Lord Dalhousie, India’s Governor General from 1848 to 1856, once dreamed of a ‘route’ in South Asia – a railway line from Singapore to Constantinople and beyond, with a branch track meandering up to Lhasa (Tibet). Another Governor General, Lord Curzon, (1899-1905) thought of a route linking Bengal, Myanmar and China. More recently, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reportedly forwarded the idea: “I dream of a day…one can have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore, and dinner in Kabul.”
On 22 February 2013, a group of adventure enthusiasts from four countries - Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar - in a convoy of twenty cars, undertook the first leg of a historic journey that took them all the way from Kolkata to Kunming via Dhaka and Myanmar. The stated purpose of this journey was to highlight road connectivity in the four countries of the region (BCIM).
China and South Asian countries appear to be keen to revive the ancient route and forge it into a robust economic corridor for trade and investment. This route, otherwise known as the BCIM route (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar) was reportedly discussed with Indian leaders during Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's India visit in May 2013. With joint efforts by China, India, Myanmar and Bangladesh, a highway route starting from Yunnan to India by way of Myanmar has been reportedly approved in principle by the relevant departments of the four countries. The joint statement issued at the end of Keqiang’s visit to India said that encouraged by the successful BCIM Car Rally of February 2013 between Kolkata and Kunming, the two sides had agreed to consult the other parties to establish a Joint Study Group on strengthening connectivity in the BCIM region for closer economic, trade, and people-to-people linkages, and to initiate the development of a BCIM Economic Corridor.
As a forerunner of the new Silk Route, the hugely popular 2004 India-ASEAN car rally, with the slogan ‘Networking People and Economies’, was one of the earliest signs of this connectivity. It is reported that more than 500 officials and business leaders from China and eight South Asian countries gathered in June 2011 to attend the 6th China-South Asia Business Forum presided by Sri Lankan Minister of Industry and Commerce Rishad Bathdeen, in Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province, to discuss the promotion of trade and investment in the region. A cooperative memorandum signed at the completion of the Forum urged all involved parties to create trade and investment policies that would encourage economic globalisation and regional cooperation. It also called for efforts to remove trade and investment barriers. Experts from the four countries launched a field inspection along the route in February 2012. The first auto race along the 2,800 km route was successfully held from late February to early March in 2013.
China's Yunnan Province Governor Qin Guangrong visited Bangladesh in August 2010 on a two-day official trip on the invitation of Prime Minister Sheikh during her visit to Kunming in March 2010. Qin Guangrong discussed the setting up of direct road and rail connectivity between Bangladesh and China with government leaders. In October 2013, a delegation of the Chinese government arrived in Dhaka from India to discuss the construction of the proposed Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor.
Road networks in Yunnan Province are rapidly expanding as well. Reconstruction is under way for a 312 km stretch of the Stilwell Road, which connects Northeast India with Yunnan through northern Myanmar. The route is expected to serve as an inland bridge linking South Asian countries and central, eastern coastal areas of China, so as to promote the development of western regions of China and boost the common prosperity of the nations along the route.
Trade between China and South Asian countries has grown robustly in recent years. The trade volume between both sides jumped to more than USD 80 billion in 2010, up from USD 26 billion in 2005.
The Bangladeshi government has been a strong believer in regional connectivity, and given its unique geographical position, the country can derive enormous benefits from regional connectivity. Connectivity through road, rivers and railways is perceived as an economic necessity and constitutes a part of the service industry.
The ability to construct the new Silk Route will depend on the development of a coherent strategy by all countries involved, and must take into account key geopolitical and security considerations.