China’s new Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a signature project of President Xi Jinping, has been viewed as the “only large-scale multilateral development project that the 21st century has seen.” No similar initiative has emerged either from the West or from India, which happens to be China’s close neighbor.
Representatives from more than a hundred nations converged on Beijing to attend the inaugural function (May 14-15) of the project hosted by Xi. Twenty-nine heads of state were present including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Germany’s Angela Merkel. US President Donald Trump sent Matt Pottinger, his special assistant and senior adviser on Asia at the National Security Council. Japan and Vietnam (who have had differences with China) sent high-level representatives. Other important countries such as France, UK, South Korea, Sri Lanka and the Philippines were present as well.
The UN secretary general, the World Bank president and the head of the International Monetary Fund were also there.
Conspicuously absent was Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, who had been invited. Shockingly, in a surprise move, Modi decided to boycott the function.
Further, Modi’s foreign office spokesman stated, obviously referring to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in the “Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK),” that it violated India’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity.” This is not fair since the PoK has been with Pakistan ever since the Partition of 1947 without India ever attempting to restore its claimed sovereignty over the area.
The spokesman added presumptuously that China’s BRI had not met “universally recognized international norms” and advised that “connectivity initiatives must be based on good governance, rule of law, openness, transparency and equality.” Further, China must pursue “principles of financial responsibility to avoid projects that would create unsustainable debt burdens, balanced ecological and environmental protection and preservation of standards; and transparent assessment of project costs.”
It seems that India’s increasing hostility to China is aggravated by: its non-cooperation in getting India admitted to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG); its opposition to getting Masood Azhar declared a UN-designated terrorist; and its opposition to the Dalai Lama’s recent visit to Arunachal Pradesh, which it claims as its own territory.
India seems to suspect that the real Chinese agenda in the Belt and Road Initiative is to strategically control the Indian Ocean
India, which has accused China of “undermining the sovereignty of other nations,” seems to suspect that the real Chinese agenda in the Belt and Road Initiative is to strategically control the Indian Ocean, which India dominates. This does not appear to be the case. India needs to realise that it is diplomacy, not trade that would help it achieve its goals.
India must note also that differences are bound to arise when several countries come together to cooperate economically, and that China’s Belt and Road Initiative is unprecedented in scope and ambition with a potential to impact world history.
The BRI, as a lever for development, envisages a modern network of highways, high-speed railway lines, ports, airports, digital connectivity infrastructure, and supportive financial mechanisms linking Asia, Eurasia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. It implies a new wave of globalization led by Asia, unlike the previous West-inspired one, which has run into a crisis.
In a statement titled “Modi needs better advice on China, he has scored a self-goal” (www.ndtv.com, May 18), Sudheendra Kulkarni, an eminent journalist and aide to former BJP prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee (1999-2004) who attended the BRI forum in Beijing (May 14-15) as an “unofficial delegate from India,” noted that India’s decision not to attend the forum was “short-sighted and self-defeating.”
He notes some of the benefits for India from active participation in the Xi Jinping-led “project of the century,” would be:
- It would promote infrastructure development and economic connectivity in South Asia, which is the most populated and poorly integrated region in the world.
- It would help Indian businesses avail of the opportunity to participate in the BRI projects in Asia, Africa, Europe and elsewhere.
3. It would advance India’s “Act East” policy by providing it with an opportunity to connect with the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar) region and improve socioeconomic development in the less developed East and Northeast of India and open the country to Southeast Asia and southern China.
4. As the second-largest shareholder in the multilateral Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), India would benefit from participation in several mega BRI projects.
5. Every member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which includes India and the extended neighborhood in Southeast Asia, West Asia and Central Asia, would benefit from the BRI connection.
6. India’s participation in the Beijing meeting would bring it closer to China and Pakistan, and help improve mutual problem-solving. India may be able to get its youth opportunities to work on CPEC project activities.
7. India’s legitimate concerns over the failure of China and Pakistan to consult it with regard to the CPEC so far could be remedied and Indian youth would be enabled to join BRI projects across the world. The issues of territorial integrity and sovereignty raised by India could be discussed in a fraternal manner. The flow of benefits from the CPEC project implementation to the people of PoK could gain from Indian experience.
Participation and criticism from inside the BRI would be better for India than mere criticism from outside. There is no military solution to the triangular conflicts, which exist between India, China and Pakistan.
The Chinese leadership has clarified that India is still welcome to join the BRI framework and contribute its wisdom to finding solutions to the problems of Asia and the world.
Kulkarni has warmly appreciated President Xi Jinping’s comprehensive vision and approach and states that “China today is reaching out to the minds of countries and communities around the world in a far more ambitious and expansive manner than India ever dreamt of doing.”
High praise indeed from an Indian!