The Trilateral Highway project is an ambitious undertaking which was initially launched under the vestiges of the Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) and later incorporated into the transport sector of Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC); but it has not yet fructified. What are the bottlenecks in terms of financial, security and regional concerns? How will this affect India’s Look East Policy (LEP)? What is needed to get this crucial project executed?
With the aim to begin the project in early 2004, the construction of the 1360kms highway at the cost of US$700 million was distributed in three phases so as to connect Moreh (India), Mae Sot (Thailand) through Bagan in Myanmar. The inherent logic of the road was to fulfil the ambition of creating a ‘link’ between Northeast India and Southeast Asia.
The project however faces many problems. Financial problems remain a contentious issue. India and Thailand have upgraded some of the link roads but due to financial scarcity in Myanmar, much work remains incomplete. Tensions have also flared due to Myanmar’s demand for India and Thailand taking up the responsibility of bearing the costs of road construction in its territory.
Additionally, there are also many debilitating security concerns in the region. A well documented aspect of India-Myanmar border is that it is plagued by numerous problems such as illegal trade, drug trafficking and insurgencies. Recent news updates elicited the demand for Indian forces to seal the border, in particular the stretch aligning Manipur, as outfits belonging to United Liberation Front of Manipur (ULFM) and United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) were regularly using the Friendship Road along the border to transport weapons through the national highway 39. Additionally, China has a de-facto control over Kachin state bordering the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as its territory and the commencement of the Trilateral Highway could flood the state with Chinese goods and illegal weapons hampering the security interests of India. These concerns have always been present but the prospects of accruing long term benefits from the highway are also substantial for India especially strategically, by gaining a foothold in its eastern flank, therefore the enthusiasm for the highway still prevails.
For India, however, the realization of the Trilateral Highway will bring a greater share of problems along with the benefits. The trilateral project raises concern on its final destination as well, i.e. the Myanmar-Thailand border where the ethnic insurgent camps are still in existence. Myanmar, in the past has accused Thailand of harbouring groups like the Karen National Union and the Chin National Liberation Front. The cross border infrastructure has also been impeded due to Thailand’s concern with the influx of illegal immigrants and the narcotics business.
In view of all these practical constraints on development of the Trilateral Highway, a deeper element of regionalism has to be taken into consideration as well. The quicker integration of Greater Mekong Sub region (GMS) has cast a shadow over other regional organizations like BIMSTEC and MGC. While cross border connectivity has grown at a super rate between GMS countries, it has effectively drowned the scope of projects like the Trilateral Highway as the Mekong region countries are being increasingly sucked into the economic vortex of China. Currently, GMS countries are concentrating on upgradation and construction of new highways under the Asian Highway Project and already US$2.7 billion have been invested to this effect. The East West Corridor, the North-South Economic Corridor and the Southern Economic Corridor are the three major projects being implemented. The upgradation of these highways and ratification of Cross Border Transport Agreement (CBTA) have since quadrupled the intra-GMS trade. It is not a surprise that the Trilateral Highway initiative already crippled with political and financial problems has lost its charm.
The completion of the Trilateral Highway will forge greater connectivity between India and Southeast Asia and the positives will outweigh the negatives in every sense. Connectivity will bring its share of problems but will certainly open up avenues for cooperation with the neighbouring states and provide effective mechanisms for dealing with cross border problems which hitherto have remained unresolved. Additionally, the Trilateral Highway will connect India to the Asian Highway Network and trade between India and ASEAN will receive a further boost which is already predicted to touch US$100 billion in the next five years and also boost trade potential of India, Myanmar and Thailand that is largely carried out through sea routes at present, adding to the substantial cost. Moreover, India’s Northeast region will be repositioned as a regional trading hub. It is evident that the Trilateral Highway is crucial for the realisation of the LEP and its failure might shake the very foundations of this quest upon which India has embarked.
Political and financial ‘will’ remains a key to rejuvenate this moribund project and India needs to strive to create this ‘will’. In the event this does not work, then India could unilaterally shoulder the financial responsibility for the highway. After all, US$700 million does not seem to be much when India can shell out a billion dollar in aid to Afghanistan.