Bangladesh revives Eurasian land bridge concept in South Asia, presses India to comply
by Ramtanu Maitra on 18 Jul 2009 1 Comment

On July 7, business associations of Bangladesh discussed a study, “Restoring the Asian Silk Route: Toward an Integrated Asia,” and recommended to the Bangladesh government that Dhaka should only opt for restoration of original Silk Route connecting all countries of the region and strike a comprehensive deal with New Delhi for allowing port access even under multilateral arrangement. According to their suggestion, Bangladesh would be benefitted only if Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand and China are duly connected and engaged in the process of connectivity to boost regional trade.

The concept of linking up Asia with Europe through railroads for the purpose of enhancing trade and reducing travel time existed for decades. The main route of the Trans-Siberian Railway that originates in St. Petersburg, runs through Moscow, and ends up in Vladivostok via southern Siberia, was built between 1891 to 1916 under the Tsar Alexander III and his son, Tsar Nicholas II.

Later, the Chinese Eastern Railway was constructed as the Russian-Chinese part of the Trans-Siberian railway, connecting Russia with China and providing a shorter route to Vladivostok. The Trans-Siberian railway is often associated with the main transcontinental Russian train that connects hundreds of big and small cities of the European and Asian parts of Russia. At 9,288 kilometers, spanning a record 7 time zones and taking several days to complete the journey, it is the third-longest single continuous service in the world, after the Moscow–Pyongyang (10267 km) and the Kiev–Vladivostok (11085 km).

Schiller Institute & Eurasian Land bridge

In recent years, China built a 10,900-km route from Lianyungang in Jiangsu province to Rotterdam. In addition, recently, Beijing has made known that it plans to build a third land bridge between Europe and Asia. Under the proposal, this third route would start from port cities in the Pearl River Delta, including Shenzhen, travel west to Yunnan province, then through Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey, cross Europe and end at Rotterdam in the Netherlands. This land corridor, consisting of railways and highways, would boost trade and provide an alternative transport channel to safeguard China's energy and economic safety, Qin Guangrong, Governor of Yunnan province, said in an interview with China Daily in early July.

While the already in-place Eurasian land  bridges, and the other one that has been proposed, function exclusively as transportation linkages to carry passengers and cargo in bulk at a shortened period of time, the Schiller Institute of Germany, under the guidance of Helga Zepp-LaRouche and Lyndon LaRouche, presented in the early-1990s a fully-rounded Eurasian land bridge concept which would  create development corridors along the transportation  networks to bring the vast Eurasian landmass to life. That study pointed out that such a developmental project would utilize high-speed railroads, clusters of nuclear power plants and manufacturing corridors to make it a full-fledged success and to help bring a long-term stability in a highly volatile large area where more than 50 percent of world’s population resides.

By contrast, the July 7 proposal made in Dhaka was modest, but it was targetted in the right direction. The panel pointed out that one of the three proposed routes of the Asian Highway Network — Mongla-Jessore-Hatiqumrul-Dhaka-Kachpur-Chittagong-Cox’s Bazar-Teknaf-Myanmar border — is designed to connect Myanmar, while others are connecting inner towns of Bangladesh. Abdul Haq, president of Japan-Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry, recommended that even in joining the multilateral road network, Dhaka should persuade Delhi to come to a comprehensive agreement on trade, investment, water resources, and even security, making it a precondition for allowing road connectivity.

“Since our capacity to negotiate has improved, I think, Bangladesh should properly bargain with this issue and ensure national interests. Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and China should be made partners in the regional cooperation,” said Zafar Osman, president of Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He also stressed the importance of resolving political tensions that hindered trade and economic interests of the peoples of regional countries and focusing on economic issues. “We have to utilize the potential services that we can offer to reduce balance of payments deficit with India,” he added.

Changing Bangladesh

In many ways, such a proposal, which seeks out greater participation of Bangladesh in the world trade and development, is extraordinary. Described at its inception in 1971 by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who also tried his best to see Bangladesh does not separate from Pakistan, as a “basket case,” Bangladesh is now almost self-sufficient in food and has developed its food security remarkably within 35-odd years despite the fact that it has a population of about 154 million and the highest population density among the world’s nations with about 1060 people per square kilometer. By contrast, population density in the United States is 31 people per square kilometer.

Moreover, since inception an impoverished and weak nation, Bangladesh became the target of the British-Saudi nexus, whose main objectives was to use Bangladesh as a “thorn” in the flesh of the Indian subcontinent. The British objectives was, of course, as it all along  had been, to use a “Islamic” Bangladesh to cut open the differences caused by many religious riots within India, between Hindus and Moslems to bleed and  break up  India.

Its partners-in-Moslem affairs, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, were ready to exploit Bangladesh’s poverty to finance, through madrassah education and importation of migrant workers under contracts, its extreme orthodox Wahabi form of Islam, virtually non-existent otherwise in this part of the subcontinent. While the British-based “jihadi” Bangladeshis, under protection and control of both the MI5 and the MI6, had set up arms training centers inside Bangladesh, the Saudi money attracted other mischief makers from Pakistan, Nepal and elsewhere. As a result of these developments, Bangladesh became a highly unstable nation, increasingly falling under the influence of British-and-Saudi-run terrorists, dressed up as jihadis.

Following the overwhelming electoral victory of Awami League and its allies in late-December, this terrorist faction, with direct links to Britain and Saudi Arabia, tried to grab power in early January by trying to slaughter the Bangladeshi Army leadership and assassinate Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed. The plot failed and in the months that followed Sheikh Hasina’s government unearthed a number of arms training centers linked directly to Britain-based Bangladeshis, and a number of terrorist groups, who 
are funded by the Saudis and were masquerading as “religious” outfits. 

It is evident that Bangladesh has become less unstable politically and socially, and Sheikh Hasina’s government is now capable of laying down programs which would stabilize and prosper Bangladesh in the long run. Bangladesh’s business community’s aspiration to be a part of the New Silk Road linking Bangladesh with the rest of Asia is indicative of such positive outlook.

During the discussions in Dhaka, president of Japan-Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Abdul Haq, said Delhi must reciprocate the sentiments in and demands from Dhaka to enhance Bangladesh’s trade and investment because Bangladesh is already one of the largest markets of Indian goods. Another speaker pointed out that India must also bear the costs of infrastructure building for connectivity.

In conclusion, the executive director of Centre for Policy Dialogue, Mustafizur Rahman, said that Bangladesh might be benefitted from trade services to India, if constraints could be overcome through proper political negotiation. “Certainly there are pending issues but there are ways to overcome them if the political leadership wants to take a decision taking into account maximum economic interests…”

Necessity for India to move forward

There is no question that Mustafizur Rahman has hit close to home. It is the lack of political leadership in New Delhi that has prevented India, which is now capable of turning the tide of instability in the subcontinent, from asserting itself as a strategic power. On the other hand, the necessity of moving ahead with the Eurasian land bridge has already been discussed in-depth in India, and yet, neither the previous government, nor the present one, has made any commitment to such a developmental project which would integrate the area and improve India’s dilapidated physical infrastructure.

In fact, in 2007, the Research and Information Services (RIS), an autonomous research institution established  in New Delhi with the financial support of the Government of India, had issued a policy brief in preparation of the 14th South Asian Association of Regional Countries (SAARC) Summit. The policy brief was titled: Towards a New Silk Road in Asia.

In that policy paper, RIS pointed out that in the old days, South Asia was a key hub on the ancient Silk Route connecting Central Asia, China and the Far East. However, those transport links have since been disrupted. Pointing out that South Asia can regain its position of a hub between Central Asia, Middle East, East Asia besides facilitating its own intra-regional trade, the policy brief made a case for “restoring the Afghanistan-Pakistan-India-Bangladesh-Myanmar (APIBM) transport corridor that could become a new Silk Road facilitating the emergence of South Asia as a hub for pan-Asian trade besides bringing substantial revenue as transit fees and making the sub-continent more interdependent.”

In proposing the Afghanistan-Pakistan-India-Bangladesh-Myanmar (APIBM) Transport Corridor, the RIS study said “a regional overland road link from Kabul to Yangon via Dhaka can be revived for regional trade with minimal effort.”  If the cross-border linkages are reopened, a distance of about 5272 km from Kabul to Yangon via Lahore, Delhi, Kolkata, Dhaka and India’s North-East Region (NER), can be covered within about 12 days, the study said. Therefore, RIS concluded that APIBM Transport Corridor deserves a high priority. It went on to point out that “the importance of APIBM corridor is not only for the trade. It would also facilitate investments in infrastructure sector in the Southern Asia. It will also bring many rich rewards for bordering regions by bringing investments in them.”

It can make Pakistan and Afghanistan as hubs for India’s trade with Iran, Middle East and Central Asia, although that would need upgrading of infrastructure and Land Custom Stations (LCSs) at Afghanistan’s border with Central Asian countries (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan). Similarly, Bangladesh will become a hub for India’s trade with Myanmar and other Southeast Asian countries, besides serving as a transit for India’s NER. Myanmar itself will become a transit hub for India’s trade with other ASEAN countries. Sri Lanka is already well placed to be a maritime hub in South Asia with a lot of India’s trade trans-shipped through port of Colombo, RIS said in its policy brief.

According to RIS Study, once the transit between India and Bangladesh is allowed, Bangladesh can earn revenue (over US$ 1 billion per annum) as transit fees from Indian vehicles plying to and from NER to rest of India, cutting through Bangladesh in the process.

Similarly, transit agreement between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan will fetch a significant amount of royalty to Pakistan for movement of vehicles between India and Afghanistan, using Pakistani soil.

In this regard, RIS pointed out that South Asia should seek to emulate the success of the Greater Mekong Sub-Region (GMS) Cross-Border Transport Agreement (CBTA), which has been very successful in implementing single window customs clearance at all border crossings in GMS. Specifically, Mae Sai-Tachilek is one of the seven pilot points selected under the CBTA, which came into force in December 2003, to streamline regulations and reduce non-physical barriers by introducing single-window customs clearance.

By end of 2006, 13 border points in the GMS were expected to become operational. A single-stop, single-window customs clearance system has been put in place in the Dansavanh (Lao PDR)-Lao Bao (Vietnam) border crossing point since June 30, 2005. This is an important area for regional cooperation to evolve an agreement providing a basis for adopting a single window customs clearance system at all the border crossings in South Asia.

While both the RIS policy brief and what the business councils in Dhaka pointed out will help integrate the area and in essence benefit all participating nations,  maximization of such transport networks’ utility cannot be extracted unless the main carrier of bulk items are relatively high-speed cargo trains. The entire South Asia, including India, is short of transportation fuel. All South Asian countries import oil, remaining vulnerable to fluctuation of oil prices. Developing a large transportation network based on imported oil will make these countries even more vulnerable.

Moreover, transportation of bulk material by road is one of the most inefficient and expensive ways of carrying cargo from one point to another. By contrast, railway transport, simply because of its economy of scale, comes out significantly cheaper and much faster over a long haul than road transport. It is for that reason that China, another large nation dependant on imported oil, has developed its connection to Europe through railroad and is now planning to set up the third transport corridor also utilizing its railroads.

But most important of all is the fact that while a consensus is forming within South Asia to develop such a network, neither New Delhi nor Islamabad has unveiled any plan to make it happen. What New Delhi must come to accept now is that it will have to take the leadership in building this network. Businessmen in Dhaka made that clear and earlier the RIS policy brief also indicated the same. South Asia has the manpower and between India, China, Russia, and Japan, there exists no dearth of technology to make the land bridge a huge success. What is in short supply in New Delhi are: leadership and vision. It is time the Manmohan Singh government in New Delhi takes the cue from its smaller neighbour.

The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review News Services Inc.


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