India's Delayed Trilateral Highway

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government is attempting to resuscitate the 1,360 km India-Burma-Thailand Trilateral Highway – an ambitious US$700 million undertaking launched in 2004, but which stands crippled by financial and political bottlenecks.

The long-stalled highway was a major topic of discussion when Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra made a state visit to New Delhi last month. Both Yingluck and Singh said it is urgent to rejuvenate the project and bring it to fruition as soon as possible. Interestingly, while New Delhi dithers on the highway project, China, India’s competitor for primacy in Asia, is pushing ahead with ambitious plans to lead the Trans-Asian Railway, a UNESCAP project to create an integrated freight railway across Europe and Asia on which 20 countries agreed in 2006.

Three major rail routes are planned, from Yunnan in Southeast China to Singapore through Laos, Thailand and Malaysia; from Urumqi to Germany through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey; and from Heilongjiang in northeast China to southeastern Europe via Mongolia and Russia.

It is not tough to see why India and Thailand would like to get the highway project moving. For India especially, the Trilateral Highway, launched under the auspices of the Mekong Ganga Cooperation, is crucial to Singh’s Look East aspirations. (The Mekong-Ganga Cooperation was signed in Vientiene, Laos in 2002, by six member countries – India, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, for cooperation in tourism, culture, education and transportation linkages.)

By augmenting its links with its Asian neighbors, the project would help New Delhi feel strategically less vulnerable, especially in the face of China’s growing regional influence. The highway, analysts say, would also provide New Delhi with substantive economic linkages at a time when traditional markets in Europe and the US are wrenched by uncertainty.

“The Trilateral Highway will also go a long way in assisting New Delhi to forge a vital link between its neglected and insurgency-ridden northeast region and Southeast Asia,” said international policy expert Dr Pratham Kochchar. “This will usher in economic prosperity into India’s northeast and help transform the region into a regional trading hub.”

As the highway would also connect the Indian city of Moreh with Mae Sot in Thailand through Bagan in Myanmar, all three stakeholders would experience a surge in commerce with Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries as well, Kochchar said. Industry estimates suggest that seamless connectivity with the Asian Highway Network through the trilateral project would ratchet up India’s trade with ASEAN to about US$100 billion in the next five years.

“Trade between India, Myanmar and Thailand is currently sea-bound, which not only makes exchanges slow but also prohibitively expensive,” said a top official at the New Delhi’s Center For Policy Research. “The trilateral highway will whittle down costs stupendously, ushering in economies of scale and commercial prosperity for the beneficiaries.”

If the highway is of such monumental importance, then why is it not up yet? What are the bottlenecks that plague this pioneering project?

Finance has apparently been the big issue. While India and Thailand have upgraded some of the link roads, politically turbulent and financially-constrained Myanmar has not been able to fulfill its share of commitments. In fact there’s even been sporadic friction between the three stakeholders due to Myanmar’s demand that India and Thailand pay for road construction in its territory too.

Regional security concerns also bedevil the highway project. Illegal trade, drug trafficking and insurgencies thrive on the India-Myanmar border. New Delhi is also sensitive about China’s de facto control over Myanmar’s Kachin state bordering the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing claims as its territory. India fears the Trilateral Highway might inundate its side of the border with illegal migrants and Chinese weapons compromising its security interests.

In fact such has been the level of skepticism about the project that there is concern that the highway could create more problems than prosperity. According to Tanvi Pate of the Institute of Peace & Conflict Studies, “the project also raises concern on its final destination -- i.e. the Myanmar-Thailand border – which hosts ethnic insurgent camps.” According to Pate, Myanmar has accused Thailand in the past of harboring groups like the Karen National Union and the Chin National Liberation Front while Thailand has been concerned about the access the highway might provide to illegal immigrants and narcotics from ASEAN countries. Due to these insecurities playing on the stakeholders’ minds, the project is still languishing, the scholar suggests.

The element of regionalism has been another spoiler, analysts say. The swift integration of the Greater Mekong Sub region has relegated work by other regional umbrella organizations to the sidelines. The GMS countries have been focusing more on upgrades and construction of new highways under the Asian Highway Project which has seen investment of US$2.7 billion.

The East West Corridor, the North-South Economic Corridor and the Southern Economic Corridor are the three major projects already being implemented by the GMS states. The upgrade of these highways and ratification of Cross Border Transport Agreement have since quadrupled the intra-GMS trade. Given this overarching narrative, the GMS nations currently don’t feel the need to make any political or capital investment on any other initiative.

However, Indian officials are convinced that enhanced connectivity through the highway initiative will open up avenues for cooperation with the neighboring states and provide effective mechanisms for dealing with cross border problems which have hitherto remained unresolved. India has already emphasized the historical and cultural links with the neighboring Southeast Asian countries for years and now must accord salience to physical connections like the trilateral highway project.

As Pate suggests, political and financial will remains a key to rejuvenating the 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 seems more like an investment than an `expense’ considering the host of tangible benefits that would come New Delhi’s way once the project is completed.

(Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based senior journalist)