Seamless Connectivity for Shared Prosperity in South Asia and Beyond

Delivered at the Asian Institute of Transport Development (AITD) in New Delhi, India on 3 February 2015.

In 2001 the Asia-Pacific Ministerial Conference on Infrastructure called on the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) to formulate, develop and improve integrated/intermodal international transport.

Taking this forward, the Busan Declaration on Transport Development called, in 2006, for the development of a long-term regional vision for an international integrated intermodal transport and logistics system. In December 2012, the Asia-Pacific Ministerial Declaration on Regional Integration and Connectivity emphasized seamless regional connectivity as a priority goal, and a working group was set up to drive this process.

ESCAP has been supporting effective negotiations between the large and small economies of our region based on the emerging architecture for new corridors of prosperity, and fostering consensus and legal agreements for regional connectivity. Our modus operandi has been to focus on multi-country, multi-sector and multi-stakeholder consultations, and to work with development partners to promote regional connectivity, assessing the implications for trade, finance and shared vulnerabilities.

Moving from traditional “segmented approaches” to connectivity (anchored predominantly in transport), ESCAP has advocated a holistic, integrated and sustainable approach to ensure contiguous and seamless networks. The ESCAP Theme Study “Regional Connectivity for Shared Prosperity”, focuses on these goals, and has now been endorsed by our member States. It also calls for the establishment of new corridors and hubs, based on an integrated model of regional connectivity that recognizes our shared challenges of:

  • Growing demographic pressures;
  • The need to more effectively exploit our comparative advantages and develop a public-good approach;
  • Promoting sustainable development of connectivity;
  • Becoming more multi-modal in approach, exploiting the innovations of ICT, to enhance efficiency of connectivity across continents and oceans; and
  • Dismantling “behind-the-border” barriers that have generated economic costs far exceeding tariff barriers. Evidence suggests that trade facilitation, supported by improvement in customs and port efficiencies, could enhance regional trade by $250 billion, in addition to reducing costs and time required.

This architecture complements, reinforces and capitalizes on the proposal to exploit the lucrative ancient routes over land and sea across the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Route which, among others, will foster Eurasian integration – another ESCAP area of work.

In parallel, ESCAP has been engaged in the development of the Trans-Asian Railway and Asian Highway networks, with supportive dry ports, for which we just concluded a new intergovernmental agreement. Integrated intermodal connectivity, where roads lead to railway networks, and are linked effectively to ports, offers the most cost-effective option for the long haulage of cargo for our region. Railways have an edge in preserving our environment and stemming the relentless culture of motorization.

We are also working on the Trans-Asian Railway agreement to encourage a southern corridor serving South Asia. However, success will depend on the strong political commitment and consensus of our member States, and buy-in and the engagement of regional blocs, such as South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), to support robust frameworks for regional connectivity.

By way of example, the three ESCAP policy dialogues conducted in Dhaka (June 2013), Lahore (December 2013) and New Delhi (November 2014) have resulted in a strong commitment from member States to strengthen transport connectivity through the secretariat’s proposal for a Connectivity Master Plan for the South and South-West Asia subregion. Necessary steps are being taken for the preparation of such a Plan.

To help us achieve connectivity, ESCAP works closely with regional and subregional organisations, for instance the ASEAN subregion has made great advances in achieving seamless connectivity, and China’s leadership in inviting non-APEC leader’s to the APEC summits has reinforced the significance of regional connectivity and ESCAP’s role in this area.

There are a variety of mechanisms, ranging from formal intergovernmental agreements and international conventions, to voluntary commitments by national governments, which can be used to advance the region’s connectivity agenda. In view of this, ESCAP is supporting the development of master plans, legal agreements and protocols, as well as working hand-in-hand with governments, multilateral institutions and subregional platforms.

Of course, this Connectivity Master Plan for the South and South-West Asia subregion would take into account the Government of India’s significant progress in corridor infrastructure, Mumbai - Delhi being an example, and extensions to these corridors could assist landlocked countries such as Nepal and Bhutan, to have improved trade with India and also access to ports.

When people get together they can better drive progress. An example of this is working together on a study on the “Role of Border Special Economic Zones in Regional Connectivity” with the objective of providing guidance to the Government of India in the development of border zones. In connection with the study, ESCAP’s Transport Division took part in the 2014 “North-East Connectivity Summit”, organized by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industries in Guwahati.

In March 2012, ESCAP worked with member States who adopted the Regional Strategic Framework for Facilitation of International Road Transport, enabling member States to plan and implement transport facilitation measures. This year has seen the signing of the Intergovernmental Agreement of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Member States on the Facilitation of International Road Transport, which is expected to see a revitalization of the ancient Silk Route.

A Regional Network of Legal and Technical Experts on Transport Facilitation has also been established to assist member States, especially our least developed and landlocked developing countries (such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Nepal) to build the capacity of their officials in planning and implementing transport facilitation initiatives to strengthen regional connectivity.

In spite of all these important initiatives, glaring examples of non-agreement or non-implementation of agreements remain. One of the major challenges to regional connectivity is the inordinate delays that still happen at border crossings. ESCAP has developed various transport facilitation systems to identify and propose solutions to mitigate such delays.

In developing transport networks, there is a need to integrate intermodal networks, to better link our Central Asian landlocked belt with our more prosperous coastal regions. To ensure these networks are fully optimized and operationalized, we need to: link the currently underutilized networks, especially the railways; invest in intermodal facilities, such as dry ports; foster greater physical linkages between different modes, such as shippers and truckers; use ICT applications for trade and transport facilitation, both behind and at borders by improving the efficiency of freight movements; and pave the way for the development of paperless trade and e-logistics.

ESCAP has also been supporting landlocked developing countries through the implementation of the Almaty Programme of Action, the final regional review of which was completed at the 69th session of Commission, and which was the region’s input to the Global Review in Vienna last November.

Achievement of an intermodal integrated transport system where goods and people move throughout the region with a minimum of delay and cost is not an easy goal. We have many issues where multiple stakeholders restrict advancement, and deep rooted perceptions of mistrust and corruption remain. Our political leaders need to become champions of change and the private sector needs to be more engaged, to facilitate seamless connectivity.

I would urge the Governments of this subregion to become Parties to the Intergovernmental Agreement on Dry Ports through accession, as well as to send high level representatives to the meetings of the Working Groups on the Intergovernmental Agreements on the Asian Highway and the Trans-Asian Railway networks. They should also drive development of international intermodal corridors in South Asia, as a way to promote regional connectivity.

In conclusion, Asia and the Pacific now serves as a role model for regional connectivity for other parts of the world, in Africa, Latin America, and other regions. Our dynamism and success is rooted in our ability to look beyond national jurisdictions, to reach out for larger potential markets for resource sharing, business expansion and sustainability. There are good regional examples of rising above geographical and political differences, to ease cross-border movement of goods, services and people.

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