Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Southern Asian Partnership (SAP): New Economic Corridor


    The Asian Land Transport Development Project (ALTD) has progressed in fits and starts since the early 1990s. Two important components were the Asian Highway Project or the Great Asian Highway and the Trans Asian Railway. The southern leg of this project, connecting South East Asia to South Asia and beyond has not progressed as rapidly as desirable.  The time may be ripe for giving much greater attention to this component in the context of a broader vision for the “Southern Asia” from Vietnam to Afghanistan, by creating a transport, trade and investment corridor.  At some point in the future this SE-NW corridor could extend from Afghanistan to the Northern tip of the Caspian Sea and also fork West from Afghanistan to Israel.
China, which constitutes the great land mass in the center of Asia,  has already built East-West corridors across its breadth and is actively engaged in extending these westward to Europe. Similarly Russia constitutes much of the Northern land mass of Asia and already integrates within its borders from its Asian East coast to its European part.  We need a similar initiative in the Southern land mass of Asia, stretching from Vietnam through Afghanistan to Israel.  This task is much more challenging than the one faced by Russia or China, because so many countries are involved.

A New Vision

   Much economic development in most Asian countries centers either around the national capital or around coastal cities. We need to move development to the interiors of Asian countries situated in the great land mass of Asia, by connecting isolated centers of economic  activity in each country with those in other countries physically or economically closer  to them but separated by historical boundaries and consequent infrastructural evolution. 
The 20th century vision of road and rail transport connectivity must be expanded in several dimensions to meet the challenges and opportunities in the 21st century. The new vision must cover several new dimensions: One, an integrated approach to transport of goods and services. This requires the development of an integrated plan for transport of goods, services and people using road, rail and river transport (Trans Asian Water way) to minimize transport costs.  Second,  is an exploration of the possibility of transferring energy (Trans Asian energy grid) and water along these corridors to reduce demand-supply mismatches. Third, is a communication network that includes broadband connectivity (trans Asian Internet), which could globalize their information and thinking.  Fourth is the standardization/harmonization of customs and other rules for trade, transport and transit of goods and services across borders and through these countries (Asian Carnet et al).  Fifth are visa and other rules for tourists and movement of persons for delivery of skills and for management of cross-border FDI enterprises.

Planning & Funding

      As Japan and the Asian Development Bank have been among the important supporters of ALTD connectivity projects and still have the required funds, it is time for them to take the lead, along with ASEAN and India, in expediting & expanding its ambit.  Though China has the funds and is looking actively for infrastructure projects, it seems primarily interested in North-South corridors connecting its Western interiors to the Indian Ocean, through trusted strategic allies like Pakistan(a 21st century Chinese version of 19th century Russian ambitions).


    Several initiatives in SAARC, BIMSTEC and ASEAN have helped in incremental but limited integration of the Southern Asian landmass from Afghanistan to Vietnam. In my judgment the time is now ripe for raising this to a higher level, by preparing a comprehensive Vision Statement and a detailed Action Plan for economic integration of the interior areas of South and South East Asia. At some point in the future this initiative could be extended Westward to the shores of the Mediterranean and North-West to the shores of the Caspian Sea.

Post Script

  The India-Japan joint vision statement  issued by the Prime Ministers of India and Japan on December 12, 2015 appears to take this proposal forward. It states among other things that,
 (1) "They underlined their determination to expand cooperation with other partners, to enhance connectivity in the Indo-Pacific region"
(2) Seeking the synergy between India’s "Act East” policy and Japan’s "Partnership for Quality Infrastructure”, the two Prime Ministers decided to develop and strengthen reliable, sustainable and resilient infrastructures that augment connectivity within India and between India and other countries in the region.

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