Building modern infrastructure to link China’s Yunnan province with South Asia via Bangladesh is an idea that predates the One Belt One Road Initiative. Deepened economic integration between the four countries has been negotiated on and off since the 1990s, when it was first imagined as the “Kunming Initiative.” Now the undertaking has been relaunched as one of the corridors of President Xi Jinping’s landmark One Belt One Road. Yet unfortunately, the rebranding does nothing to alter the geopolitical and developmental hurdles that have thwarted progress for the past 25 years. Both China and India view their respective borderlands as their own exclusive backyard, and this is unlikely to change anytime soon.
BCIM corridor: style over substance? There is a compelling economic rationale for developing the infrastructure network between China, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and India. The region can act as a nexus linking East Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia, and it has long lagged behind in terms of development and poverty. However, there are also geopolitical reasons for Beijing and New Delhi to view each other as competitors (explained in detail below). This baked-in confrontation has stunted cooperation over the years, and the BCIM remains the most quixotic of all the One Belt One Road corridors. Though the concept of coordinated sub-regional development was first announced in 1999, the Kunming Initiative didn’t create a mechanism to promote actual cooperation until 2013, when it rebranded as the BCIM economic corridor. Since then just three meetings of the Joint Study Group have been held with not much to show for it. The most tangible progress came in the April 2017 meeting, which proposed cooperation in 11 different sectors without advancing any specific projects. The next meeting is scheduled to take place in Myanmar in 2018.