OBOR: India still circumspect
China's multi-billion dollar infrastructure push across three continents—Asia, Europe, and Africa—based on a vision of the ancient Silk Route called the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, has many takers. Chinese President Xi Jinping has hailed this initiative as a new "golden age" of globalisation at the start of a three-day top-level summit on Sunday. "The glory of the ancient Silk Road shows that geographical dispersion is not insurmountable," he told the 29 heads of state who have gathered in Beijing for the event. The summit saw Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkey's Recep Erdoğan, and Pakistan's Nawaz Sharif in attendance. India, however, is not on board, considering the inclusion of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in the OBOR initiative. India has not sent any representative to the three-day events. New Delhi has opposed the project because it does not respect India's sovereignty and territorial integrity. "Connectivity projects must be pursued in a manner that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity," said a spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs. New Delhi cautioned China against pursuing projects that would create an "unsustainable debt burden for communities", harm the environment or infringe upon other countries' sovereignty. These initiatives "must be based on universally recognised international norms, good governance, the rule of law, openness, transparency and equality", it said.
New Delhi's concerns are valid. As argued in these columns, at the core of India's reluctance to buy into Beijing's promise of greater global connectivity is strategic mistrust. Both post-Independence history and recent developments have weighed heavily on New Delhi's mind. The historical baggage of the 1962 war, when the Peoples Liberation Army crushed their Indian counterparts and annexed parts of former Indian Territory (Aksai Chin), creating a legacy of unresolved border disputes it began which stands till today, have further harboured that mistrust.
Beijing seems to be in no hurry to resolve these border disputes. The $46 billion CPEC, which stretches between Chinese province of Xinjiang and Pakistan's Gwadar Port, remains a vital subject of concern for the Indian government. Strategic experts believe that this "economic corridor" will give China quicker access to markets in both Europe and the Middle East. But it runs through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan region, and New Delhi considers both to be Indian territories. Despite China's assertion that it would not like to interfere in India-administered Kashmir, New Delhi's remains rightly wary. "Given the massive investment that China has made in countries along the One Belt, One Road, China now has a vested interest in helping resolve regional conflicts including the dispute over Kashmir between India and Pakistan," an article in the Beijing-backed daily Global Times said earlier this year.
New Delhi primarily sees this project as part of China's expansionist policy, which isn't entirely based on economic considerations. With connectivity stepped up between Pakistan and China as a result of the massive infrastructure push, it becomes easier for their armed forces to indulge in cooperative action. And finally, there is the argument that colonialist intentions back China's expansionist policies. "Though sold as a "win-win" programme for all involved, the scheme is ultimately meant to further Chinese economic interests by generating new business for Chinese companies, especially in sectors like steel and construction that suffer from excess capacity, and by promoting Chinese finance on an international stage. Participating governments could find themselves loaded down with debt from Chinese banks—all to pay Chinese companies and import Chinese workers to build infrastructure designed to expand Chinese exports," writes Michael Schuman, a well-known American journalist who has extensively covered China. One only needs to ask the Sri Lankans, who are now being asked to begin repayment for the Chinese-funded Hambantota port project. There are also fears that many of these projects backed by the Chinese are persistently dogged by a lack of transparency in assessing project costs and transfer of skill and technology, not to mention the lack of job opportunities for the local workforce. These issues have come to the fore in the CPEC project too, especially in the Balochistan region. In other words, New Delhi's fears of an expansionist China and what it entails for the rest of the region are entirely valid.
India's decision not to send a representative for the OBOR summit in Beijing is also a clear sign of New Delhi's unhappiness with Beijing's concessions to Pakistan and attempts to undermine Indian security interests. Xi has provided no assurances of dropping its resistance to UN sanctions against Pakistan-based terror mastermind Maulana Masood Azhar, who India holds responsible for the terror attacks in Pathankot and Uri. While the JeM had been listed as a terrorist organisation since 2001, the group's chief and motivator have suffered no sanctions. China also continued to stall on India's application for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). This is the current state of affairs: Beijing's desire to undermine India's security and strategic interests on multilateral forums at every possible turn and New Delhi's subsequent response in playing the 'Tibet card' has soured relations. Critics of the NDA government, however, have spoken out against New Delhi's decision not to send any representatives for the OBOR summit. "At the latest meeting, the foreign secretary reiterated India's refusal to participate on the grounds that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor violates India's sovereignty over Kashmir. What matters, however, is not our motivations or desires but the outcomes of the Chinese initiative and their implications for India. Riding the high horse is unlikely to get us very far. New Delhi is also put off by the fact that Beijing has not been adequately consultative in its approach. But petulance should not drive our policy. The reality is that the Asian economic order is set to undergo far-reaching changes. By refusing to take a realistic tack, India is effectively depriving itself of an opportunity to shape the transforming landscape of Asia," writes Srinath Raghavan, a senior researcher working out of the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, in a recent column. There are also those who argue that India's inability to foster economic integration in its immediate neighbourhood has stymied the development of individual states, especially to the east. Denying better connectivity with the Chinese, they argue, will harm the interests of these states, including West Bengal. They believe that the NDA government's 'Act East' policy will not amount to much without greater Chinese participation. Better trade ties, considering the real balance of power in the region, which heavily weighs in favour of China, is something India should acknowledge and leverage to the best of her ability. Finally, without sending out any representative, India has lost an opportunity to convey their apprehensions on a formal platform.
Going beyond India's concerns, it is also imperative to capture the big picture here. Earlier this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Xi had offered a stirring defence of globalisation at a time when the United States under Donald Trump has decided to look inward, and Britain decided to quit the European Union. Prospects of a US-China trade war and the collapse of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, have given the OROB new impetus to burnish China's credentials as a responsible world leader and champion of globalisation. Many of the infrastructure projects mooted under the OBOR will take a few years come around, and at this juncture, it is too early to tell whether the Chinese will succeed in their endeavour.
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