Why regional connectivity in South Asia should be a strategic priority for India

Transport corridors are the arteries through which trade, commerce and people flow within and across countries. Now in our digital age, fibre optic submarine cables run thousands of kilometres under the sea connecting North America and Europe, Europe and Asia and continental Asia to archipelagic Asia. They carry enormous volumes of data and voice traffic across vast distances. Despite satellites providing an alternative platform for carrying digital traffic, they constitute only 1% of current digital flows. Submarine cables once laid are cost-effective but they are difficult to repair when disruptions and damage occur and accessing them for maintenance is also a challenge. There are concerns over interception and hostile interruptions. In the recent past, there has been renewed interest in overland fibre-optic cables which are cheaper to lay down and are easier to maintain. They are riding piggyback on roads, railway lines, oil and gas pipelines which are appearing all over continental Asia. Advances in drone technology also enable more effective surveillance and monitoring of overland cables. There is relatively greater security.

China has made the laying of fibre optic cables an integral component of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Wherever highways and railways are being constructed as part of the BRI, for example, in Central Asia, they become ready-made platforms for optical fibre networks. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has just such a component. China has also laid an optical fibre network across its border with Nepal and this has begun providing digital services to Nepal at a cost less than India does.

With the exception of Bhutan, all of India’s neighbours have signed on to the BRI and it is only a question of time before there is a hard-wiring of transport and digital infrastructure linking them more closely to China. This is despite the fact that geography favours cross-border links with India. In fact, some of these links were inherited from the colonial period but were interrupted by partition in 1947 and the India-Pakistan war of 1965.These links have suffered through neglect of maintenance. The whole of eastern India including what is now Bangladesh was connected through a dense network of riverine transport and Chittagong served as a port for this entire hinterland. This is only now being revived thanks to improved relations between India and Bangladesh.

During a recent visit to Colombo, one witnessed the massive Port extension project being undertaken by China by reclaiming land from the sea. This is supported by a Chinese built expressway connecting the capital to the international airport. We are aware of Chinese ambitions to entrench itself in the Maldives and this will significantly impact India’s maritime security.

India needs to rethink its strategy because the default outcome of what the BRI is likely to accomplish in our periphery is its steady economic integration with China and the marginalisation of India in its own neighbourhood. During my assignment in Myanmar I was able to observe how most of the ethnic areas bordering China had been steadily integrated with China through superior transport network, efficient cross-border trade and movement of people and the provision of telecom, financial and banking services. The central Myanmar government was mostly absent except in the security domain. The security perspective overrode every other consideration while China filled the vacuum through its investment in modern border infrastructure and facilitating cross-border trade and traffic. It is now proving difficult for the central government in Myanmar to restore its jurisdiction over these areas. One fears that unless India acts swiftly and effectively, a similar alienation of its neighbours may take place and this may even begin to exercise its pull on some of our own border areas.

India’s neighbourhood strategy must seek to implement, through a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) approach, the numerous cross-border rail, road and digital infrastructure projects we are already committed to but are still far from implementing. It was disappointing to read that during Nepali Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli’s recent visit India once again, as it has done several times in the past, declared its intention to construct the Raxaul-Kathmandu railway. The Barauni-Amlekhganj oil pipeline was mooted during the time I was ambassador to Kathmandu (2002-04) but the ground breaking ceremony was held only now, 14 years later. If one makes an inventory of all the cross-border projects India has committed to undertake over the past decade and more, then their implementation by now would have knotted the subcontinent in a dense web of connectivity and interdependency. But it is pointless to bemoan this lack of delivery. We need to approach regional connectivity as a front ranking challenge which permits neither delay nor default. And digital connectivity must be an integral part of this effort.

I have pointed out on several occasions that India is the largest transit country in the subcontinent. It has the potential to emerge as the transport hub for the entire neighbourhood by providing the most efficient, cost effective and speedy transit for goods, services and peoples. This requires not only physical infrastructure but also efficient processes. There is no point in having a glass top highway but still require trucks to line up for miles at a crossing because of cumbersome procedures and security checks. There are best practices in Europe and South East Asia which are available for us to study and follow without compromising security. Borders are connectors and connectivity generates incomes. Transport corridors become platforms for generating incomes and employment for the countries being connected. Let us not end up marginalised in our region.

Shyam Saran is a former foreign secretary and is senior fellow, CPR

The views expressed are personal