The India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, which is expected to become operational by 2018, could bring about a sea change in regional connectivity and accelerate India’s economic integration with the ASEAN. The trilateral highway has been a key component of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s “Act East” policy and designed to promote trade, investment, culture and historical linkages between India, especially its North Eastern region, and Southeast Asian countries.
The highway is considered an important land route that connects India with Southeast Asia and beyond. The 3200 km-long road begins at the India-Myanmar border town of Moreh (in Manipur) and passes through several Myanmarese towns, including Tamu, Kalewa, Yargyi, Monya, Mandalay, Meiktila, Myawaddy and finally reaches Mae Sot in Thailand.
The four-lane highway is part of the proposed ASEAN East-West Corridor. There is also a plan to link this road with the Trans Asian Highway-1 that runs from Japan (via ferry) to Turkey, where it connects the European highway after traversing through the Asian continent.
The much-awaited trilateral highway’s initial deadline of completion was 2016 but the slow pace of work in Myanmar has forced rescheduling its opening in 2018.
The idea of the highway connecting North East with the ASEAN members was first conceived at the Yangon trilateral ministerial meeting on transport linkages in April 2002. Since then, New Delhi has been playing a pivotal role in the development of this road. In 2012, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) granted $ 500 million line of credit to Myanmar for the upgradation of 1,600 km section of the road within its territory.
All the participating countries have been persistently engaged in negotiations to resolve various issues related to this land route. Narendra Modi’s NDA government has attached priority to this key highway and the Indian prime minister discussed the progress of its work with his Thai counterpart at the sidelines of the 12th India-ASEAN Summit in Nay Pyi Taw on November 12, 2014 and stressed on its early operationalisation.
Reports suggest that the MEA has been making concerted efforts to expedite the construction work at its end by involving private sector in the road project.
In order to gain access to the larger ASEAN market through seamless movement of passenger and cargo, India is set to ink a BBIN MVA-like agreement with Myanmar and Thailand. Reports say secretary-level talks were successfully concluded and a consensus was reached on the text of the agreement at Bengaluru in June.
India’s Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari expressed hope that the deal could be signed in November this year. This development assumes significance because Myanmar shares border with four North Eastern states—Manipur, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram, while Thailand shares historic ties with the region.
In recent years, India has been vigorously pursuing its policy of expanding economic cooperation, trade and people-to-people relations with the Southeast Asian countries. In 2013, New Delhi proposed extending the trilateral highway further eastward to ports in Cambodia and Vietnam. The focus of the proposal is to build special economic zones (SEZ) along the highway to enhance trade and investment between India and ASEAN.
New Delhi evinced interest in the Mekong-India Economic Corridor—an auxiliary of the trilateral highway, to connect Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam with India. The proposed corridor, which is likely to be funded by Asian Development Bank, will run from Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam to Dawei in Myanmar via Bangkok and Phnom Penh in Cambodia and extend up to Chennai in India.
Some other major projects like Dawei Deep Sea Port and Dawei SEZ in southern Myanmar are also associated with the trilateral highway. Both the projects are aimed at further strengthening regional connectivity, including port-to-port linkages with India and opening economic opportunities for the region. Thailand, which is assisting Myanmar to develop the Dawei SEZ, has invited Indian companies to invest in the project in areas such as steel, manufacturing, power, petrochemicals and services.
India’s expertise in these fields are well-recognised and the country’s investment in the Dawei SEZ could be hugely beneficial.
As part of the NDA government’s “Act East” policy, India has stepped up efforts to improve cross-border connectivity with its eastern neighbours. In this regard, the preparation for the opening of bus service between Imphal and Mandalay has reached advanced stage with both India and Myanmar trying to liberalise border formalities. The operationalisation of the trilateral highway and signing of the tri-nation motor vehicles agreement are essential for the introduction of the Imphal-Mandalay bus route. The people of Manipur have long been demanding the opening of this route as more than 10,000 Manipuris are settled in Mandalay.
Similarly, the Buddhist-majority Myanmarese nationals are keen to visit Bodh Gaya in Bihar at least once in their life time. They prefer to undertake the journey through land route as traveling by air from Yangon to Kolkata is expensive. Both the nations also need to explore heath tourism and education sector to enhance bilateral cooperation.
India’s eastern region has fairly developed medial facilities, including super-specialty hospitals and different educational institutions which may be offered to the people of Myanmar once the road becomes operational.
The NDA government’s “Act East” foreign policy thrust has the potential of transforming North East into a tourism gateway to the Southeast Asian countries. It will be a win-win situation for both the neighbours as tourism and hospitality are gradually emerging as a booming industry in Myanmar—known as “Golden Land”, while India’s robust tourism institutes may help develop Myanmar’s tourism management institutions.
The operalisation of the trilateral highway will open up the flood gate of opportunities for the service sector.
Meanwhile, the North East Federation International, a conglomerate of the region’s exporters and importers, is organising a 19 day Car Rally from Guwahati to Bangkok and back from November 2, 2015. The government agencies and tourist operators from India, Myanmar and Thailand are supporting the event. The three geographically contiguous countries want to boost trade and investment among them by mobilising local resources and ensuring their optimum utilisation.
According to recent reports, a number of business and trade deals are expected to be signed to promote the Modi government’s “Make in India” and “Act East” initiatives and identical policies of the two other participating nations.
An attempt has been made for the first time involving the three nations’ businessmen, traders, economists and government officials to study existing physical connectivity by road, transport and transit facilities, border management, immigration checkpoints, land custom stations, banking and other facilities.
The North East enjoys historical ties and close cultural affinities with both the Southeast Asian nations and the participants would definitely exchange ideas and discover new trans-border linkages.
Thus viewing from all perspectives, the trilateral highway is very crucial for India, particularly its North East, which is still backward in terms of transport infrastructure and economically isolated, to broaden and deepen cooperation with the fastest growing economies of the ASEAN. In addition to this strategic highway, the setting up of rail and air links and seaways, gas and oil pipelines and telecommunication networks between India and ASEAN could make North East a hub of trade, transit and connectivity once all the projects become fully functional and inter-linkages are established.
Dr. Rupak Bhattacharjee is an independent political analyst based in New Delhi.