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The Belt and Road Forum: India Hits the Nail
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Kanwal Sibal | Date:07 Jun , 2017 1 Comment
Kanwal Sibal
Former Foreign Secretary of India

China has been working to undermine India’s position from within by courting business, academic and media lobbies that question the wisdom of government’s decision on boycotting BRF.

India was right not to attend the Belt and Road Forum (BRF) in Beijing. China’s acts of commission and omission actually made it impossible for India to attend. Any project involving several countries in Asia and even beyond, and presented as serving a collective interest, cannot be announced without any prior consultation. Diplomatic work has to be done in advance with concerned countries with the purpose and scope of such a project, and their views and priorities reflected in defining it. Only when broad support for the concept emerges through consultations should such an ambitious project with major geopolitical and geo-economic implications be considered ripe for announcement.

All the lines of connectivity across Eurasia have been drawn unilaterally by the Chinese on the map. India has not figured in these connectivity links, except the Kolkata port…

“Connectivity initiatives must follow principles of financial responsibility to avoid projects that would create unsustainable debt burden for communities; balanced ecological and environmental protection and preservation standards; transparent assessment of project costs; and skill and technology transfer to help long term running and maintenance of the assets created by local communities. Connectivity projects must be pursued in a manner that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity — Gopal Baglay, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson through official statement on not attending the Belt and Road Forum”

In actual fact, the concept was announced unilaterally by President Xi Jinping as his initiative to which other countries were invited to join. The assumption was that for realising Xi Jinping’s China dream others could be mobilised on the back of China’s growing economic strength, its massive financial resources and the allurements it can offer. If the Beijing Olympics signalled China’s emergence on the global scene, the BRF formalised China’s ambition to dominate of the Eurasian landmass in transition towards an equal status with the United States.

All the lines of connectivity across Eurasia have been drawn unilaterally by the Chinese on the map. India has not figured in these connectivity links, except the Kolkata port, but if Kolkata figures in these Chinese maps it is not because of any prior consultation with India. Even the label given to the project is purely Chinese and makes little sense. There are multiple belts, not just one, and how can there be on a road on the sea? The absurdity of the designation only underlines the purely Chinese character of the project.

In India’s case, China is guilty of serious acts of commission too. China announced the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in full awareness of its political implications for India. The CPEC runs through territory that is recognised by both Pakistan and China as “disputed” with India. China has a very clear position on developing infrastructure in “disputed” territories. It objects to any development projects in Arunachal Pradesh over which it continues to make untenable claims.

If China sees the CPEC as a vital part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and is willing to invest billions in the corridor, it is inconceivable that it will accept any transfer of sovereignty over this territory that would put all its investment in danger.

Only a few days ago, on the occasion of Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurating the new bridge on the Brahmaputra River in Assam, the Chinese Foreign Office has asked India to exercise restraint in developing infrastructure in Arunachal Pradesh. It does not feel obliged to follow its own advice in the case of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). China is emphatic that it will not make any concessions on issues involving its sovereignty, but it expects India to ignore the violation of its sovereignty over the whole of Jammu & Kashmir that the CPEC clearly constitutes. China’s position that the CPEC does not involve sovereignty issues and that it is only an economic project is dishonest.

If China sees the CPEC as a vital part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and is willing to invest billions in the corridor, it is inconceivable that it will accept any transfer of sovereignty over this territory that would put all its investment in danger. If, as some Chinese commentators argue, China is semi-landlocked and that access to the sea through Pakistan and Myanmar provides it badly needed additional coast-lines for its western regions, then the CPEC is a strategic project for China not merely an economic one.

If China wants to side track the sovereignty issue by characterising them as left-overs of history that should not stand in the way of development, then it should apply the same logic to Arunachal Pradesh and not obstruct funding by international financial institutions of small development projects there, besides demanding a clarification from the Japanese that their involvement in developing infrastructure in our north-east will not include Arunachal Pradesh, which, regrettably, the Japanese gave.

In actual fact, for all the major projects that China wants to accomplish in Pakistan, whether dams, power plants, highways, ports and so on, even the upgraded Karakoram highway is of little use. All the heavy equipment and material needed for these projects have to move by sea.

China has always used Pakistan as a proxy to contain India strategically; its decision to invest massively in Pakistan and incorporate it into its political, economic and military orbit is not an economic project but a geopolitical one…

China has succeeded in becoming the world’s second largest economy and the biggest exporting country not because of land contiguity with its leading trade partners, whether the US, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, the ASEAN bloc or the European Union. It does not need land contiguity with Pakistan to invest there. If the CPEC excluded POK from its ambit and China had no presence on the ground there, we would still have concerns about other anti-India dimensions of the China-Pakistan relationship.

China has always used Pakistan as a proxy to contain India strategically; its decision to invest massively in Pakistan and incorporate it into its political, economic and military orbit is not an economic project but a geopolitical one, with Gwadar set to become a base for the operations of the Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean. China’s expansion on the land mass of Eurasia is complemented by its expansion in the Indian Ocean area, squeezing India in the middle. Sri Lanka is playing a critical role in this regard, with the appearance of Chinese submarines in Sri Lankan ports presaging a challenge to our security interests in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea.

We have for many months signalling our serious reservations about the BRI as conceived. We view it as China’s national initiative which other countries are not obliged to join, especially as it has been undertaken without consultation with India. China has been asked to show understanding of India’s sensitivities on sovereignty issues just as it summons others to respect Chinese sensitivities. We have officially said that for us the key issue is whether connectivity is built through consultative processes or unilateral decisions, and have hinted that China sees connectivity as an exercise in hard-wiring to influences choices. In other words, its goal is to establish a China-

centric system in Asia that marginalises major Asian powers such as India and Japan. On the eve of the Beijing meeting India officially broadened its attack on the BRI by emphasising the importance of ‘good governance, rule of law, openness, transparency and equality’, as well as financial responsibility for multilateral connectivity initiatives, implying that China had not observing these ‘international norms’.

China is seeking India’s endorsement of the BRI for several reasons. If India joins, it will mean that it accepts the inevitability of China’s supremacy in Asia.

The MEA spokesperson pointed to the ‘unsustainable debt burden’ for countries that will host BRI projects (as in the case of Sri Lankan) and to their ecological and environmental consequences. Our opposition to the BRI now transcends the CPEC. While seeking India does endorsement for the BRI, an over-confident China, believe that the lure of Chinese investments will over-ride any Indian reservations, has on other issues kept poisoning the atmosphere of ties with India? It repeatedly threatened with India with serious consequences if the Dalai Lama visited Arunachal Pradesh. It came out openly, through its previous Special Representative for border negotiations that India had to cede the Tawang tract to China for it to consider a border settlement. It maintained its opposition to India’s membership of the NSG and to the designation of Masood Azhar as a terrorist by the relevant UN committee.

China’s clear message to India has been that it will continue to oppose India strategically and that India, in recognition of the widening gap in the respective national power of the two countries, should accept that it cannot stand in China’s way and should adjust its policies accordingly. Hence the patronising statements that India will be isolated if it did not attend the BRF forum and that it will lose the opportunity to benefit from the humungous amounts that China intends to invest abroad as part of the BRI. Its Consul General in Kolkata has belaboured this line most recently and hoped India would attend BRF II in 2019.

China is seeking India’s endorsement of the BRI for several reasons. If India joins, it will mean that it accepts the inevitability of China’s supremacy in Asia. China would have incorporated India into its grand design for Asia under its leadership. China probably realises that even if India cannot entirely prevent its neighbours from participating in the BRI, the implementation of the project will be accompanied by tensions and even a degree of confrontation. India is the only country that can stand up to China in Asia. All other countries are either too small or have profound economic links with China to do so.

BRF was an occasion for us to puncture China’s patronising attitude towards us by staying away, which we did.

If India’s resolve is broken, China will be able to operate without resistance.
China is working to undermine India’s position from within by courting business, academic and media lobbies that question the wisdom of government’s decision on boycotting BRF, think that the BRI is a reality that cannot be ignored and believe that India is losing an opportunity to build a beneficial investment relationship with China. Our open system allows the Chinese to do so, whereas we have no opportunity to provoke introspection within China about the wisdom of its antagonistic policies towards India. Believing that it will prevail, China is even playing patronising diplomatic games with us by suggesting, as its ambassador to India did recently, that it can designate the CPEC as the China-Pakistan-India corridor, which implied that China can trade with J&K through the CPEC and thus provide China double benefit. China speaks of linking the BRI with our own Act East projects, knowing that the sub-text of this would mean implicitly endorsing the CPEC as well as China’s geopolitical and geo-economic ambitions in Asia and working with it as a junior partner.

The bottom line is that we can deal with China bilaterally on the economic front without having to join it in promoting its leadership ambitions in Asia at our expense. The prize of the India market—the world’s fifth largest economy and set to become the third largest in due course—is much more important for China than that of the smaller countries straddling the BRI. BRF was an occasion for us to puncture China’s patronising attitude towards us by staying away, which we did.

The Modi government needs to be commended for making its opposition to the BRI strategic in scope. If China can counter us strategically and believe that this should not deter expansion of economic ties, we have sent a similar message to China, namely, that we are open to engagement with China bilaterally to the extent it serves our national interest. Our priority has to be to accelerate the implementation our own connectivity projects in the region, besides internal connectivity between our ports and the hinterland that will bolster not only our economic growth but also our export capacities.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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One thought on “The Belt and Road Forum: India Hits the Nail

  1. “If China can counter us strategically and believe that this should not deter expansion of economic ties …” –

    Gee, this shatters the fundamentals of the state craft as expounded by the great Prussian General Clausewitz, that economy, foreign policy and military power of a nation state are locked together !

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