India plans to construct a 1,400km-long pan-Southeast Asian highway to boost trade and cultural ties with its eastern neighbours. The South Asian powerhouse recently held talks with Thailand and Myanmar to discuss different aspects of the project that would link the three countries by land for the first time in decades.

Indian Ambassador to Thailand Bhagwant Singh Bishnoi recently said that India had financially helped Myanmar to renovate 73 bridges, built during the WWII, so that vehicles could cross the highway safely. As Myanmar is yet to finish the project, the three countries will have to wait 18 more months to use the highway. As far as the proposed highway is concerned, the envoy said that construction work of the Moreh (India)-Tak (Thailand) highway via Tamu (Myanmar) would be completed in two-three years.

According to Bishnoi, Thailand and Myanmar have agreed to sign a motor vehicle agreement with India for the use of the 1,400km road. “There has always been a meeting of minds between India and Thailand. Our two countries share cultural, spiritual and linguistic links. With this road, we will also have physical connectivity,” he told the local media in Bangkok over the weekend.

The Indian ambassador is of the opinion that the proposed tri-nation highway, which is important for the development of north-eastern part of India, exemplifies New Delhi’s “Act East” policy. He explained that the highway would encourage Thailand to materialise an industrial estate project near its border with Myanmar, as it will be easier for Bangkok to use Myanmar’s Dawei port. The highway will help further integrate eastern India with Southeast Asian nations, he added.

As India also plans to link its Chennai port with Dawei port and Thailand’s Laem Chabang port in near future, the Narendra Modi government has started negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with 10 countries in the region. With the Thai-Indian trade volume touching USD 8 billion-mark (in 2015), India also plans to boost trade ties with all the Southeast Asian nations on the basis of India-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (FTA).
Meanwhile, foreign policy experts have welcomed the Modi government’s decision to build the highway, saying that some other countries in the region (like Bangladesh, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) could join the strategic project in future. They believe that it will ultimately help those countries lower their dependency on China for transportation of goods.

Since becoming prime minister in May 2014, Modi has been trying hard to connect India with its eastern neighbours, as he has realised that it is important for India to boost co-operation with Southeast Asian nations in order to counter China’s growing influence in the region.

Koushik Das, based in the Indian capital of New Delhi, is a senior news editor with more than 15 years of experience. He also runs a blog - Boundless Ocean of Politics. E-Mail: [email protected]