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A convergence of two Indo-Pacific policies

India and Japan are building a giant corridor to increase connectivity options for ASEAN countries, especially Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.

Japan and India are feverishly bridging gaps and repaving roads in the Indo-Pacific to establish a giant corridor that will link India’s northeast with Vietnam.

The gigantic effort will merge two parallel initiatives — the New Delhi-led India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway and the East-West Economic Corridor (EWEC) marshalled by Japan in partnership with Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.

The joint foray is a fusion of India’s ‘Act East’ policy and Japan’s ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ strategy. New Delhi and Tokyo hope to create more connectivity options for key countries in the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), especially Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.

Complementary to BRI

China has already taken the lead in proposing new industrial and transport corridors passing through ASEAN countries that converge in the Chinese mainland, under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

But Japanese officials and scholars insist that instead of confrontation, their purpose in deepening regional connectivity nodes is to eventually draw a convergence with China on establishing complementary routes in the Indo-Pacific. But this can be realistically accomplished only through negotiations with Beijing from a position of strength.

From the Indian end, the trilateral highway starts in Manipur from the border town of Moreh. On entering Myanmar, it heads for Mandalay, the historic city, on the east bank of the Irrawaddy River, 471 km away. From Mandalay, Myanmar’s last royal capital before British annexation, the highway heads towards the Thai border, with Myawaddy being the last destination on the Myanmar side.

Myanmar’s officialdom is emphatic that Myawaddy — the gateway to ASEAN — has huge potential as it can be easily connected with the Yangon deep water port, as well as the Andaman Sea. The 1,360-km route terminates at Mae Sot in Thailand, 20 km away to the northeast. Myawaddy is the junction of the two projects. It is the starting point of the East West Economic Corridor (EWEC), which heads towards Da Nang in Vietnam — a port city on the South China Sea.

During the Vietnam War, today’s Da Nang International Airport had become one of the world’s busiest aircraft hubs from where the U.S. Air Force launched its infamous bombing campaigns.

The 1,450-km EWEC route passes through Thailand’s Province of the Mukhandan — the gateway to Laos, which is connected by the 1.6 km-long Second Thai-Lao friendship bridge over the Mekong, built with Japanese assistance.

From Savannakhet in Laos, the next strop in the corridor, the passage heads east towards Da Nang, 486 km away. On the way, the Japanese have also been involved in constructing the 6.28-km Hai Van tunnel, the longest in Southeast Asia, which links Hue, a city in Central Vietnam, with Da Nang.

Some Japanese scholars say that despite their seeming rivalry, there is informal coordination between Japan and China on the routes. “The Asian Development Bank (ADB), of which the two countries are among the top stakeholders, has acted as a mediator and a buffer between the national interests of the two countries,” said Manabu Fujimura, Professor at Tokyo’s Aoyama Gakuin University, in an interview with the website Consult-Myanmar.

A specialist on the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), of which all countries in the EWEC fall, he pointed out that, “very roughly speaking, ‘vertical’ integration in the GMS has been driven by China while ‘horizontal’ integration has been driven by Japan, with the other members of the GMS playing along and at the same time wisely avoiding pitching one power against another.”

Referring specifically to Myanmar, the Japanese scholar anticipates that Chinese economic influence in Myanmar will continue to radiate “from Muse [in Shan State on Myanmar’s border with China’s Yunnan Province] to Mandalay and ‘upper Burma’ in general, while Japanese and Thai economic influence will continue to spill over from Myawaddy to Yangon and ‘lower Burma’ in general”.

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