Institutionalizing the BCIM: The Next Steps

Presentation made in Session 5: Institutional Arrangements at the 10th Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM) Regional Cooperation Forum, Kolkata, 19 February 2012.

There has been a constant debate between India and China about bringing the Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM) Regional Cooperation Forum up to the full Track-1 level. There is the example of the Russia-India-China Track-2 dialogue that has a parallel Track-1 process starting with meetings of the three foreign ministers and later followed by regular meetings of the heads of government. This was no doubt inspired also by the post-9/11 scenario of unilateral US actions and the need for an alternative global order formulation. The point is that this can be done.

Today, the BCIM is in effect a Track-1.5 process, involving both scholars as well as officials even if the level of official participation varies from country to country. It is understood that for all the flexibility of the Track-2 mechanism, any real action is only possible if government officials are involved.  But since the flexibility is useful, a case can be made for Track-1.5 plus Track-1 level interactions, so that governments have a role to play at all stages.

It can be debated if there has hitherto been no comparable global inspiration for the countries of the BCIM to bring their interactions up to Track-1 level. Surely, the post-9/11 era has also been one of intense region-building in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. There was therefore, no shortage of inspiration for the BCIM. Be that as it may, there are today economic and political imperatives within the sub-region itself that require the BCIM to develop itself both institutionally and politically. These developments in India’s northeast, in Myanmar, in Bangladesh, in Indochina, in China’s southwest, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia added to accumulating changes in the global economic power structure suggest that the moment is opportune for a new kind of Track-1 initiative that involves not just central governments but also actively incorporates provincial and state governments in the region, particularly in India and China.

The processes of policy formulation and its implementation must of necessity require inputs from the provincial and state authorities in the sub-region. While local governments will mostly call for open borders and central governments will want secure borders, open and secure borders are not mutually contradictory objectives in a situation of complex economic interdependence involving not just trade in goods, but also production, finance and investment. Further, such innovations at the Track-1 level between countries the size of China and India, and involving their smaller neighbours also have the potential for informing a new Asia-led global system that combines the best of the east and west.

Three major issues are examined here: 1. problems in the sub-region hindering greater institutionalization; 2. issues requiring transnational institutions in the BCIM framework; and 3. possible new institutions that could be created.

1. Problems Hindering Institutionalization

What are the problems hindering greater institutionalization in the BCIM region?

i.      the impact of bilateral issues – or in other words, a trust deficit

ii.      lack of a permanent consultative mechanism among the four countries involving bureaucracies that meets at regular intervals (except perhaps between India and China) – in effect, this somewhat circular – there isn’t a capacity to work together because the staff from these countries have never worked together, despite the creation of the BCIM forum

  • the longest-standing consultative mechanisms that exist are those that are geared towards dealing with problems or conflicts – such as on the boundary dispute between India and China, on the maritime dispute between Bangladesh and Myanmar or on the water issue between India and Bangladesh.
  • In other words, these mechanisms have largely been about either holding the fort or trying to keep things from getting out of hand rather than about implementing new measures of cooperation. The latter, it will be clear to many, is more a matter of taking political initiative (just as any dispute resolution is, too)

iii.      opposition from within governments

  • there are inter-departmental or inter-ministerial rivalries related to turf and perceptions of national interests in each country.
  • there are also inter-governmental differences such as between the central government and a provincial government(s) or between provincial governments
  • in other words, there is a problem of incentivizing the BCIM process for a larger group of actors, i.e., creating more stakeholders. One must in this context, ask how far the BCIM has succeeded over the decade and more of its existence to widen the community of stakeholders in the process.

iv.      deciding at what level bureaucratic and political interactions will take place – we already have differences over what protocol is granted BCIM meetings. There are two problems here:

  • will these institutional arrangements involve the national or sub-national actors or will it be a mix of both?
  • and, what level of political and bureaucratic representation will each side spare to lead or staff these institutions?

2. Issues Requiring Transnational Institutions[1]

What are the problems that crop up in an environment of increased transnational interactions such as those envisaged under the BCIM process?

  • transport infrastructure – driving on different sides of the road; can vehicles of at least the neighbouring country be allowed in at least up to a certain distance – perhaps with a change of drivers?; railways – different gauges of track
  • trade – will require customs collection; there is no convertibility of currencies, no agreed border trade arrangements
  • population movement – labour agreements; tourist flows between or through border regions; disease control; human trafficking. Ensuring economic development on both sides of a border is essential to stemming the flow of economic migrants and its consequent political fallout; economic restructuring in the form of a move towards reducing dependence on agriculture and hence the effects of its vagaries is essential part of this process.
  • energy security and environmental issues – pipelines, power stations, power grids, water governance (would cover the building of dams and social and environmental impact assessments)

3. Towards Greater Institutionalization

Any pursuit of institutionalization must answer five questions.

– what are the desired end results?

– what are the possible negative consequences?

– what are the possible positive spin-offs?

– how do we organize to achieve results?

– how do we manage the consequences?

There are plans aplenty for linkages, identifying the best road and rail axes and yet most projects have remained only on paper for a variety of reasons. Part of the problem lies perhaps in not visualizing except in the most general terms what the end results are going to be and of the consequences that expanded transport infrastructure for example, will have on each of the countries involved and in particular their border sub-regions. What, for instance, are the problems that we are seeking to solve with the help of expanded infrastructure?

Another part of the problem lies in the very little attention paid to the mechanisms that will actually need to be created to ensure spin-offs of expanded infrastructure and economic development in the region and to deal with their consequences. This is especially important for the BCIM which unlike in the case of other regional groupings comprises countries with different political and legal systems. Indeed, the BCIM Initiative is one of the few regional groupings in the world that does not possess a permanent secretariat. And it has been argued that one of the lessons of the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis was that informal integration had its limits in addressing the demand for economic governance in East Asia.[2]

What institutions does BCIM therefore need at the Track-1 level for achieving greater integration and coordination of mutually beneficial activities across borders? And how do we get 4 countries with disparate political and administrative systems to work together effectively on the ground?

Equally important, are we all agreed that transnational governance is the ultimate goal? And are we ready to be innovative by pushing such governance to include involvement at the sub-national level of the state/provincial governments of the 4 countries? As the Bangladesh Foreign Secretary noted at the 9th BCIM at Kunming, ‘regional diplomacy is no longer hostage to the corridors of the foreign office’, but nor must it be hostage to any other central government ministries but involve stakeholders at the local/border levels.

BCIM Transport Secretariat – to deal with issues of standardization of measures and technology, and technology transfer; to draw up plans for joint development of road and rail infrastructure across BCIM borders; air connectivity; single-ticket travel

BCIM Trade and Revenue Secretariat – It is assumed that one of the functions of the BCIM is to promote international trade across the borders rather than just border trade. To this end, the central government of all countries including their central banks or such ministries as deal with the regulations on trade at the borders must come up with more open regimes. This Secretariat should help achieve the necessary policy coordination to deal with issues of trade in goods and services and especially issues of border facilitation; non-tariff barriers; tolls and taxes.

Can a fixed percentage of revenue collection from each country be put back into common BCIM border development projects? Way for trade deficits to become more acceptable? Since Bangladesh has duty-free access to India, this allows Indian enterprises to invest along the Indo-Bangladesh border and change for the better the population flow dynamics.

One could also consider BCIM business passports for facilitating easy travel by entrepreneurs and businessmen.

BCIM Labour Secretariat – to deal with issues of regulation of labour flow across borders; training and education. This will perforce also be an opportunity for governments and the private sectors all around to come together to draw up plans together for the development of the agricultural, industrial and service sectors in the sub-region. This secretariat would also keep a check on human trafficking in the sub-region.

BCIM Tourism, Culture & Media Secretariat – includes immigration authorities; allows extension of the 20-mile principle to all of the sub-region’s border states or districts – for example, Bangladeshis would have easier tourist access to those Indian states bordering Bangladesh and vice-versa. The Tourism Secretariat could also be involved in organizing cultural meets and festivals with cross-border significance such as the Hornbill Festival in Nagaland which would be important also for the Naga communities in Myanmar. Other examples, include the Pangsau Pass winter festival, Dihing Patkai festival, etc.

The Secretariat can facilitate agreements on common broadcasts and programming for the sub-region to develop a regional identity. Media exchanges are an important part of this endeavour, including syndication of each other’s articles and editorials. The BCIM could also create special media passports for facilitating easy travel by journalists.[3]

BCIM Health Secretariat[4] – will deal with cross-border health crises including pandemics, disease control, research and paramedics training. For example, better transport infrastructure could conceivably see an increase in disease spread requiring possibly AIDS education and awareness, etc; medical tourism

BCIM Education & Research Secretariat – while each country will have its own schools and syllabi, this Secretariat could deal with issues of developing common courses for schools and universities in the sub-region related to the study of history, culture and each others’ languages. It could draw up rules for accreditation of teachers, acceptance of degrees, etc.

As a consequence of increased cross-border flows, there will also be a requirement for expanded school/university facilities, acceptance of degrees, etc.

This Secretariat could also create regional databases and statistics with joint efforts by researchers in all 4 countries.[5] Could be involved in create maps of the sub-region.

Yunnan can offer training for personnel and technicians for road construction and engineering training as it already provides for the GMS grouping. Similarly, it can also provide training in tourism-related activities as the China National Tourism Administration also it does for the CMLV countries.

Nalanda University given its engagement in the 10th BCIM process could possibly function as the headquarters of the Education Secretariat.

BCIM Energy & Environment Secretariat – Part of the process of achieving energy security in the sub-region will require the BCIM countries to coordinate on energy policies involving hydrocarbons and hydropower. The BCIM countries can draw up joint assessments for energy requirements, plans for transport of hydrocarbons, construction of power stations and power grids, dams, social and environmental impact assessments, and policies on pricing. A proper institutional structure will also ensure easier external funding support.

The Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Power Forum established with support from the ADB allowed its member states to use ADB loans for financial and technological support. Such multilateral agency funding also allowed the governments to deal with nationalistic opposition domestically to the sale of electricity. The World Bank too, later joined the ADB in supporting an integrated regional power market that is aimed at providing reliable and economical electric supply to all sides.[6] Thus, this BCIM Secretariat would also be able to allay claims of loss of national resources and allow all 4 countries involved to draw up equitable power- and water-sharing arrangements.

The BCIM sub-region is a common ecological space. Therefore, issues related to wildlife, ecology, mountainous areas, and renewable energy sources must receive coordinated attention and planning. A Secretariat in this regard also ensures greater possibilities of receiving multilateral funding for instance from the ADB, UNEP, etc.

How do we begin to operationalize these institutions? Do we start with JWGs? Perhaps each of these secretariats could be headed by or based in individual countries depending on their interest or capabilities and be staffed by people from all member countries, thus creating both a culture of working together and individual capacity that can be useful on return to their home countries. The secretariats must involve serving government officials from counterpart ministries at junior, middle and senior levels. These must also involve non-government or ex-government advisers/experts.

The development of institutions is not an end in itself but part of a larger mechanism to improve peace and stability in the region and to allow countries and peoples to live in harmony with each other. On each of issues suggested above for developing institutional structures, a strong case can be made for international assistance and expertise from institutions such as the Asian Development Bank or various ASEAN agencies, allowing the BCIM Initiative to be tied into larger Asian regional integration networks while simultaneously having an identity and purpose all of its own.

[1] For a detailed examination of this subject with reference to Northeast India and its neighbourhood, see Jabin T. Jacob, “The India-Myanmar Borderlands: Guns, Blankets and Bird Flu,” SPIRIT Occasional Papers, No. 6, Sciences Po (Bordeaux), October 2010,

[2] Peng Dajin, “China’s Role in Regional Governance in Asia,” summary of remarks in China’s Role in Global and Regional Governance, report of conference organized by the China Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, 10-11 March 2011, Singapore, p. 6.

[3] The Times Group of India and the Bangladesh daily Pratham Alo, have together launched “Maitree Bandhan,” aimed at promoting friendly bilateral ties. The project seeks to increase people-to-people contacts, including cultural ties, student exchanges and business links in the mode of the Aman Ki Asha initiative between India and Pakistan. The Times Group and the Bangladesh daily Pratham Alo, have together launched “Maitree Bandhan,” aimed at promoting friendly bilateral ties. The project seeks to increase people-to-people contacts, including both cultural ties, student exchanges and business links in the mode of the Aman Ki Asha initiative between India and Pakistan.

[4] For more on health-related transnational governance see William J. Long, “Cross-border health cooperation in complicated regions: The case of the Mekong Basin Disease Surveillance Network,” in G. Shabbir Cheema, Christopher A. McNally and Vesselin Popovski (eds), Cross-Border Governance in Asia: Regional Issues and Mechanisms (Tokyo, New York and Paris: United Nations University Press, 2011), pp. 93-121.

[5] A similar exercise with the Mekong Commission in the 1950s was an important region-building tool.

[6] The six countries of the GMS signed the Intergovernmental Agreement on Regional Power Trade (IGA) in 2002. Under this framework, Chin began supplying power to networks in Vietnam in 2004 and in 2006, Myanmar and Laos started supplying China. Zha Daojing, “China and Its Southern Neighbours: Issues in Power Connectivity, RSIS Commentaries, No. 147/2011, 14 October 2011.

Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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