Against the backdrop of Beijing flexing its muscles after the South China Sea verdict, India is seeking to increase its last-mile connectivity to southeast Asia by extending the trilateral highway, planned by the six-member Mekong–Ganga Cooperation (MGC) group, to Vietnam via Cambodia and Laos. Earlier, the highway was to stop at Thailand.

“The Ministers welcomed the consultation between Asean Connectivity Coordination Committee and India and agreed to discuss the extension of the Trilateral Highway through Cambodia, Lao PDR and the new highway to Vietnam,” the MGC member countries — India, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam —- said in a joint statement.

The highway would be pivotal to the Mekong-India Economic Corridor passing through the fertile river basins of the Brahmaputra and the Mekong.

The decision to construct the 1,360-km India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway was taken in 2004 at an estimated cost of $700 million. However, the project faced economic and political hurdles. The project gained some traction last year as the India-Myanmar-Thailand Motor Vehicle Agreement was signed. Presently, trade with Myanmar and Thailand is via sea and industry estimates see it growing to $100 billion in the next five years.

Amid the increasing Chinese influence in the region, the trans-Asian railway project under the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) to create an integrated freight railway across Europe and Asia has been already agreed upon by 17 countries.The Trilateral Highway would bring the land-locked Northeast of India closer to the mainland by increasing the connectivity with South East Asia and the ease of doing business. India has already built 160 km of this highway and invited a tender for upgradating bridges and roads.

By Ritu Sharma - The New Indian Express - July 27, 2016