Kolkata: 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. Several U.S. government officials and government officials, businessmen, policymakers from the 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. He said, “Here in South Asia, the right investments in digital infrastructure can allow communities to leapfrog developmental challenges and further breakdown barriers posed by distance, geography, and governments. …A digital surge has the potential to revolutionize the way people work, travel, and communicate.”
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. 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. Ambassador Verma pinpointed the need for a high standard bilateral investment treaty between the U.S. and India that gives investors’ confidence.
The energy cooperation session stressed that the promotion of maritime and riverine connectivity must include assessments of essential road, rail, and air linkages. 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. 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.
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. 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.