The Kunming Initiative, a Track II sub-regional organization that includes Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM), was born out of the attempts to link the development plans of the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan to India's Look East policy. What is now Bangladesh, Northeast India, Myanmar and Yunnan were a few centuries ago much more integrated culturally, politically, and economically than they are today. Colonial borders literally fenced up the region, making it difficult for people and goods to move, undermining future political relations between the four countries. The area still is witness to irredentist claims and face various insurrections.
To revive landlocked areas that once, straddled the southern Silk Route and used to see throngs of merchants, the Kunming Initiative signed on 17 August 1999 innovates in several regards.
First, BCIM shows the ambition of making borders irrelevant. Current borders cut through contiguous lands and peoples and such an objective constitutes a considerable challenge for countries that still fight for territorial sovereignty. These contentious borders are paradoxically largely unfenced (and thus porous), and even sometimes undefined. India and China battle over Arunachal Pradesh, where even the line of actual control appears blurred, but as relevant as ever. The India-Bangladesh border is strewn with enclaves controlled by one but under the rule of the other, veritable loopholes ideal for smuggling. The India-Myanmar border bothers New Delhi by allowing insurgents to take refuge on the other side.
In the perspective of transforming border-crossing into a simple formality, the wish to rebuild the Stillwell road had been expressed to improve regional connectivity. The road was constructed during World War II from Ledo in Assam to Kunming on the insistence of the Americans and to the annoyance of the British. But the 1,678 km-long project is definitely not cost effective and arguably useless when the highway to Mandalay has already been achieved (the Tamu-Kalewa road was completed in early 2001 and entirely financed by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs). While the overall route may be slightly longer, from Mandalay, goods can go straight up to the Muse-Ruili border post, and then carry on to Kunming.
Second, the initiative is a sub-national one, as Yunnan enjoyed enough autonomy from Beijing to launch it, along with the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS). The evident parallel would be for India to grant similar autonomy to its Northeastern states, an option certainly not likely to happen soon because of India's quest for territorial sovereignty, and because its Northeast being fractioned into seven states makes it difficult to speak or act in unity.
Finally, BCIM is a Track II, or non-governmental, initiative. The talks are meant for scholars, academicians, businessmen and journalists to meet. Of course, as the organization intends to influence policymakers, government representatives are also invited and show up. However, non-governmental bodies set up and host BCIM's meetings. The founding Conference on Regional Economic Cooperation and Development was held by the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences and the Yunnan Provincial Economic and Technological Research Center in August 1999. Further meetings were similarly organized by non-governmental institutions, such as the Bangladesh Institute of Law and International Affairs and the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. In order to create regional popular momentum, the organization pushes informal projects such as the Kunming to Kolkata car rally, an idea that has however, not yet been concretized.
Consequently, all that this organization can do is exhort governments rather than take positive decisions that would immediately translate into active steps. Although BCIM progressively gains in official support, measures such as facilitating visa procedures or bringing down cross-border taxes escape BCIM's reach. Nevertheless, the Kunming Initiative's informality endows it with a certain freedom. For instance, meetings between regional tour operators were coordinated in order to facilitate cross-border tourism.
Although there is still a long way to go, BCIM could revitalize a region that once was a centre but which borders have delineated as a periphery. In addition, it could offer China a peaceful and cooperative solution to access the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. While advances are made by Bangladesh and Yunnan, like the establishment of a Dhaka-Kunming flight in 2005, the Indian side hesitates to move quickly for at least four reasons: border disputes, Northeastern insurgencies, the difficulty of dealing with a dictatorship like Myanmar, and the fear of seeing China reinforce its position in the region, or gain a way to the Indian Ocean. However, China's growing influence in Myanmar and Bangladesh and the resentment fuelled by the Northeastern states' landlocked situation prove the fruitlessness of this policy. If New Delhi remains reluctant to act directly, it may be time India pragmatically grants its Northeast the necessary degree of autonomy. Yunnan has benefited from such autonomy from its central government to reintegrate with the surrounding region. A first step could be for India to have scholars and researchers from the Northeast host the next meeting in Guwahati instead of New Delhi.