What does EU’s growing engagement with India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan mean for South Asia?
India and the EU are hosting the Global Gateway Conference in Meghalaya from June 1-2, 2023. The two-day event brings together Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Nepal with the North-East of India in an effort to boost commerce and economic growth in the area.
The Ministry of External Affairs stated that the conference would "explore possibilities of boosting connectivity investments in India's North-Eastern States and with India's neighbours." The three pillars of the connectivity initiative-improving digital, energy, and transportation links-seek to identify initiatives for joint implementation.
Utilizing the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) project, connectivity issues in South Asia are being addressed in an effort to establish a smooth flow of people and cargo traffic. The two-day meeting will motivate India to take action on these issues. Connectivity between the four nations is expected to lead to regional economic integration and greater people-to-people exchanges, which have been constrained by tensions among the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) governments.
The India-EU Connectivity Partnership was formally established at the May 2021 India-EU Leaders' Meeting, which was attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, 27 EU Member States, the President of the European Council, and the European Commission. The ambitious "connectivity partnership" wants to increase connectivity in the fields of technology, energy, transportation, and interpersonal communication. It also takes into account supporting the connectivity aspirations of the Indo-Pacific region.
The connectivity agreement between the EU and India aims to strengthen sustainable digital, transportation, and energy networks in addition to promoting the mobility of people, goods, services, data, and capital. Investing prospects in the sectors of clean and renewable energy, health and education, and transportation connectivity, which includes roads, bridges, and railroads, will also be sought after during the Meghalaya conference. Along with representatives from India and the EU, participants from the commercial sector and ambassadors from the three South Asian nations will also attend the conference.
India, Bangladesh, and Nepal can develop unified electronic gateways with assistance from the EU, allowing importers and exporters to online submit their documentation. If these National Single Windows are to shorten clearing times, they require strong implementation support.
The development of the roads between integrated check stations and inland container depots will increase the efficiency of significant volumes of cross-border trade.
In order to close infrastructure gaps, it is necessary to build and upgrade internal and transnational highways, extend multimodal transportation networks, including roads and rails, and modernize infrastructure, including integrated border crossings.
In order to provide small company owners and female traders access to the market, South Asian countries should also adopt regional concepts like the border "haat" used at the India-Bangladesh and India-Myanmar border points.
To increase connection in the near future, it should be emphasized to build high-quality road infrastructure. Currently, it is crucial for transportation connections to upgrade the east-west highway that connects the three major land ports of Birgunj, Biratnagar, and Bhairahawa.
High-quality road infrastructure may have a high starting cost. The long-term advantages of funding such large projects, however, exceed the short-term expenses. Numerous studies in high-, middle-, and low-income countries show a positive relationship between the state of the transportation system and economic expansion.
Transportation infrastructure is therefore essential since it serves as the primary driver of economic growth. All area stakeholders will be able to access substantial regional markets if they can build cutting-edge road and rail infrastructure.
By utilizing their economic corridors and concentrating on important industries, the BBIN countries may support the EU's engagement while also fostering intimate ties amongst their peoples to foster regional unity and integration.
Bangladesh, Japan, and India assembled in Tripura on April 11 and 12 to talk about connection initiatives that will aid the area in achieving its commercial potential. Japan is steadily approaching the area. We can now see the EU's interest in participation in the region following Japanese engagement. Additionally significant pillars in the region are the connectivity partnerships with Japan (2020) and India (2021) and the Indo-Pacific plan of the European Union (EU). The magnitude, scope, and effect of Team Europe investments are intended to grow through Global Gateway. The EU's investment will be more advantageous to the regions. EU's involvement with these states is in its strategic and commercial interests. The EU is a significant participant in the Indo-Pacific strategy of the US and India. The latest announcement of Bangladesh's 15-point "Indo-Pacific outlook" is the opposite. We are also aware of the connections between Bhutan and India.
Gains in the gross domestic product (GDP) of South Asia of about 17.6% and Southeast Asia of about 15.7% would be notable. Nepal would benefit from this regional South Asia and Southeast Asia collaboration through collaborating on high priority projects. The availability of electricity in Nepal poses significant obstacles to the country's economic growth.
Recently, there have been some positive developments. Meetings between Nepal and Bangladesh are scheduled to discuss bilateral energy trade and Bangladeshi investment in Nepal's hydropower industry. Due to the bilateral power exchange, Nepal is able to buy electricity from Bangladesh in the winter and sell its monopoly during the rainier seasons.
This increases the likelihood of expanding energy trade with Bangladesh and India. In this sense, the Bangladesh-India-Nepal Partnership, which aims to improve the quality of highways, increase the availability and dependability of power, and enable cross-border electrical trade between India, Nepal, and India, may enter a new age. To improve the region's competitiveness and close development disparities, Northeast India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh should improve their multimodal connectivity.
The Northeastern Region (NER) being connected to the Bay of Bengal and Bangladesh through the establishment of an industrial value chain by the EU may significantly alter the geopolitical environment of the area.
With the opening of the Padma Bridge, Bangladesh's northern and southern regions are now easily accessible, removing two significant structural barriers to the development of a cross-border value chain.
A deep-sea harbor is being constructed by the country in far-east Asia at Matarbari in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. The project, which is in the Indian state of Tripura near the Sabroom border, is anticipated to be finished in 2026.
Through the involvement of the EU and bilateral power trade with Bangladesh, Nepal will have the opportunity to strengthen its ties with and engage in power commerce with, respectively, India and Bangladesh. India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Nepal stand to benefit from stronger ties with the EU.
When creating programs like the BBIN MVA, all state holders should be impartial and act in the region's best interests. The region has to move fast to complete high priority connectivity projects since they will have major macroeconomic benefits and generate thousands of new employments.
The writer is a Senior Researcher at South Asian Geopolitics in Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune, India