Looking East

Print edition : November 25, 2000

The launch of the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation in Laos signals a new beginning in India's foreign policy, but will it gather momentum?

ON November 10, ministerial delegations from six Asian nations, India, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, gathered in the sleepy city of Vientiane, the Laotian capital, to launch the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation. The MGC, a loose grouping that ai ms to focus attention on cooperation in the areas of tourism, culture, education and communications between India and the five Mekong river basin countries, represents the fruition of an idea that seems to have evolved over the past one year. The project was announced by the Foreign Ministers of the six MGC at the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Ministerial Meeting (AMM) in Bangkok in July this year.

The launch of the MGC was not without its share of hiccups. It was originally called the Ganga-Mekong Suvarnabhumi Project. The word "Suvarnabhumi" was dropped from the original agreement, made in Bangkok, following objections from Laos. Laos' objections related to Thailand's historical role, even though its Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Somsavat Lengsavat, had consented to the term in July.

Secondly, some countries insisted that the project should be called "Mekong-Ganga" and not "Ganga-Mekong", as had been agreed in Bangkok. Displaying a rare breadth of vision, India's External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh agreed to the changes, which an yhow make little difference to the idea of cooperation.

To borrow a phrase from the eminent historian, Benedict Anderson, who has done extensive work on nationalism and South-East Asia, the MGC is an "imagined" grouping. "Mekong-Ganga" is yet to take shape; it is an idea that is still evolving. However, after the BIMST-EC (Bangladesh-India-Myanmar-Sri Lanka-Thailand Economic Cooperation), a regional grouping that was formed in June 1997, this is India's next major cooperative venture in its South-East Asian neighbourhood.

India has excellent relations with all the countries in the MGC; Thailand, with a pro-U.S. policy, is possibly the only odd one out. However, since the Vajpayee government now enjoys good relations with the U.S., there should be little problem in India c ooperating with Thailand.

For India, the MGC offers immense scope for creating "links". For example, Jaswant Singh used a special Gulfstream jet aircraft to fly from New Delhi to Hanoi (on the first leg of his two-nation tour). That the flight took just four hours whereas a fligh t from Delhi to Colombo takes over three hours, was a pointer to proximate locations and the potential this factor holds. Given the "hub" system of air travel organisation, a Delhi-Hanoi direct air-link appears to be a complete oddity; but there appears to be no reason why, if trade and travel patterns permit, such a flight route should not exist.

And, if one has the development of India's northeastern region in mind, one could even be looking at flights in the Imphal-Hanoi or Guwahati-Ho Chi Minh sector as a possibility. Senior Indian diplomats in South-East Asia believe that without the developm ent of the northeastern States, cooperation with South-East Asia cannot be meaningful.

For the MGC project to be effective, the Brahmaputra Valley is a crucial factor. If there exists sufficient trade and industry in this region, overland trade via Myanmar to many MGC countries will become a worthwhile proposition for India.

But what fate awaits the MGC in the long run remains an open question. For the moment, Jaswant Singh has taken a personal interest in the project. Given the welcome that has been extended to the MGC by the five other countries involved, it is imperative that India sustain its interest and translate the Vientiane Declaration into action.

As per the Vientiane Declaration, issued by the three Foreign Ministers and three Tourism Ministers who represented the six member nations, they will conduct "strategic studies" for the joint marketing and convening of missions for tourism marketing, lau nch a Mekong-Ganga tourism guide, facilitate the travel of people in the region, expand multi-modal communication and transport linkages and also promote package tours to cultural, religious and eco-tourism sites of the region. In the field of transport and communications, it has decided to make efforts to develop transport networks, in particular the "East-West" corridor project and the Trans-Asian highway. The highway, of course, is an old proposal made by the United Nations Economic and Social Commis sion for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) (Frontline, November 6, 1999). The MGC Six also decided to "strengthen cooperation in the development of IT (Information Technology) infrastructure and networks" and "promote cooperation in air services and li nkages in the region".

The MGC Six also agreed to promote joint research in dance, music, theatre and traditions; organise round-table conferences for journalists, writers and experts in the fields of literature and the performing arts; conserve and protect heritage sites and artifacts, and set up an information network in these fields.

IN the case of India, "strategic concepts" such as "balancing China" tend to intrude into any thinking with regard to South-East Asia. While China and India may be competitors at many levels, China is far ahead of India in developing relations with South -East Asia. While Western analysts and even South-East Asian nations may encourage India to enlarge its "strategic footprint", it will be in India's interests to concentrate on areas of trade and cooperation.

As can be expected, China has welcomed the initiative. A statement to that effect was made by a Chinese spokesman accompanying President Jiang Zemin during his recent visit to Laos. (Jiang Zemin landed in Vientiane on the evening of November 11; the same morning Jaswant Singh returned to New Delhi.)

Beyond Myanmar (where India has made belated efforts to compete with the Chinese), New Delhi's strategic compulsions for the moment appear to be few. There have been some "passage exercises" by the Indian Navy to different South-East Asian capitals recen tly, but the fact remains that a "strategic position" in today's world can only be based on trade and commerce.

For instance, Indian expertise in IT will be welcome in MGC countries - it is an area that India can build its relations on.

An External Affairs Ministry official had indicated that Indian business would go to countries where profits were to be made. Given the number of Indian business and IT delegations that visit Singapore (a country where India is well known) every month, i t would be worthwhile if they make a trip to, say, Vietnam, which is clearly a country on the move.

As for Laos, following India's gift of Kirloskar water pumps worth Rs.60 lakhs, it purchased, in 1998-99, water pumps worth $18.6 million. Kirloskar has now opened a representative office in Vientiane, which has a population five lakhs.

Indian business, clearly, needs to get out of the traditional approach and look to countries where its presence has been weak. In that sense, MGC presents an opportunity. The idea of cooperation must precede cooperation. That is precisely what has happen ed in Vientiane - where a framework has been laid out - and now it is up to the Indian government, business and civil society to take up this cooperative endeavour. Given the myriad agreements and international meetings these days, it is up to the Exter nal Affairs Ministry to ensure that India's role in the MGC does not suffer owing to bureaucratic neglect. Indian governments are good at drafting and announcing agreements; it is often in their implementation that their weakness has been in evidence.

Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Dy Nien injected a dose of realism into the meeting when he said: "However, it should be noticed that in the Ganga and Mekong areas, the majority of the population, for a variety of reasons, survive only with a meagre i ncome of less than $2 a day and that the Mekong river basin is the poorest and least-developed area in South-East Asia... In the face of this situation, we have no choice but to harness and utilise natural resources efficiently with a view to bringing in tangible and practical benefits to our people, facilitate a wider distribution of the benefits of regional cooperation to the inhabitants of the region, especially to the poor and finally help narrow down the development gap with other regions."

He added: "From experience drawn in implementing projects and programmes in the Mekong river basin area, we believe that given our current financial constraint, we should welcome the cooperation of other countries within and outside the region, donors an d international organisations if we are to ensure a good start. Moreover, we should choose highly feasible areas to carry out our cooperation in the first place since initial success in these areas is highly significant, and will help build confidence an d create a solid foundation to extend our cooperation to other areas."

Nien has given a practical dimension to the working of the MGC, which should be taken seriously by all the member-countries.

At Vientiane, it was agreed that Laos would first chair the MGC; the Chair would then rotate in alphabetical order. The MGC ministerial-level meetings will take place when the Foreign Ministers meet for the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting and Post-Ministerial Conferences (PMCs) in July every year. The next MGC ministerial meeting will take place in Hanoi in July 2001, where Myanmar will take over its chairmanship.

A good beginning has been made, but will progress remain even?

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