External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar Saturday said that the coming together of ‘Act East’ and ‘Neighbourhood First’ policies will have an enormous reinforcing impact on the country beyond the confines of southeast Asia.
The realisation of this is evident from the potential of BIMSTEC in the Bay of Bengal region, he said addressing the Natural Allies in Development and Interdependence (NADI) conclave here.
Land connectivity through Myanmar and sea connectivity through Bangladesh will open up all the ways to Vietnam and Philippines, he said.
“Once this becomes viable on a commercial scale, it will create an East-West lateral with sweeping consequences for the continent,” Jaishankar said.
It will not only build on the partnership with the ASEAN countries and Japan, but will actually make a difference to the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework that is now in the making, the union minister said.
“It is definitely within our ability to overcome geography and rewrite history if only we can get the politics and economics right,” he said.
Jaishankar said that this vision can be successfully realised by enhancing connectivity with Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar to improve access to ASEAN countries and beyond.
Restoration of six historical cross-border rail links dormant since 1965 is a major step towards connectivity with Bangladesh, particularly with the North East, he said.
Jaishankar highlighted various ongoing projects in Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar which have led to collaboration with these countries which in turn ushered regional cooperation in various sectors and strengthening of the economy not only between the two points of collaboration but also in the areas within these points.
He said the implementation of the Kaladan multi-modal transit transport project on the Myanmar side is the toughest due to its topography and insurgency. “We have genuinely struggled with this complex project but we are more than determined ever to get it done”.
The project, which is expected to be operation in March 2023, connects the eastern Indian seaport of Kolkata with Sittwe seaport in Rakhine state of Myanmar by sea.
”We are also looking at the feasibility of creating cross-country rail lines between Bhutan and India, running through Assam and to expand the Buddhist circuit to connect cherished religious places in Nepal and Bhutan with those in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh … All these projects are a practical illustration of a future buzzing with promise,” he said.
These endeavours will literally bring the ASEAN closer and if North East, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar get more deeply intertwined, each of them stands to benefit from more access, opportunity, resources and markets, the central minister said.
The India-Japan Act East Forum was launched in 2017 as a platform to bring together all stakeholders and coordinate on projects being undertaken with Japanese assistance. ”Given the priority that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has given to the North East, we should work with our most trusted global partners across various segments,” he said.
Jaishankar highlighted the locational importance of Guwahati and said that it holds enormous promise not only for the region and the neighbouring countries but even for the geographies beyond.
”There are impediments no doubt that need to be overcome, like the physical barriers of topography, which can be best resolved by engineering and human ingenuity. There are the human obstacles, which were created by certain choices made in the past. These are best addressed by the vision that realises the shared gains of regional cooperation,” he said.
Speaking on connectivity, he said it may have started with roads and waterways but is now also conceptualised with power grid and data corridor, education and tourism, energy flows and cultural context.
”Infact, anything that connects is connectivity. Evidence suggests that we have been successful in making significant progress in connecting with our neighbours. An Indian mainland connected with the North East which is also connected to our neighbours will mean a complete transformation of the regional economy,” Jaishankar said.
The North East region instead of being considered merely as a frontier, will be thought about as a hub in itself. Its resources and skills will get larger and ready markets, in and out supply lines will be shorter, access will be diverse and manifold, intensity of economic activities will rapidly and deeply capture many more segments, he added.