U.S. Consulate in Kolkata hosts connectivity conference to integrate regional countries

The U.S. Consulate General Kolkata, in association with CUTS International think tank, East West Center in Washington D.C. and Indian Chamber of Commerce hosted the “Indo-Asia Connectivity for Shared Prosperity” conference in Kolkata. Eminent U.S. government officials, government officials, businessmen and policymakers from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Japan emphasized the need for greater regional and global cooperation in building connectivity in areas of trade, investment, energy, and maritime transport. U.S. Ambassador Richard Verma took the opportunity to stress that connectivity will be as much about ideas and shared values as physical infrastructure. He noted two key areas that will require greater attention, namely digital connectivity and universal values to foster innovative solutions, and highlighted the example of Northeast India and its potential to contribute to the cross-border connectivity.

Three of the region’s U.S. Ambassadors to Bangladesh, India, and Nepal discussed the challenges in each country in their regional context as well as the U.S. role in enhancing opportunities for connectivity. As one of the most available and thus vital resources in Nepal, Ambassador Alaina Teplitz mentioned Nepal’s hydropower and electricity connectivity. Unfortunately, despite the immense potential of energy not just for Nepal but sharing with regional neighbors, barriers persist in infrastructure constraints, political will, investment climate, and transmission capacity. Ambassador Marcia Bernicat from Bangladesh continued the discussion noting that while Bangladesh strives to reach lower-middle income status it could reach this goal sooner had the country been better connected through transportation and energy grids. Ambassador to India Richard Verma spoke of the challenges within India including tax and legal certainty, transparency, intellectual property, and having a strong civil society. Going forward in Indo-US relations, Ambassador Verma pinpointed the need for a high standard bilateral investment treaty between the U.S. and India that gives investors’ confidence that disputes will be resolved.

Drawing attention to the fact that the region was naturally lined by waterways, East West Center Director Satu Limaye, stressed that the promotion of maritime and riverine connectivity must include assessments of essential road, rail, and air linkages. He stressed on financial issues, energy supplies, insurance and liability arrangements and trained personnel. Engaging sub-regional authorities and grass-roots politicians and other stakeholders from the outset, especially those who have legitimate concerns about trade and globalization will be a key to champion cross-border connectivity. Upgrading and extending digital connectivity through public-private partnerships and other means will shape the future of this region.

The conference envisaged that existing bi-lateral cross border electricity trade as between India and Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan to move towards multi-lateral energy cooperation. The private sectors are to be incentivized to that end. Such cross border electricity trade would require a regional institution by way of a legal and regulatory framework along the lines evidenced in BIMSTEC or SAARC. The panelists emphasized on the need for promoting energy cooperation among countries in the BBIN region especially through power exchanges. This will create a platform whereby individual traders across borders can trade electricity among themselves through these exchanges. Mr. Bipul Chatterjee, Executive Director, CUTS International suggested the need to invoke a project-based approach on the basis of a consensus between the concerned countries in their endeavor to achieve prosperity.

The trade and investment panel focused on the role of multimodal connectivity and infrastructure, non-trade barriers and trade facilitation in enhancing trade and cross-border investment in the BIMSTEC economies. Speakers highlighted that while this region is one of the least integrated in the world, there is vast potential for increase in trade and cross-border investment. Panelists and participants highlighted the synergies that could produce value chains and learning across the region. While reforming policies and procedures are important in addressing some of the challenges that this track discussed, cultural insecurities, cross-border security issues, trust deficit among countries and the lack of political will were highlighted as some of the obstacles that also need to be addressed in order to make cooperation successful.

The track on Bay of Bengal Business Forum stressed on financial connectivity and cross border capital flows through sharing experiences from the region and the U.S. The session was attended by various national and international business organizations, and industry secretaries from Northeast states and regional countries.