NEW DELHI–Connecting Asia was the focus of the conference Raisina Dialogue that drew representatives from about 40 countries to New Delhi early this March.

China's former foreign minister Li Zhaoxing delivers the keynote address at Rai
China’s former foreign minister Li Zhaoxing delivers the keynote address at Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi early March

Raisina Dialogue is seen as India’s answer to the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore and the Munich Conference on national security.

Among the participants were Bangladesh’s foreign minister A.H. Mahboob, Sri Lanka’s former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, Afghanistan’s former president Hamid Karzai and China’s former foreign minister Li Zhaoxing.

Opening the Dialogue, India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said connectivity is essential for growth and development of Asia and India’s approach to achieve this is based on mutual cooperation and trust and not unilateralism.

While Swaraj did not mention India’s ties with China, other leaders highlighted the significant role China can play for a connected and prosperous Asia.

Karzai stressed the need for a coordinated approach between India’s Connect Central Asia Policy and China’s One-Belt-One-Road (OBOR) initiative. A “positive symmetry” is needed between the two Asian neighbors, he said.

Others said they looked up to China as a role model because of its economic power and not as a threat.

Kumaratunga said India has the right to raise questions on the U.S. sale of F-16 aircraft to Pakistan, Islamabad’s sale of JF-17 aircraft to Sri Lanka or the presence of Chinese submarines at Colombo or Male port.

But India should not obstruct development projects supported by China in the region, she said.

While India moves closer to the U.S., it has failed to positively respond to China’s ambitious $1 trillion Belt OBOR policy initiative.

Turning to India’s neighbor Pakistan, Kumaratunga said Indo-Pak tensions have held back South Asian integration.

In fact, six of the eight South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries “have spent the past decades consolidating their identities and managing inter-state/intra-state tensions”, she said.

While Kumaratunga felt all countries in the region would benefit from doing business with China, Karzai favoured more Chinese investments in South Asia.

Indian and Bangladeshi representatives stressed on road and rail connectivity in the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal) group of countries.

India mentioned its plans for the Indian Ocean region and across Central Asia perhaps in response to China’s OBOR initiative.

Li said OBOR initiative was not unilateral or restrictive. China viewed South Asia as a vital partner in the project and was ready to focus on roads, manufacturing and free trade zones in the region. China welcomed the participation of other countries and regions and supported the BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar) initiatives on roadways and trade routes.

Indian Foreign Secretary Dr S Jaishankar, while highlighting his country’s SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region), BBIN and sub-regional connectivity initiatives, warned that hidden agendas could come in the way of connectivity.

Connectivity could not be an exercise in hard-wiring to influence choices. The absence of “agreed security architecture” for Asia must be kept in mind, he said.

Speakers generally felt that India perhaps does not appreciate that OBOR initiative could be driven more by economic imperatives than geopolitical concerns.

Officials of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) in China are upbeat about this initiative which could play an important role in “global economic recovery”. This would happen by allowing for better allocation of resources and investment in the Asian region in infrastructure, transport, maritime cooperation, resources and energy.

China’s border provinces are responsible for leading the initiatives. For example, the Guangdong province, among the most prosperous ones, has led the way in leveraging its strengths as the premier export/import zone in the country.

India figures high in the list of priorities for the Guangdong government which is keen to increase Indian tourist visits and promote collaboration with the Indian private sector.

China also visualises synergy with India’s Act East policy. It reckons that India’s participation in the Silk Road project will ease its massive trade deficit with China.

The enthusiasm in Guangdong for the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) project is a reflection of an economic imperative that is driving China to promote OBOR.

While India needs to appreciate the economic imperative behind OBOR, western commentators have explained Chinese engagement in its near-neighbourhood to be akin to “great power” behavior and an assertion of its economic power.

Some in India’s strategic community view OBOR as a major strategic initiative by China. They consider MSR as a way of establishing a “string of pearls” or strategic bases encircling India which, they fear, may pose a geopolitical challenge in future.

They fail to note that India’s neighbours, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Nepal have largely and willingly wanted to partner with China in projects related to port and infrastructure development in the form of rail links, among others.

India’s strategic concerns may stem from significant political issues such as the unresolved boundary problem which bedevils Sino-Indian ties.

Official caution over OBOR may also be the result of  the recent pro-West tilt in India’s foreign policy which envisages a role for India in the US containment policy against China.

The Indian government would do well to shed its reticence towards participation in China’s new economic strategy which can benefit the country. It should engage the Chinese government pro-actively to settle differences over the border question for mutual benefit and demarcate the Sino-Indian border for good.

There is potential for India in improving the economic ties with China. The Indian advantages in the tertiary sector and the Chinese strengths in the capital investment sector could be leveraged to work out a “win-win” deal for both. India must, therefore, make a more positive assessment of China’s OBOR initiative.   

(The writer is a former senior official of the Union Home Ministry in the government of India. He is the author, among others, of ‘Political Violence and the Police in India’, Sage, 2007 and ‘State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India’, Routledge, 2016)

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