture. It brings together 1.5 billion people or 21 percent of the world population, and a combined GDP of over US$2.5 trillion. Initially, the BIST-EC (Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand - Economic Cooperation) was formed at a meeting in June 1997 in Bangkok. Myanmar was admitted in December 1997 and the organization was renamed BIMST-EC. The grouping expanded when Nepal and Bhutan were admitted in February 2004, and the group’s name was changed to BIMSTEC at its first summit meeting held in Bangkok in July 2004.
India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand all host a great possibility of maritime infrastructure development which could boost their trade interactions with each other and the world. Most of the BOB maritime connectivity projects are emerging as per the individual interests and political will of the littoral states. The common willingness to strengthen Intra-regional trade has pushed the connectivity paradigm within BIMSTEC. The BOB projects are mostly bilateral in nature and hence, the possibility of undertaking the projects and completing them is much faster than in a multilateral set-up. There has been certain overlapping in the bilateral projects and the BIMSTEC Master Plan for Transport and Connectivity proposed in 2017. Of the 66 priority projects stated in the plan, the nine developments under the maritime sector include the extension of East Container Terminal of the Colombo port in Sri Lanka whose construction has been taken at the Trilateral level by India, Japan and Sri Lanka. Further, the BIMSTEC Coastal Agreement could very well be an extension to the current coastal shipping conducted between the coastal ports of India and Bangladesh. Both the BOB and BIMSTEC projects hold future synergies in integrating the region but where do they join paths depends on the pace of their completion.
BIMSTEC fits into the globalization matrix at a time when the world is witnessing the transfer of global politico-economic power from the Euro-Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific region. While the post-colonial inclusive approach of the Asian nations had divided the Asia-Pacific into three different regions--South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia. These lines of yesteryear are blurring due to emerging trade markets, rapid economic expansion, the need for alternative energy resources as well as the prerequisite of regional security. Many scholars refer to the re-integration of the region as returning to its pre-colonial glory where states connected through trade.
For India, the extent of its geo-strategic interests within the Asia-Pacific, stretches from the east coast of Africa to the west coast of America, referred to as the Indo-Pacific by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2018. The region hosts 60 percent of the global maritime trade, two major straits, Hormuz and Malacca, and is a space for untapped resources making it strategically important for Delhi to factor in both security and prosperity. To promote these interests India has been participating in various bilateral and multilateral agreements as well as participating in a raft of regional groupings either as a member or as an observer state such as Indian Ocean Rim Association, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, Association of South East Asian Nations+6 (includes Australia, China, Korea, Japan and New Zealand), ASEAN Regional Forum, Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Co-operation and Mekong Ganga Cooperation. The other push by India is to increase its presence in the Indo-Pacific in response to the rising influence of China in the region that is visible most prominently in Beijing’s Maritime Silk Route, Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor, and port development ventures in the Indo-Pacific. This Chinese presence can also be seen in the Bay of Bengal, situated at the Northeast of the Indian Ocean, which underscores the Chinese wish to create a bypass route to the Malacca Strait for transportation of energy resources and goods.
The Bay of Bengal is surrounded by the littoral states of South Asia (Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh), and Southeast Asia (Myanmar, Thailand, and the tip of Indonesia). It is the gateway point to the Malacca Strait, a busy transit route that opens into the South China Sea. The historic connectivity provided by the Bay of Bengal lost its significance after the Second World War and independence from colonial rule due to the inclusive economic approach of the littoral states as well as the limited political will of their leaders to promote maritime trade. Eventually, the BoB became the backyard of the emerging South Asian and Southeast Asian economies. However, new avenues for trade between South and Southeast Asia opened up following the 1991 liberation of the Indian economy which was further spurred by prime minister P. V. Narasimha Rao’s Look East policy that sought to engage with the states of Southeast Asia that had created an economic miracle.
This period also saw the emergence of two regional groupings, ASEAN and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). While ASEAN was an evolving organisation with economic prosperity at its centre, SAARC was not able to overcome the political rift between India and Pakistan even though it began on a positive note of initial co-operation. India, therefore, began looking for alternative regional frameworks for economic cooperation. It transpired that Thailand, due to its grim ties with Vietnam and rising co-operation with Myanmar, was looking for an option beyond ASEAN. In 1997 the first step towards the formation of BIMSTEC were taken, and currently its member states cooperate in fourteen sectors: Trade and Investment, Transport and Communication, Energy, Tourism, Technology, Fisheries, Agriculture, Public Health, Poverty Alleviation, Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime, Environment and Disaster Management, People-to-People Contact, Cultural Cooperation, and Climate Change. While separate sectors have been assigned to different member states, the overall working of BIMSTEC has been tedious as states have still not finalized the Free Trade Agreement and the Motor Vehicle Agreement along with the framework for Coastal Shipping Agreement.
While India has been constantly trying to position BIMSTEC as an important grouping and a bridge to connect to the Southeast, the finalising process of the above stated agreements by all the member states has been delayed either due to lack of political will or the overlapping regionalism. While the multilateral BIMSTEC is floundering and moving sluggishly, the BoB region itself is seeing an upsurge of various bilateral and trilateral connectivity initiatives to promote economic growth.
The BIMSTEC agreement has been delayed. The Free Trade Agreement proposed in 2004 was stalled in 2015 after stark disagreements between member nations. However, in 2016, as part of its renewed focus on BIMSTEC, the Indian government voiced support for reviving negotiations on the FTA among BIMSTEC members. The 21st Meeting of the BIMSTEC Trade Negotiation Committee held at Dhaka in November 2018 reported a significant progress has been made in finalizing the draft texts of three important agreements relating to BIMSTEC FTA, namely Agreement on Trade in Goods, Agreement on Cooperation and Mutual Assistance in Customs Matters, and Agreement on Dispute Settlement Procedures and Mechanisms. For the Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA) a quick process of concluding the contract was requested by the member nations at Fourth BIMSTEC Summit held in Kathmandu, 2018. But then entering into a motor-vehicles agreement may not be an easy task as Thai truckers have been resisting seamless movement for long. Resistance from Bhutan on environmental grounds has already stalled implementation of similar agreement between the BBIN (Bhutan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal) sub-group.
The paper explores the significance of regional maritime connectivity projects in BoB pertaining to BIMSTEC littoral nations in order to understand the coherence of these projects in promoting regional growth. It fills a gap in research on Thailand’s missing role in the connectivity projects of the region. It explores whether maritime connectivity strengthens ties between the BoB littorals in general and the BIMSTEC organisation in particular.
Maritime Connectivity in the BoB
Connectivity, when looked as an umbrella term, is a multi-dimensional unit. It is not just about establishing transport linkages but is spread across different sectors like communication, energy, information, infrastructure, technology, trade and security. These spheres of connectivity are both complementary and overlapping in nature. Hence, understanding maritime connectivity just from the dimension of establishing a sea link between two or more nations is a very narrow way of looking at the nexus. In a century where globalization is driving the world and trade is the principal medium of doing business, maritime connectivity brings with it an ease of conducting trade. It includes within it the elements of port infrastructure and logistics, transhipment, information exchange and secured International Shipping Lanes (ISL) as well as Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs). Maritime connectivity for every littoral state is a trade in service, which in the long term can generate great economic as well as political benefits.
The BIMSTEC littoral states of Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand together share a coastline of more than 10,000 km surrounding the Bay of Bengal with only upto 3.7 percent share in world trade in 2014 and 5.9 percent intra-regional trade in 2016. The sea is a vital link in global economic transactions and mobility, it serves as an irresistible impulse in integrating a national economy with the global economy. By developing maritime connectivity in Bay of Bengal, the littorals have an opportunity to play to their advantage. Maritime trade and connectivity have been one of the traditional forms of cross-cultural and cross-civilizational interactions. The waterways have been used as the primary medium of trade and have provided the impetus for the growth of maritime enterprises in the densely populated littoral countries. However, the post-colonization period brought in an unstated split within the Bay of Bengal, making the water body a backyard of South Asia and Southeast Asia. Beginning in the 1950s, as the Bay of Bengal’s newly independent countries embraced divergent alliance systems, used political borders to erect barriers, and pursued different political and socio-economic models, the region’s sense of community almost completely eroded India at this point choose to develop an economy based on the principles of autarky and protectionism while Thailand pursued liberal market reforms. Further during the Cold War period India choose the non-aligned path while Thailand became an ally of the United States. These differences in approach to the international events created a divide between the Bay of Bengal region while the whole world was moving towards regional integration. Hence, the establishment of BIMSTEC in 1997 played an early role in the revival of trade connections between the east and the west under which re-connecting the littoral countries through maritime related projects is of a recent origin.
Each Bay of Bengal state--Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand--is drawing up bilateral and trilateral plans to develop transport links with its neighbours. The compulsions of growth-led economies and competitive geopolitics are the direct impulses pushing these states towards modernizing their otherwise archaic land and transport linkages. Further, the growing need for sustainable development as a result of global warming has also encouraged the need for sustainable transport. Shipping can be considered one of the least carbon emitting mode of mass transport as ships are becoming more energy efficient and less polluting with better emission controls. Hence, maritime connectivity in the Bay of Bengal not only promotes trade but saves time and energy as well as raises possibilities of combined security exercises and exploration of untapped natural resources. However, to better understand the maritime connectivity at a regional level one needs to go over the various projects taken up by the littoral states, such as transport linkages, infrastructural investments and information exchange plans between the nations.
For India, maritime connectivity is not solely about linkages through sea but more about multimodal connectivity which involves port and hinterland connectivity through road, rail and rivers. The whole gambit, domestically, through the project of Sagarmala (maritime garland) is to develop efficient ports as well as greater connectivity between the ports and to the mainland for faster movement of goods and services. The vision of the Sagarmala Programme is to reduce logistics cost for EXIM and domestic trade with minimal infrastructure investment. The plan features modernisation and development of new ports, usage of multi-modal logistics to connect the ports to hinterland, development of industrial clusters and special economic zones in proximity to ports, sustainable development of coastal communities through skill development and livelihood generation and lastly, movement of cargo through eco-friendly coastal and inland waterway systems. The project links India’s 7,500 km long coastline as one unit for the welfare of the country. Internationally, the idea of enhancing maritime connectivity in the BoB is a result of three agendas. First, the Look East Policy fosters the idea of increasing over-sea connections with Southeast and East Asia in trade, security, people-to-people contact, environment and the economy. In this case the BoB region provides a strategic space to build on these connections as it links India through Myanmar and Thailand to Southeast Asian nations other than the Straits of Malacca. In Myanmar, the Government of India (GOI) is investing and assisting in the development of Sittwe port under the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project (KMTTP), and the Adani Group has taken up a construction project of a container terminal at the Yangon port. Along with this GOI is also facilitating the construction India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway which is expected to boost trade and commerce in the ASEAN-India Free Trade Area. In August 2019, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed for the development of Ranong Port in Thailand and the promotion of a new maritime route between Ranong Port and India’s Krishnapatnam Port on the Andaman coast. Such direct connectivity between India and Thailand would reduce the travel time from 10-15 days to 7 days. Ranong port is more of regional port of Thailand and it is now that the port authority of Thailand is planning to develop it into a world-class port to have better connectivity with countries of South Asia, Middle East and Africa.
Under the second agenda, maritime connectivity, more so multimodal connectivity with Bangladesh and Myanmar, is helping India to have an alternate linkage to the North Eastern Region (NER) of the country. The North East frontier of India depends on land connectivity for commerce and trade as it is landlocked from all the sides by Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The only passage of transport between the mainland and the NER is through the Chicken’s Neck or the Siliguri corridor which at its widest is 21 km. Moreover, even the roads that connect India to the neighbouring nations have remained vacant due to law and order problems and natural disaster like landslides, such as Ledo Road from Assam to Kunming in China’s Yunnan, Numaligarh-Moreh Road from Assam to Myanmar through Manipur, and Aizawl-Champhai-Zokawthar Road from Mizoram to Myanmar. As a result, multimodal connectivity with Bangladesh and Myanmar works in favour of the NER, enabling it to reach out to the Bay of Bengal for alternate source of transport as well as enhance development in the region. A major development is the Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade (PIWTT) between Bangladesh and India which initiated the Kolkata-Assam water route via Bangladesh for transportation of goods and providing infrastructural facilities. In June 2016, a vessel made the first trip from Kolkata to Ashuganj in Bangladesh and on to Agartala in Tripura, reducing the distance from 1,650 kms through land to 620 nautical miles through water. It decreased the trade cost by 50 percent. Furthermore, a Coastal Shipping Agreement which involves shipping of Exim cargo of India and Bangladesh through both nations territorial waters was signed in June 2015 and a feeder service was started in March 2016 between India’s Krishnapatnam port in Andhra Pradesh to Chittagong port in Bangladesh. Named after the Krishnapatnam-Pangaon weekly direct service, the shipping line was welcomed by traders of both the countries as it would substantially reduce the transit cost and save a lot of time. Another major link that connects India to the NER through the BoB is the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project. Named after the river Kaladan in Myanmar, it runs from Kolkata to Sittwe port over a distance of 539 km, and from there it connects to the waterway to reach Paletwa (158 km) and then takes the road route to Kaletwa (110 km) to reach Lawngtlai (100 km) at the Mizoram Border. The Sittwe port is ready for transhipment of cargo. The port has successfully completed a trial run of shipping cargo vessels from Sittwe to Paletwa through the river in January 2019. The inland waterway and roadway work are stated to be in the final stages. All of these inter-state railway and road connectivity projects will help reduce traffic at the Chicken’s Neck, promote trade, social contact and infrastructural development in North East and its surrounding region. Along with this, In October 2014, the state-run Shipping Corporation of India (SCI) launched a cargo ferry service, connecting Chennai port with Yangon in Myanmar. The service pursues the Colombo-Chennai-Krishnapatnam-Yangon route with a fortnightly call at Chennai port.
The third agenda, as many scholars suggest, is to counter the rising influence of China in the region. The Chinese government’s promotion of Belt and Road Initiative and its heavy investments in port development in Sri Lanka and Myanmar has galvanized India into action to invest in the littoral states of the BoB which are geographically closer to it than to China. For India, Sri Lanka’s unique geostrategic location at the crossroads of major shipping routes is important. The Colombo Port is the hub of global west-east shipping system, hosting 80 percent of transhipment cargo. Out of this, India accounts for 73 percent of the transhipment cargo. Since most of the container terminals and ports in Colombo are operated by Chinese companies it raises serious security implications for India. Hence, in May 2019, Sri Lanka, Japan and India signed a Memorandum of Cooperation to jointly develop the East Container Terminal (ECT) at the Colombo Port, at an estimated cost of up to US$ 700 million due to a possible increase in Indian liners arriving at Colombo Port. With just four calls a week from the port of Colombo to Chennai, Kolkata and Haldia ports, and a fortnightly call to Vishakhapatnam, there is a greater need to multiply feeder services from Colombo to the eastern ports of India to transfer cargo quickly. India is also assisting in the repairing around 100 Second World War vintage fuel dumps located near the Trincomalee Port which is a natural harbor that can be used for bunkering ships along with transhipment of bulk cargo. Once fully functional, the tanks will be used as energy reserves for both India and Sri Lanka. Lastly, as part of India’s rehabilitation and reconstruction of war-damaged regions of the island, Delhi quickly got involved in repairing transport links and the Kankesanthurai Port situated at the northern tip of the Sri Lanka. Severely damaged during the civil war, initial plans called for rebuilding the port for tourism purposes and starting a ferry service from Kankesanthurai Port in Sri Lanka to Karaikal near Puducherry in India, but recent plans feature India’s aid of US$ 45.27 million to turn it into a transhipment port. The plus point of this port is it is closest to the BoB littorals and south India which will cut down the cost of transport and save time. While most of these investments by India are more of an act of goodwill, there is an underlying objective of catering to India’s security interests as Chinese companies are functioning right under India’s soft underbelly.
The strategic location of Bangladesh is such that it is landlocked by India from the north and Myanmar from the East while the south faces the Bay of Bengal. The three rivers, Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna, form the largest delta in the world merging into the bay. Bangladesh possesses three seaports and 22 river ports, and about 90 percent of overseas trade is routed through the ports of Chittagong and Mongla. The delta formation is an advantage as well as necessity for Bangladesh as the economy is heavily dependent on sea-borne trade. It imports raw materials like textile fibre and converts it into finished clothes to be exported back to Europe and South America. Hence, efficient ports are a necessity to speed up the import-export process and keep up with both foreign demand and that of the rising cloth manufacturing industries in Bangladesh.
The link of sea to land through rivers has given an advantage to Bangladesh over India in term of its proximity to the NER region. Bangladesh is surrounded by West Bengal, Assam and Tripura and the maritime connectivity projects of the Inland Water Transit and Trade (IWTT) as well as the Coastal Shipping Agreement (CSA) of 2015 has made Bangladesh an agent serving as a transit space between mainland and the NER of India. While the IWTT has become a source of income through transhipment of cargo, the CSA has brought new markets for Bangladesh’s trade.
Other than this, railway and road connectivity projects from the NER region to ports like Mongla and Chittagong bring in the multimodal perspective. The capital city of Dhaka is actually emerging as a pillar of India’s maritime pursuits in the Indo-Pacific as seven more MoUs were signed in 2019 with Delhi, of which one includes setting up of Coastal Surveillance System, and Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) on the use of Chattogram and Mongla Ports for movement of goods to and from India.
As for connectivity with Myanmar, there has not been much development other than the Bangladesh-India-China Myanmar corridor, which has not been able to progress beyond the blueprint stage due to India’s distrust towards China. There was talk of a Coastal Shipping Agreement between the two nations, Bangladesh and Myanmar, in 2012 however, the unsolved Rohingya issue has brought progress to halt.
In 2016, Bangladesh began talks with Thailand, a country that stands at closer proximity to the Malacca Straits than Malaysia or Singapore, to establish direct coastal shipping between Chittagong port and Ranong port. The goods exchanged between the two countries pass through Singapore which takes upto two weeks. The new adjustment will reduce the transfer time to 6-8 days paving way for lower shipping costs and opening another trading route. However, this connectivity plan is still under progress and talks to speed up the process took place in January 2020 at the Fifth Joint Trade Committee meeting between the two states wherein both also agreed to establish a Free Trade Agreement (FTA), aiming to double bilateral trade to US$ 2 billion by 2021.
Moreover, there has been an increase in Bangladesh’s cooperation for connectivity with Sri Lanka as the state-owned Ceylon Shipping Corporation Limited (CSCL) was planning to operate a feeder service between Sri Lanka and Bangladesh similar to what existed in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1980s a container-feeder service of three vessels existed between Chittagong-Singapore route and it was closed later as the vessels became too old enough to operate In November 2017, Milaha, a Qatar-based maritime transport and logistics conglomerate announced launch of the direct feeder service between Sri Lanka and Bangladesh called BCX  The new service started in the second half of November operated via two vessels of effective capacity 1,200 TEUs following a Colombo-Chittagong-Colombo rotation with a transit time of 5 days. Colombo and Hambantota would be the preferred transhipment ports for Bangladesh exporters as the apparel industry relies on speed-to-market, and savings in transit time would have a significant impact on the supply chain. For example, shipping cargo westbound from Bangladesh via Singapore would involve at least four sailing days from Bangladesh to Singapore and a further four sailing days from Singapore to reach Sri Lanka. However, getting the same shipment through Colombo would immediately cut four days of sailing time. This would likewise lessen the carbon footprint which would be welcomed by eco-friendly clients in the west. There is a great possibility of interchangeable supply network between Sri Lanka and Bangladesh as both Colombo and Hambantota ports are in proximity to air terminals.
Sri Lanka’s Switch
The greatest asset of Sri Lanka in the BoB region is its location. The island state is situated in the Indian Ocean, south of India, at the junction of the east-west shipping route. Straddling this lane, Industry analyst Alphaliner has ranked the Port of Colombo in Sri Lanka as the world’s No.1 container growth port among the top 30 container ports for the first half of 2018. Within the shipping industry, ships and cargo are considered the major component for maritime trade, followed by ports, terminals and allied maritime services. Shipping agency and freight forwarding are minor components of the shipping industry, but in Sri Lanka they are considered major components because Sri Lanka neither has a large shipping fleet nor a large volume of local import and export cargo to boost its shipping industry. However, the island nation has a significant maritime industry with terminals and ports as the key part of the sector that thrives on transhipment cargo. Hence, Sri Lanka wants to advance in transhipment services by investing as well as encouraging foreign direct investments from countries like China, Japan and India in the development and expansion of its ports. Under the expansion, the development of Colombo Port as the major transhipment and industrial hub is the top agenda of the Sri Lankan government. The main Sri Lankan ports—Trincomalee in the northeast, Kankesanthurai in the north, Hambantota in the south, and Galle in the southwest—are also witnessing infrastructural advancement and greater connectivity to the hinterland through road and rail.
The plans to develop the ports is integral to building connectivity by providing transhipment services to the littoral states of the BoB. Sri Lanka has a positive outlook towards regional connectivity and, as mentioned earlier, has been actively developing plans with the coastal states. Moreover, there are special price cuts on shipment provided by the country. For instance, the port of Colombo has an incentive wherein there is a 10 percent rebate on the published tariff for cargo coming from the countries of the bay.
Within the BoB matrix, Indian and Sri Lankan maritime ties are inevitably intertwined due to their geographical closeness. Both countries have much to gain as the southern states of India are a huge market opportunity for India, and Sri Lanka has been constantly trying to build direct connectivity with this region through the India-Sri Lanka land bridge project and ferry services between Colombo and Tuticorin. While some projects did not see the light of day, Sri Lanka is welcoming investments from India for the development of East Container Terminal at Colombo port, and repairing and re-construction of Trincomalee and Kankesanthurai ports. Moreover, in February 2020 the shipping ministry of India has mooted a proposal to start ferry service between Karaikal in the Union Territory of Puducherry and Jaffna in Sri Lanka covering a distance of 56 nautical miles in order to promote tourism of both the nations. The project is based on the public-private partnership structure wherein service will be provided by an operator and Karaikal port will be the facilitator with support from the central government of India.
The Sethusamudram Shipping Canal project was one of the few projects that were not able to meet the finish line. It was inaugurated in 2005 with the purpose to link the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar between India and Sri Lanka by creating a shipping canal. In 2007, the development was put at a halt due to opposition by Hindu groups as it cuts across the Ram Setu (Adam’s Bridge). A lot of environmentalists were also against the project as it would lead to loss and imbalance of biodiversity of the Gulf of Mannar. Other than this, The Indian government wanted to push the land bridge project providing road-rail linkage between the pilgrimage city of Rameswaram in India to Talaimannar in Sri Lanka to improve regional connectivity between the two nations. However, in Sri Lanka the project was perceived as a threat to their territorial sovereignty and even Tamil Nadu was reluctant towards the project leading to its discontinuity. A ferry service was also launched in June 2011 between Sri Lanka’s Colombo port and V. O. Chidambaranar Port (Tuticorin) but within six months the nine-deck passenger vessel ‘Scotia Prince’ voyage was abruptly halted due to technical and operational reasons. There were talks to re-establish ferry services between both the ports in December 2015 during a Meeting of Experts to deliberate on Feasibility Study Report for SAARC Cargo and Passenger Ferry Service held in Colombo but, there has been no further update on this.
Other than with India, Sri Lanka’s connectivity projects with the other littoral states are of recent origin. Plans to develop feeder operations between Colombo and Chittagong, which at present is limited to only four times a week, are under process. The Kankesanthurai port, proposed to be a transhipment port, once developed will have better opportunities for trade and passage of goods between Sri Lanka and India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. There have been fresh exchanges between Sri Lanka and Thailand for improving connectivity. Both the countries agreed in 2018 to push talks towards a Free Trade Agreement which, if successful, can increase bilateral trade value to US$ 1.5 billion (Thai Baht 4.99 billion) by 2020. In March 2019, the third round of negotiations of the Sri Lanka-Thailand FTA took place in Thailand with the completion of feasibility study. Further negotiations have been halted as the study was rejected by the Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Commerce due to insufficiency of information. This has led to bidding proposals for conducting another feasibility study. The FTA talks of 2018 were followed by the Port Authority of Thailand (PAT) signing a memorandum of understanding with Sri Lanka’s Hambantota International Port Group (HIPG) in fresh cooperation with Ranong port in August 2019. Under the MoU both authorities will work towards port-to-port cooperation, communication channels aimed at improving exchange of information and facilitating internal operations, and investment and marketing of businesses concerning both Thai and Sri Lankan ports. PAT and HIPG will meet every two years to evaluate the performance of operations. It can be argued that Buddhism has been an underlying reason for growing relations between the two nations.
There have been a few developments over maritime connectivity between Sri Lanka and Myanmar. In September 2015, a container service was started by the private company, Herbilan Shipping, from the port of Colombo to Yangon via Vishakhapatnam port. The vessel holding the capacity of 1,158 TEU will take 14 days to finish the trip. This is the first quest to overcome the lack of shipping services linking Colombo and Yangon. Similar to this, in April 2016, the DP World-operated Chennai Container Terminal in partnership with Continental Shipping Line introduced a new Yangon-Colombo (YCC) feeder service. The vessel holding a capacity of 1,468 TEU will start from Yangon port to Colombo port and back via Chennai port. The initial steps have been taken by private shipping firms to develop linkages but there is a lot of potential to be tapped by these countries because Sri Lanka is at the crossroads of the east-west shipping route, and Myanmar is a gateway to southern China and ASEAN.
Myanmar is one of the two nations that are located on the periphery of the BoB within the Southeast Asian belt, the other country being Thailand. However, this differentiation is more of an imagined border as Myanmar shares state boundaries with not only China, Laos and Thailand but also Bangladesh and India. This makes the country a tri-junction between South Asia and Southeast Asia and East Asia. One-third of Myanmar’s total perimeter forms an uninterrupted coastline of around 2,832 km divided into three areas: the Rakhine coastline (northwest area, 713 km), the Delta coastline (lower delta area, 437 km) and the Tanintharyi coastline (southern area, 1078 km) respectively, along the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. But even after having such vast spread, the majority of ports located along the coastline are river ports making it difficult for sea-borne vessels to enter. The major ports that handle international trade are Yangon, Sittwe, Pathein, Mawlamyine, and Myeik. Among them, Yangon is the key port as the other coastal ports have limited handling capabilities. Myanmar’s limited trade practices has been a major reason for inadequate development of port facilities. Since 2012, the country witnessed a liberalisation of its economy along with a transition to democracy which brought in large foreign investments. China has been investing heavily in Myanmar’s infrastructural projects (ports, dams, roads, rail and pipelines) with the aim of resource extraction and creating an alternate route to Straits of Malacca. The country today is one of the fastest growing economies in Southeast Asia and, other than China, it has trade exchanges with India, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia and others.
India and Myanmar share not just borders but cultural linkages as well as regional partnerships through BIMSTEC and Mekong Ganga Cooperation. By serving as a link of connectivity between India and its North Eastern region, Myanmar gets new markets to conduct trade. Thailand, other than being a part of the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway project with the participating countries, has been jointly investing with Japan in Myanmar’s Dawei Port Project and Special Economic Zone. Initially the project was suspended due to Max Burma Conglomerate’s pull out but in 2015 Japan agreed to invest followed by Italian Thai Development Pcl and Rojana Industrial Park signing a US$ 1.7-billion deal to develop the Dawei industrial zone in Myanmar. Thailand’s investment in Dawei port comes from the terminal’s proximity to its eastern industrial units. The Thai companies can conduct quicker trade with India, Middle East and Europe through Dawei than through ports like Pak Bara in east coast of Thailand. Overall, the country is only at the starting point of regional maritime connectivity with no major projects with Bangladesh or Sri Lanka.
The Land of the Free, as Thailand literally translates, is strategically situated on the Malay peninsula facing both the Andaman Sea to the west and South China Sea to the east. It is one of the founding member nations of ASEAN and is the pillar behind the establishment of BIMSTEC. Thailand shares it maritime boundaries with Myanmar and India in the Andaman Sea which is the funnel point to the Straits of Malacca. Thailand’s Look West Policy is at the core of its increasing inter-regional connectivity and trade in BoB. While Thailand has active trade relations with all its BoB coastal neighbours, scholars have not properly discussed the maritime connectivity projects the country shares with the BIMSTEC littorals, perhaps because these projects are very recent developments. Most of the sea connectivity plans, be it with India, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh, were signed during or after 2018. Another reason behind the delayed progress and implementation of projects could be Thailand’s political instability. However, as mentioned in the previous sub-sections, Thailand is moving fast in establishing sea links with the BoB nations, and at its centre is the southern Thai port of Ranong. As insurgency has been reduced in these areas, this port could act as tool of development in the economically backward southern region of Thailand. It is billed as Thailand’s gateway port to South Asia with direct links to Chittagong, Krishnapatnam and Hambantota ports. The country wants to promote Ranong Port as a commercial hub close to the Straits of Malacca. By linking itself to South Asia, it could become a major port under the proposed Coastal Shipping Agreement of BIMSTEC in 2017. The CSA is still at drafting stage. The recent relaxation on cabotage rules in India might speed up the process.
BIMSTEC and Maritime Connectivity in the BoB
The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation was established in 1997 and is one of the primary reasons for the re-emergence of Bay of Bengal as a strategic space. Its secretariat is situated in Dhaka and the member states co-operate with each other in fourteen selected sectors. Of these, each country provides leadership in developing three or four priority sectors. Unfortunately, for a long period of time BIMSTEC was seen as a subordinate or a second-string regional organization in comparison to SAARC. The core reasons behind the limited and slow progress of BIMSTEC was on account of the political unwillingness on the part of India. For example, India has given SAARC more importance over BIMSTEC which demonstrates India’s political unwillingness towards BIMSTEC. This is evident as SAARC since its inception in 1985 has been at centre of India’s focus on regional co-operation. It consists of a Charter, a secretariat and till present over 18 SAARC Summits have taken place under the major leadership of India. On the other hand, BIMSTEC which was established in 1997 did not see any major institutional developments till very late. BIMSTEC’s Permanent Secretariat was established in Dhaka in September 2014 and it still has to come up with a Charter. Further, under the economic and technical co-operation aimed organisation, a lot of Ministerial and Senior levels meeting were held on the side lines but as for the Leadership Summits so far only four have taken place with last being held in Kathmandu, Nepal in August 2018.
A change from past recalcitrance happened in October 2016 when prime minister Modi invited BIMSTEC nations a Regional Outreach meeting on the side-lines of the BRICS Goa Summit. Further, Modi made an effort to instil cohesion by inviting the leaders of BIMSTEC nations for his oath taking ceremony in New Delhi as the re-elected Indian Prime Minister in May 2019. A few days later the Indian external affairs minister, S. Jaishankar, in his first interaction with media at the Growth Net Summit 7.0 held in New Delhi stated
If you look around the world, it (Bay of Bengal) is among the least connected regions due to multiple reasons such as history, identity, etc. A lot of attention was given in the past five years to make it more connected and I am very confident that it would be among our top priorities for the next five years.
India, under BIMSTEC, holds the priority sector of transport and communication. Since 2001 New Delhi have been discussing on the development of Transportation and Cross-border Facilitation, Multimodal Transport and Logistics, Infrastructure Development, Aviation, Maritime Transport, Human Resource Development, as well as Communication Linkages and Networking between the BIMSTEC Nations. The regional organisation has also collaborated with Asian Development Bank (ADB) to conduct studies to enhance connectivity among the member states. In 2014, the updated BIMSTEC Transport Infrastructure and Logistics Study (BTILS) identified 167 projects that would foster physical linkages in the region. Out of these, 66 projects have been given priority status along with recommendation to create a single Working Group on transport and trade facilitation to oversee the mechanisms of developing this connectivity projects. Following the ADB guidelines a BIMSTEC Transport Connectivity Working Group (BTCWG) was established in 2016. During the second meeting of the group held in Bangkok in November 2017, the procedure of drafting the ADB assisted BIMSTEC Master Plan on Transport Connectivity was finalised.
The master plan features the development and strengthening of the roads, rail, maritime and aviation infrastructure of all the member states through the 66 priority projects. This is more of a foundational step taken up by BIMSTEC considering the need for principal infrastructure as well as the multilateral nature of the organisation. Within the priority projects, nine of them fall under the maritime sector dealing with development of deep-water ports and improvement of container handling capacity of a few terminals. It consists of the construction of Karnaphuli Container Terminal at Chittagong port in Bangladesh, new container port at Diamond Harbour, additional harbour cranes at Kolkata Port and elevated expressway into Chennai Port in India, new port facilities at Thilawa special economic zone in Myanmar, Extension of East Terminal and Construction of West Terminal of port Colombo in Sri Lanka, Development of Phase III, new coastal and rail terminal at Laem Chabang port in Thailand. At the Fourth BIMSTEC Summit held in 2018, the member nations gave a nod to the preparation of the master plan and called for its early adoption. However, since then there has just been a workshop in September 2018 at Bangkok to discuss the structure of the plan and gather feedback from the delegations of member nations. The finalization and implementation of plan is still pending. As per the BTILS the timescale for completion of these projects was between 2014-2024 and at present most of these plans are either in the negotiation for investments or in the initial construction phase. The development of a new terminal at the Thilawa special economic zone is the only project that underwent construction in June 2016, aided by the Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) loan from Japan, and reached completion in December 2018.
In October 2016, BIMSTEC member nations had also discussed the formulation of a Coastal Shipping Agreement involving feeder services within 20 nautical miles of each littoral state’s maritime boundary to boost trade and connectivity. It involves a Thailand initiated scheme called ‘Connect the Connectivities’ aimed to connect BIMSTEC members through a network of ports, starting with Thailand’s Ranong, Bangladesh’s Chittagong, India’s Kolkata, Vishakhapatnam and Chennai and Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port. The final blueprint is still to be disclosed while various bilateral sea connectivity projects are being taken up by the BoB states. At the BIMSTEC Conclave of Ports in November 2019 held in Vishakhapatnam, the first connectivity deal was endorsed between India and Thailand. Three Memorandum of Understandings were signed between Ranong Port (Port Authority of Thailand) and the Port Trusts of Chennai, Vishakhapatanam and Kolkata during the Conclave.
The re-emergence of BIMSTEC as a regional organization of some heft raises hopes and prospects that it can put together both the new and the old maritime connectivity projects to create a larger framework that promotes trade and fulfils the interests of all the states. In itself maritime connectivity is an umbrella term and BIMSTEC has just begun to delve into it. While the progress and speed of engagements have improved, it is too early to assess the outcome as no frameworks are in place. The coastal shipping agreement, BIMSTEC Master plan for transport connectivity and Motor vehicle agreement are still at finalising stage. While the bigger picture has been presented in the public domain there is no existing framework in place ready to be implemented. Hence, it is to early to asses the outcome of these projects.
BIMSTEC and the Regional Sphere
In 1997, BIMSTEC was established with an aim to have greater economic integration between South and Southeast Asia. Twenty plus years and three new members addition later, the member countries of Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal co-operate on 14 major sectors for the development of the region. However, economic integration within the region still remains a goal with intra-regional trade featuring slow growth at 5.9 percent in comparison to other regional grouping like Association South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) at 23.5 percent, ASEAN plus China, Japan and Republic of South Korea at 38.7 percent and, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) at 10 per cent in 2016. Lack of institutional efficacy, infrastructure deficit, administrative inefficiency, shortage of electricity, port inefficiency and political uncertainty have been the major factors in minimal development of regional value chains as well as low Foreign Direct Investments to the BIMSTEC nations. A lack of physical and seamless connectivity between the member states is now being filled with various bilateral and multilateral initiatives. The other factor to encourage greater trade among these countries as well as to optimally utilise the developing transport linkages is through the establishment of Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in the region. Regional groupings like ASEAN has achieved greater regional integration in trade as FTAs encourage more FDIs which not just help develop Regional but Global Value Chains.
The past few years have witnessed efforts to speed up negotiations on the BIMSTEC FTA and Motor Vehicle Agreement as well as develop projects around port and port logistics at both bilateral and multilateral level in the bay. This development is important because old ports like Chennai, Kolkata, Chittagong, Yangon and Colombo are one, witnessing great traffic and two, have reached their capacity and lack efficiency in logistics. Ports like these one, require further extension and upgrade to increase their volume holding capacity and to have swifter processes of transhipment and two, need sister ports to handle and attract more cargo traffic to the region. More so, the port developments in the region needs to meet global standards as with further globalisation and rising dependence on maritime trade, ports in the extended neighbourhood (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore) of Bay of Bengal are also getting upgraded to attract more traffic and use the geographical proximity to the Strait of Malacca to their benefit. For instance, The Sri Lankan port infrastructure and maritime trade are facing competition from regional ports such as Dubai, Singapore and the developing port capacities in India under Sagarmala. The major reason for the push to develop the East Container Terminal at Sri Lanka’s Colombo port is to expand the container handling capacity of the port and contain the rising transhipment traffic on the east-west trade route. On the other hand, the strait of Malacca has been witnessing port expansions on both sides of its shore. In 2017, The Port of Tanjung Pelepas in Malaysia had installed four new cranes measuring 55.5 meters in height to make it easier to haul large cargo loads from ships to the dock. The country is also undergoing a new port development at the port of Klang along with construction of an Industrial Zone nearby. The neighbouring city-state of Singapore is also upgrading its own facilities through Tuas Mega Port Development, world's largest fully automated terminal, proposed to be completed by 2040. Moreover, China has also been investing in port development in the extended neighbourhood under its Belt and Road Initiative. The development of Indonesia’s Kuala Tanjung Port in North Sumatra is one such project that hosts of a joint venture between PT Pelabuhan Indonesia I, Netherlands Port of Rotterdam and the Zhejiang Provincial Seaport Investment & Operation Group. Signed in 2019 the major aim of the port to become a maritime-hub and compete with the other ports in the Strait of Malacca. This rising competition in the regional sphere puts the Bay Littorals in a position where they need to speed up the port expansion and upgradation processes as well as provide high quality logistics services to attract shipping lines and FDIs in the region. While this seems like an ambitious statement to make, it is a big necessity for BIMSTEC littoral states to cover these factors under the rapidly growing South and Southeast Asia.
The characteristics of different bilateral or multilateral connectivity projects proposed or underway in the Bay of Bengal region demonstrate that these projects have a common agenda of promoting sea connectivity while reducing time and costs incurred through existing methods of international maritime transport. The spirit of amity among the BoB littorals, who are developing most of the connectivity projects through mutual cooperation, is based on a convergence of their complementary interests. There is a fair amount of synergy between the connectivity projects of the BoB coastal states, for instance, between the ports at Kolkata, Chennai, Chittagong, Colombo, Yangon and Ranong emerging as major hubs of connectivity. However, there is a requirement to have better overland and maritime linkages with Myanmar. Links with Myanmar are lagging behind because of Myanmar’s underdeveloped infrastructure, unavailability of sufficient skilled human resources, and poor connectivity with neighbouring countries seriously limit Myanmar’s participation in the regional and global economies. The country being a double road to connectivity between South Asia and Southeast Asia hosts a lot of potential to develop physical connectivity in order strengthen inter-regional trade and commerce.
All of the BIMSTEC member states are eager to gain the most by improving regional connectivity even if at present their cooperation is at the bilateral level. There are no trilateral or quadrilateral projects in the maritime sector other than the proposed Coastal Shipping Agreement. But, in the sphere of other modes of transport there is a sub-regional organisation namely Bhutan-Bangladesh-India-Nepal (BBIN) that was created to have a Motor Vehicle Agreement to strengthen trade and connectivity between these nations. The India-Myanmar-Thailand highway is a Trilateral road connectivity project that links Moreh in India with Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar and is undergoing construction. Presently, all the member nations while working towards regional connectivity are also focusing on improving their own domestic connectivity through h multimodal projects and are seeking foreign direct investments for development. At the core of all the connectivity projects of the BoB and BIMSTEC is the development of ports and port logistics being undertaken by every member nation. They are all maintaining a farsighted view because the development of ports, both old and new would enhance trade and attract more traffic to their respective countries. In this respect, BIMSTEC plays a role of establishing a larger model of maritime connectivity by filling in the gaps of disconnected possibilities and reconnecting them.
Vishakha Dugar completed her post-graduation in International Studies from Christ University, Bengaluru. She holds a Bachelors’ degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from Banasthali University, Jaipur. Her work experience includes internships at India Today magazine and Mid-Day newspaper where published articles under the business and lifestyle sections. She has also interned at the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi which has been the ground for her interest in the maritime domain. Her research interests include Leadership and Foreign Policy, Human Security, Geopolitics, Sustainable Development, History and Culture, and Media and International Relations. She is philomath who also likes to indulge herself with languages, novels and movies.
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