Senior cabinet ministers from Assam, Tripura and Nagaland—the states governed by the BJP and its allies—accompanied by BJP general secretary Ram Madhav visited the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou last weekend and met Indian and Chinese businessmen.
“There, we had an interaction with the Indian community who are exporters," Madhav told the Indian media in Beijing on Wednesday.
“Later, we had a session with Chinese groups like e-bike manufacturers, software and hardware firms," he said, adding that they interacted with ministers and showed interest to go to Assam to explore the opportunities.
Madhav outlined a plan prepared by the BJP-led government for the development of North Eastern states by providing the landlocked region direct access to Bangladesh’s Chittagong port instead of shipping the goods all the way from Mumbai and Chennai ports.
“North-East is a special focus area for our government. So we are connecting Tripura with Chittagong port which is about 90 miles," he said.
Through Chittagong port entire North East is connected with ocean trade, he added.
“Right now goods to North East are to be taken by rail and road from Mumbai or Chennai through Kolkata to Guwahati. If we are going to connect to Chittagong port, it will be an excellent connectivity," he said.
The Chittagong port is the busiest seaport on the coastline of the Bay of Bengal. Madhav said North East connects with five countries, Bangladesh, Bhutan Nepal, Myanmar and China through Tibet.
He said India is developing Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) sub regional hub and even invited Chinese to use North East to access Indian Ocean through Chittagong.
“We have not attempted connecting North East with China. Our vision was that they are natural neighbours. North East has huge boundary with China...
“South West China can use North East as hub to go to Indian Ocean through Chittagong. We have not explored much. We only thought through Sikkim we can give access to China to the Indian Ocean through Kolkata port. But this (Chittagong port) is also an excellent opportunity," he said.
But challenges remain as China claims Arunachal Pradesh as part of South Tibet. “We have issues in Arunachal Pradesh, that is a challenge," he added.
For its part, China is promoting Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar (BCIM) as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The BRI focuses on improving connectivity and cooperation among Asian countries, Africa, China and Europe.
The BRI includes the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a project over which India has protested as it traverses through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).
Madhav said India is developing North East as a trade hub. “We are developing it as a hub for trade. That concept should sit in the minds of business here. They should not look North East as market. You set up market in Guwahati which can access entire Bangladesh market," he said. In that context, the visit of the ministers is crucial, he said.
Asked whether Bangladesh was on board for the plan, he said Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has talked about the rail, road and waterways connectivity through the country. Asked about the security related issues in the border areas of North East, Madhav said Chinese investments can be in consumer goods and products like battery manufacturing for e-bikes.
“Where there is mutually beneficial arrangement is possible, there we will take them. Where there are concerns, we won’t allow many people there," he said, adding that Guwahati can be an attractive investment centre.
He said India needs to explore ways to reduce the $51 billion trade deficit with China in about $84 billion bilateral trade. India need to close our trade deficit with Chinese investments. “We don’t allow investments in all areas but where it is possible we should invite," he said.