B’desh, India, and Japan: Revamping Northeast India through a new Troika
The northeastern region of India, encompassing eight states including Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, and Sikkim, is currently undergoing a period of significant transformation.
The northeastern region of India, encompassing eight states including Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, and Sikkim, is currently undergoing a period of significant transformation. While the region has yet to overcome all of its security challenges, it has made remarkable progress and is now on a trajectory towards economic development. This shift can be attributed in part to positive political changes and an extensive network of linkages with neighbouring Bangladesh. Additionally, Japan has emerged as a key development partner for both India and Bangladesh, further contributing to the region’s growth and prosperity.
The Asian Confluence (ASCON) hosted the third India-Japan Intellectual Dialogue on April 11–12, 2023, in Agartala, Tripura. This event provided a valuable opportunity to gauge the evolving perspectives of policymakers and experts. The discussions revealed that the current decade could witness significant and transformative changes in the Northeast region of India, leading to closer ties between Bangladesh, India, and Japan. This convergence of interests could pave the way for innovative and groundbreaking collaborations that may shape the future of the region.
Perspective and possibilities
The development of the Matarbari Deep Sea Port (DSP) on the southeastern coast of Bangladesh is considered one of the most crucial projects in the region. With the assistance of Japan, the port is currently under construction and is set to become operational in 2027. A recent study conducted by ASCON highlights the port’s potential to be a “game changer” for the region. For the port to be optimally successful, it must serve the needs of both Bangladesh and the Northeast region of India. The long-term goal is for Bangladesh and the Northeast to establish themselves as hubs and key industrial corridors in the region, serving a population of 220 million. This ambitious vision could have far-reaching implications for the development of the region and the improvement of the lives of millions of people.
During the conference, Hiroshi Suzuki, Japan’s Ambassador to India, highlighted the importance of creating regional industrial value chains alongside increased connectivity of roads and railways. According to him, rapid industrialization in sectors where the Northeast has a competitive advantage is crucial for the success of this plan. While connectivity links are essential, they are not enough without the creation of job opportunities that can only come from new industrial enterprises set up with national and foreign investments. Therefore, a joint focus on comprehensive connectivity and accelerating industrialization in both Bangladesh and the Northeast region of India is likely to be a priority. This approach ensures that new connectivity links are fully utilised and productive, leading to job creation and economic growth in the region.
The Northeast region of India is fortunate to have access to vast natural resources and a strategic location that shares borders with Nepal, Bhutan, China, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. To fully utilise these assets, there is a need to create value chains and manufacture products across various sectors, such as agro-processing, man-made fibres, handicrafts, the assembly of two-wheelers, mobile phones, and pharmaceuticals. The population of the region is highly educated and excels in the services sector, which is already drawing the attention of potential investors. Therefore, by harnessing the region’s strengths and potential, there is a significant opportunity to build a robust industrial base that can drive economic growth and create employment opportunities for the population.
While there are opportunities for economic growth and development in the Northeast region of India, there are also challenges that must be addressed. One way to tackle these challenges is by expanding policy convergence and ensuring that all stakeholders are brought along. It is also essential to recognise that Japan alone cannot be the sole investor in the region, and Indian companies must also invest. Furthermore, India must ease restrictions on the flow of investments from Bangladesh to promote cross-border investment. To ensure the success of this development strategy, it is crucial for the three governments to forge closer linkages of economic cooperation and work together towards a shared vision of economic prosperity and regional integration.
During the third India-Japan Intellectual Dialogue, an important point was raised by Shahriar Alam, Bangladesh’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. Mr. Alam emphasised that India and Bangladesh have made significant progress in restoring infrastructure connectivity between the two countries that existed before 1965 and are now expanding it further. However, Mr. Alam also highlighted the need for reciprocity from other countries, specifically India, to improve connectivity with other neighbouring countries such as Nepal, Bhutan, and Myanmar. By promoting better connectivity, India can help Bangladesh become an integral part of the Act East Policy and strengthen regional integration.
There are two additional points that need to be taken into consideration. Firstly, it is concerning that when discussions are held regarding regional cooperation and integration, there is little focus on the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). This oversight is detrimental to the group’s progress towards their goal of creating the Bay of Bengal Community (BOBC). Therefore, it is imperative that this change and the group receive the attention it deserves.
The second point that needs to be considered is the need for astute leadership in connecting South Asia with Southeast Asia. This leadership can come from the triad of Bangladesh, India, and Japan (BIJ). To achieve this, a BIJ Forum should be launched, starting at the level of Foreign Ministers, which would be welcomed in the Northeast. The goal is to bring these countries together to effectively establish connectivity and promote economic cooperation between the regions.