There are signs India, the US, and Japan are looking at ways to promote connectivity in South Asia and South-East Asia, independent of China.
During his Delhi visit earlier this week, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson ‘suggested that the US and India partner to build road connectivity in the sub-continent and port connectivity in the Indo-Pacific,’ according to reporting in the Hindustan Times.
‘Tillerson pushed for road connectivity in Bangladesh and Afghanistan so that even Pakistan is inclined to participate in the move,’ the newspaper reported, citing an anonymous government official.
Separately, Mint also quoted an anonymous official as saying there was ‘some discussion’ about the Belt and Road Initiative and ‘what we (India and the US) can do together in the Indo-Pacific region’.
In recent weeks, both Tillerson and US defense secretary Jim Mattis have publicly expressed misgivings about China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
India, Japan mull connectivity
Tillerson’s push for an alternative to BRI comes just as India is also looking to boost connectivity with some of its neighbours. According to The Economic Times, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj discussed proposals for air and ship connectivity during a visit on Dhaka, Bangladesh on Sunday.
Also, the BIMSTEC organisation (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) is expected to finalise a motor vehicles agreement next year. BIMSTEC’s member states are India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. Among other projects in the region, several Indian firms are expected to set up power plants in Bangladesh. India will also build a 135km-long oil pipeline from Assam to Bangladesh.
Even as Rex Tillerson was in India, Japan’s foreign minister Taro Kono told The Nikkei his country would propose a dialogue with India, the US, and Australia to boost trade and defence ties.
Kono said he had discussed this proposal first with Tillerson and Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop in August.
Kano’s plan presents the most promising way ahead, because it would give the four countries a chance to come up with a coherent plan for connecting the region. It won’t be easy: Priorities, interests, and capabilities will differ. That’s in contrast to China’s BRI, which is driven by a single powerful state with a strong leader at the helm.
There are also questions about follow through. India suffers from a chronic implementation lag, even with such transnational projects. And there’s also the unpredictable volatility of the Trump administration to consider.
Finally, even if this quadrilateral grouping does manage to pull off several important projects and other connectivity initiatives, they simply won’t have deep enough pockets to match China on scale.
Tillerson conceded as much during a recent interaction at a Washington-based think tank. ‘[I]t’s hard to compete with someone who’s offering something on financial terms that are worth a few points on the lending side,’ he said.
However, the US secretary of state said the choice for smaller powers was about being able to ‘control the future of their country, control the development of their economy in a rules-based system.’
In short, smaller countries in the region might choose to participate in such projects to diversify their options and increase their leverage in negotiations with China.