One Belt, One Road comes calling: Padma crossings

Imtiaz A Hussain, The Financial Express

Two-years ago, the China Major Bridge Engineering Company Limited received the Bangladesh government’s green signal to start constructing the 10-kilometre, $1.55-billion Padma Bridge (the bridge itself is only 6-km long, still the longest in the country). Expected to be completed by 2018, it will now coordinate with the China Railway Construction Corporation, which was just awarded the even larger $4.44 billion, 215-km Padma Bridge Rail between Dhaka and Jessore. Monumental as these infrastructural projects will be for Bangladesh, they belong to an even more globally strategic Chinese goal: the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project.

To be sure, the Padma Rail Bridge will become part and parcel of China’s Trans-Asian Railway network, integrating Eurasia in a way only managed by Chenghiz Khan in the late-12th and early-13th centuries (that is, by revitalising the Silk Route). Unlike the warrior’s priority, the current network will serve as the fulcrum of increasing trade and investment, as opposed to horsemen pillaging villages. Coupled with the Padma Bridge itself, the OBOR tactical goal of interlinking the world’s two largest countries (and possible future power contenders), China and India, would enhance the much-touted Kolkata-Kunmin Highway between two of the biggest cities in each country, while the broader Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Highway also feeds into all the unfolding Padma Bridge opportunities.

For Bangladesh, of course, any traffic would be a boon, particularly as they open pathways into those two large markets which have played merely peripherally in Bangladesh’s trade thus far. Neither country is a current RMG (ready-market garment) market for Bangladesh. In fact, both are our RMG challengers. Yet, since neither is competitive with Bangladesh, the opportunity of both out-sourcing their RMG production to Bangladesh so as to shift resources to other vital industries would be a windfall for all three. China’s OBOR infrastructural investments can alone help all three countries reap the maximum benefit from collaboration.

Shifting from merchandise flows, Bangladesh’s tripartite contract for the 6,900-km joint venture gas pipeline with neighbouring India and Myanmar, signed only in mid-August 2016, would be off to an auspicious start: both Bangladesh’s largest port, Chittagong, and Sittwe, in Myanmar, open up to the Bay of Bengal, wherefrom one flank of the OBOR String of Pearls could meander through India’s northeast to mainland China, not only by opening passageways to a large energy market, but also by connecting Siliguri and Durgapur with West Bengal locations as an offshoot. Bangladesh would get cheaper and cleaner energy, China its southern ocean access, India both revenue from gas exports and domestic distribution to high-consumption areas in the heartland, and Myanmar more trade credentials as it tries to shed its Bamboo Curtain taboo.

Trade flows and energy supplies apart, Bangladesh’s benefit will be reaped by the infrastructures opening more of its difficult, deltaic hinterland. Jessore is close to not just Mongla and Payra ports, but also completing Payra port has become a high priority for the Hasina administration, as her inauguration of that project in mid-August 2016 indicated. Since both China and India have also put Payra on their priority list for different reasons, how their tussle pans out remains intriguing, but the dynamics behind the sprawling Dhaka metropolis, littered as it is with RMG factories, finding an alternative sea outlet appears more immediately newsworthy. Chittagong has been stretched far beyond its saturation point for quite some time, and although the just-finished 4-lane highway connection with Dhaka brings it closer to the capital, as too will a new 8-lane, already sanctioned, highway, the Payra deep sea port carries strategic urgency.

All these projects will rejuvenate plenty of villages and communities, while creating new conglomerations. For example, the Dhaka-Jessore Railway project also includes the construction of 66 major and 244 minor bridges, in addition to 14 new railway stations. More than the immediate jobs generated, these will become part of heavy merchandise traffic, in return necessitating houses, offices, banks, insurance companies, energy distributors, stores, gasoline stations, hotels, restaurants, and maintenance facilities.

India’s benefits include the faster integration of its north-eastern provinces into the heartland, resurrecting West Bengal and Kolkata as critical economic hubs, exploring and distributing gas routes to Southeast Asian countries, and accentuating the “carrot” component of its Sino relations. That it will also be expanding its Bangladesh market goes without saying: we will notice more Tata trucks plying across the country, with license plates not just from across India but also Bangladesh.

Yet, by far the greatest benefits will accrue to China. These cannot be measured in terms of merchandise flows or investment volumes, whether within Bangladesh or on China’s scorecard: as largely strategic goals, they man China’s global flows along the OBOR routes, in part to supply China the raw materials it needs without any hassles, create new markets for its goods, and prepare strong-holds under its military for both protection and announcement of China’s entry into the great-power league by land and sea. Connecting the OBOR dots helps us understand why China opened its first military base abroad, in Djibouti, during August 2016, and right next to the U.S. military base (with French and Japanese counterparts close by); and the rationale behind its South China Sea adventurism, ignoring an international tribunal’s rejection of China’s territorial claim. Gwador, Pakistan’s new port, revamping Colombo in Sri Lanka (even as a Chinese submarine visited that port last year), and exploring Papua New Guinea for another port happen to be other OBOR dots, indicating the far-reaching China game plan that is expected to involve 44 countries and trillions of dollars worth of infrastructures and related projects. However, our interest should go no farther than our own infrastructural developmental needs, certainly not great power rivalries in our neck of the global woods.

As China’s goose comes home to roost, we should not let the proverbial baby be flushed with the dirty bathwater. To wit, when there is so much commerce envisioned, producing so many jobs, it is always better to cash in with projects than to worry stiff over consequences and connections. After all, for one generation China did not pile up trade surpluses for nothing: the first country to have trillions of dollars available at one go from its trade surpluses can do wonders for countries like Bangladesh through infrastructural projects: Padma today, Payra tomorrow, until the whole enchilada is spoken for, should be our modest guide, compared to India’s more magnified economically integrative goals and Chinese strategic global reconstruction.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

Source: The Financial Express

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