Sub-regionalism Approach to Regional Integration
In South Asia: Prospects and Opportunities
Organized by Sikkim University
(A new national University)
Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, New Delhi
Venue: Gangtok, Sikkim (India)
Dates : 18-22 December 2008
The sub-region in the eastern fringe of South Asia consisting of Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and North-East region of India (NEI), Myanmar and South Western China have several critical and strategic advantages in jointly participating in the development process of the region. These advantages emanate from geographical proximity, socio-cultural cohesiveness, economic complementarities and scope for opening further towards east to the members of the ASEAN. This economic exchange becomes easier due to similar language, culture, resource endowments, geographical advantages and lower transaction costs. On the other hand, economic complementarity is the result of various factors, both nature-based and also largely evolutionary in character. The widespread economic and social malaise in this sub-region including poverty, unemployment and market access and even environmental degradation can be tackled effectively by both sharing the development resources and experience.
The entire sub-region has been ranked low in human development indices and is considered as low income region. This region also has one of the largest concentrations of people living below the poverty line. Unlike cooperation and economic exchange at the national level, in the sub-regional level cooperation, political risks are likely to be localized and traditional constraints are frozen. Failures too can be localised without damaging national interest in a big way. In such a level of cooperation it will not be necessary for a participant to change its macro policies, ideological profile and long term objectives of socio-economic development.
The sub-regional cooperation is seen as a practical solution to this sub-region’s socio-economic problems. The expected economic restructuring and greater specialisation in production and human resource development will lead to a higher level of economic activity and will allow this sub- region to acquire competitive edge in the world market. This is more as this region is still the major ground for primary commodities including tea, jute and large scale forest and bi-diversity based products.
The sub-regional cooperation also could make a major transformation in the shallow regionalism at the SAARC level.
The effective role of private investors, clear cut government policies and legal regimes and visible impact on the local economies are the reasons why the sub-regional cooperation has become very successful among Johor state of Malaysia, Singapore and Riau islands of Indonesia (JSR Growth Triangle); Hong Kong, the Guandong and Fujian provinces of China and Taiwan also known as South China Growth Triangle (SCGT) and Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) consisting of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam and Yunnan province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region of China
The eastern South Asia has highly contrasting topographical features ranging from the high mountainous and hilly regions to the hot terai belts. The agro-climatic variation provides in this region one of the most attractive and richest bio-diversity. An overwhelming portion of this sub-region falls under the globally identified bio-diversity hot spot. This region also possesses vast stores of clean and renewable energy, perennial rivers and high rainfall.
The transport infrastructure developed during the British period provided a coordinated network of road, rail, inland water transport (IWT) and coastal and port navigation, with Calcutta and Chittagong serving as outlets with the rest of the world. However, the partition of the subcontinent led to truncated transport channels and arteries-sea, road and rail. For example, while Agartala to Calcutta before partition, through Bangladesh was only 350 Kms away, now through Siliguri corridor it is 1645 kms. Bangladesh was left with the major portion of this region’s transport network but without the lucrative centers of trade and commerce that fed the freight and passenger traffic through its transport arteries. The substantial volume of unofficial/underground border trade today is directly related to these destructions of well built channels of trade.
The proposed sub-regional cooperation offers immense investment opportunities in hitherto unexploited areas like hydro electricity, natural gas, crude oil, port facilities, forest, water, tourism, mineral resources, health, information technology, education and human resource development and major traditional commodities and products like tea, jute, leather, fishery and horticulture. An important area for cooperation region will be bio-technology and genetic engineering. This provides a good scope for joint investment in the technological fields.
The prospects that infrastructural projects will open a wide variety of gainful investment opportunities have started attracting the minds of some of the well known private investors at both domestic and international level. This region is the gateway to the fast growing and lucrative markets in South -East Asia, Far East, Australia-Asia and China. The large scale illegal border trade in a wide range of products across the borders of all the partner countries in this sub-region demonstrates the availability of market and the need to bring these markets under proper economic management. The reopening of the Nathu La trade route in Sikkim between India and China is a boon to the entire sub-region.
The Emerging Initiatives
There have been several initiatives in the last one decade on concretizing the sub-regionalism based cooperation and integration process. This includes the South Asia Growth Quadrangle initiative, Kunming initiative and the Bangladesh-China-India and Myanmar (BCIM) initiative and even Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Techno-Economic Cooperation (BIMST-EC). However, nothing concrete has come out of these initiatives. Assam government has been emphasizing on the reopening of the Sillwell Road built during the Second World War that connects North East region of India with Myanmar and China.
The Government of India is keenly pursuing the policy of Look East Policy in the last decade in which the concept of sub-regionalism in this sub-region of South Asia plays a very critical role.
The North East Vision Document 2020 very clearly emphasizes on the sub-regionalism based development that enhances the level and quality of cross border interactions and exchanges. The Ministry of the Development of North East Region (MDONER) and the North Eastern Council in India has been proactive in organizing an array of Business Summits where a large number of traders and investors have participated from the neighboring countries.
To understand and promote the idea that sub-regionalism based cooperation could transform the entire SAARC based regional cooperation perspective thereby making SAARC process more effective, robust and meaningful.
To substantively discuss the policy issues and scope for institutional interventions on sub-regionalism in the Eastern fringes of South Asia
To examine how other sub-regional initiatives particularly in South East, East and Central Asia have emerged successful models of regional cooperation and integration.
To bring together the stakeholders including policy makers, private sector, media, academics, financial institutions and civil society of the sub-region to discuss policy related aspects of sub-regionalism based cooperation.
Policy makers, academics, financial institutions, private sector representatives, media and civil society organizations. We are expecting participation from the following countries.