India Needs to Rethink its Stand on China’s Belt and Road Initiative : PART II

-by Abhinav Pandya

The old saying, “When the dragon sneezes, the world catches cold” has acquired a completely new meaning after the low-key announcement of the One belt One rad project by Xi in 2013. The cloak of secrecy has always been the characteristic feature of the middle empire and this has already disturbed the world of diplomacy and intelligence. Coupled with its increasingly assertive posture in South China sea, Belt and Road initiative has come to be looked upon as a ‘silk glove for Chinese iron fist” .

In general, it has raised perceptible uneasiness among the leading world powers but in the case of India the fears are alarming as the dragon spitting fire is right in its backyard. India didn’t send even a single embassy official to recent OBOR summit in Beijing. Directives were also issued by the Ministry of External Affairs that anyone from think-tanks, business chambers, and other Ministries would have to take clearance if they were traveling for B&RI forum.
Further, just hours before the forum was due to begin, the MEA of India issued a comprehensive statement declaring its objections to the B&RI, which were three-fold: the corridor includes projects in the land belonging to India thus amounting to the direct violation of India’s territorial integrity; the projects could push smaller countries on the road into a crushing debt cycle, destroy the ecology and disrupt the local communities; and China’s agenda was unclear, with the implied accusation that this was more about enhancing its global geostrategic footprint, not just its physical networks.
All of India’s neighbors except Bhutan have joined the initiative. China’s increasing presence in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar makes the situation alarming for India.
Closer analysis reveals that it is not just B&RI that has raised the fear in Indian strategic circles. In fact, these concerns have been accumulating since the days of what many Indian strategists refer to as the “String of Pearls”. The “String of Pearls” is a theory, very popular in Indian strategic and intelligence circles, which argues that China is trying to cordon off India by building a network of dual-use ports connecting its eastern coast to the Middle East that would boost its strategic clout and maritime access.
India’s strategic community sees B&RI initiative as nothing but the transformation of “string of pearls” into a more systematic, devious and deceptive strategy loaded with covert revanchist ambitions nicely hidden under the cloak of economic development and shared prosperity.
Brahma Chellany, India’s leading China expert writes in Japan Times, “ Indeed, by working to establish its dominance along the major trade arteries, while instigating territorial and maritime disputes with several neighbors, China is attempting to redraw Asia’s geopolitical map”. Former Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran sees OBOR as not just an economic initiative but one that has clear political and security implications. It is for Saran “a carving out by China of a continental-marine geostrategic realm.”
The central debate here is not whether India’s concerns are genuine or not. Given the history of conflict between the two countries and China’s all-weather friendship with Pakistan, the gravity of India’s concerns cannot be trivialized. However, the matter of import here is India’s response to the grand designs of the Middle Empire.
Is India losing a big economic opportunity by not participating in B&RI initiative?
Is India giving a cart blanche to Pakistan and China in Kashmir by boycotting the B&RI?
Is India going into a self-imposed isolation by staying away from this mega project spanning across Eurasia?
Firstly, coming to the most pressing of India’s concerns i.e. implementation of CPEC on the territory claimed by India amounting to the violation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of India. It is indeed a genuine concern for India but by not joining the initiative India is basically giving Pakistan and China a free hand in the Pak Occupied Kashmir or the so-called “disputed territory”, the jargon used in international diplomatic circles. In a situation, where India does not have an effective political control over the territory, leaving it open for a multilateral infrastructure project with a clear focus on transport corridors amounts to virtually giving a free rein to China and Pakistan, and that implies a de facto political control of the two. In course of time, their stakes and an economic and strategic foothold in the area will be so strongly entrenched that it will be virtually impossible for India to hold any claim. India will have mere legal locus standi in that case and when it comes to disputes where a huge geographical area is involved along with its people, India must have a strong cultural, economic and social connect with that region. These unofficial linkages will strengthen India’s foothold and provide substance to our claim in the future if the matter comes to any legal negotiation.
James Dorsey has mentioned in “The Times of Central Asia”, about a leaked plan of CPEC. James Dorsey informs that a leaked long-term plan for ‘China’s massive $56 billion investment in Pakistan projects the goals of the Beijing’s One Belt, One Road initiative as a ploy for economic domination, the creation of surveillance states, and allowing China to shape media landscapes’. The leaked plan also revealed that a full system of monitoring and surveillance would be built in Pakistani cities to ensure law and order. The system would involve deployment of explosive detectors and scanners to “cover major roads, case-prone areas, and crowded places…in urban areas to conduct real-time monitoring and 24-hour video recording.” The plan also outlined how Pakistan would be turned even more than it already is into a surveillance state in which freedoms of expression and media are manipulated. It also suggested the degree to which One Belt, One Road is designed to establish China as Eurasia’s dominant power based on economics as well as the adoption of measures that undermine democracy or inhibit political transition in autocracies.
The leaked plan may not be a complete picture of China’s modus operandi but it certainly unravels the subtle nuances of China’s hidden motives. And, if Chinese designs include transforming states in surveillance states then India must foresee the possibility of highly sophisticated intelligence installations and some high voltage intelligence activity in the neighborhood and Pak Occupied Kashmir. Such activities are hidden in nature and in the long term could be highly detrimental to India’s national interests. Therefore, it becomes all the more important to be the part of this initiative not for the reasons of morality or goodwill but purely for the logic of statecraft and the protection of India’s national interests.
Secondly, discounting for all the nefarious designs and hidden motives, it cannot be denied that B&RI initiative offers tremendous economic opportunities. The highways and rail links built in the highly volatile and sensitive region of Eurasia and the maritime routes will be the lifeline of international trade and commerce in the future. Staying away from such a grand project is like a self-imposed economic “agyaatwaas” (exile). In a globalized and interdependent world of today, this will be a blunder of Himalayan heights and will result in putting major hurdles in India’s economic growth and finally in some sort of isolation which could be diplomatic as well as economic.
China has already hinted at this, though in the form of a mild threat. It must be recognized that at the core the B&RI initiative is a multilateral economic regime which has all the potential to herald a new breakthrough in the global trade and commerce and completely transform the post-war economic order. At this stage, China has made attempts to cajole India to join. The entire project is in the state of infancy. Even China cannot afford to ignore the elephant in the room i.e. India and China, may be out of pure necessity sees India as an essential entity to ensure the success of the project. But with the passage of time, China might grow stronger and capture the vantage points of this international economic regime. At that stage, India will have no clout to control, regulate and manipulate the economic and geopolitical trends that emanate from the B&RI initiative. Hence, it becomes necessary to see beyond the petty issues of ego and minor interests of domestic electoral politics and, join the initiative. The best way to counter will be to join the bandwagon and in course of time carving out a niche for yourself, chipping away at China’s clout. And, this is what the world powers are aiming at. US and Japan, though officially not the part of the initiative but sent their representatives. American companies have been awarded huge contracts in CPEC. Therefore, the best way is to grab the maximum share of the pie.
Further, India has nothing to fear. While OBOR captured world’s imagination just a few years back in 2013, it is essential to note that India is at the center of many regional connectivity projects like Chahbahar (Iran) and Zaranj-Dalaram project. Another project with which India is associated is International North-South Transit Corridor (INSTC). INSTC was started in 2000, almost a decade before B&RI. INSTC initially brought together India, Iran, and Russia to create multi-modal links (ship-rail-road) from India to Europe, via the Gulf, Central Asia, and Russia. The partnership later included Turkey and the other Central Asian republics. A dry-run to check its viability was also successfully conducted in August 2014, after which transit and customs agreements were approved in September 2015. Ashbaghat agreement (multi-modal transport agreement) brings together India, Oman, Iran, and the Central Asian republics was initiated in April 2011. In South Asia, Indian projects include the development of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal into a maritime hub, including a dry dock and a ship-building facility. At the Sri Lankan port of Trincomalee, India has been looking at setting up a petroleum hub. India has also announced that it will develop a number of connectivity projects in South Asia, valued at $5 billion. One another B&RI project that already involves India directly is Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC) which is a combination of infrastructure and trade facilitation agreements. While India will benefit in terms of the development of the Kolkata port and the opening up of the economic potential of its northeastern states, China will obtain one more route bypassing the Malacca Strait.

Saadat Hasan Bilal writes in Diplomat, “These (Indian Connectivity projects) might lack the dramatic impact of OBOR, but taken together, they bring together a number of solid partners and have the capacity to transform the regional economic and geopolitical landscape to India’s advantage. India, thus, has little need to feel insecure about OBOR”.
He further informs, “Though promoted by China, OBOR is open to a change in course and content. Indian engagement, therefore, is also an opportunity to shape OBOR to suit Indian needs and interests. Given that the CPEC appears to be floundering, Indian willingness to participate and thereby create greater economic viability would also generate great goodwill within important sections of the Chinese state. This goodwill could well influence politics elsewhere, including on Indian membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group and a willingness to increase pressure on Pakistani state actors on terrorism both in private and in public. Participation in CPEC specifically, and OBOR more generally, in Central Asia and Southeast Asia also allows India to play the role of a “swing factor.” Indian buy-in into the Pakistani economy through CPEC, for example, is also an opportunity to influence Pakistani politics and state actors. Will the Pakistanis or the Chinese agree to allow India to join? There will be groups in both countries that will see the business sense in involving India and might well push for Delhi’s inclusion”.
China has already recognized the need for more extensive and intensive dialogue with major actors like India, whose participation in the OBOR would be crucial for the successful implementation of the project. If connectivity projects were to be negotiated among the various stakeholders with a cooperative spirit, the strategic value of the projects would increasingly give way to their more important economic value, which would be the true “win-win” that Chinese policymakers have been emphasizing lately. This will open the space for an active Indian role in projects that serve its interests, such as BCIM-EC and those that would promote links from South Asia to Central Asia and Russia.
Kautilya, the famous India theorist on statecraft said that one of the most important elements of the state is the “enemy” along with others like the “king”, “fort”, “minister” etc. Kautilya says that it is immensely important to monitor, keep a check and contain the activities of the “enemy” and mostly its diplomacy through engagement and cooperation which helps in this, rather than war which is increasingly becoming difficult in today’s globalized world. Hence, in line with what Kautilya says, it is beneficial for India to join B&RI, as Kautilyan principles strongly inform the philosophical moorings of India’s foreign policy.
In the Indian strategic circles, this writer did not come across any holistic analysis giving a bird’s eye view of India fears, and the ways to address them. The informed analysis is lacking and eminent diplomats and intelligence experts have been found providing a detailed analysis of Chinese hidden motives that sound more like conspiracy theories rather than evidenced-based and logically consistent argument. They mention the roadblock and the odds that China will face and, with a politically correct ease emanating out of diplomatic comfort zone, they go on to predict a failure of the Chinese project. Hardly, one finds a measured analysis of India’s genuine concerns, (as their focus is on fears) and the measures to check China’s so-called “diplomatic offensive”, to use the pharase mentioned by Jaydeva Ranade, India prominent intelligence expert on China. And, some of them like Jay Shrinivasan suggest a slew of measures to checkmate China, but they primarily focus on “soft power” diplomacy harnessing the shared cultural and religious traditions of India with Central Asian countries. No doubt, this sounds like a great idea loaded with wishful thinking, but it must be noted that B&RI’s core strength comes from China’s hard economic power. Culture and religion are fine but can’t wean away the participant countries from the lure of Chinese soft loans and huge investment.
And, truly speaking the future of B&RI is not all that bleak. The project has the potential to transform the trade and commerce in Eurasia, despite the hurdles outlined in my previous article. Giorgio Fiacconi writes in STRATFOR, “The undisputed potential of the project should give a positive impact to local economies from the very beginning, creating employment and parallel infrastructure and production facilities able to support the development while guaranteeing new development. Only in this way the project be seen as a source of mutually beneficial development and not a plan of Chinese control and dominance”. Korean scholar Jae Ho-chung informs that when completed, OBOR will include 60 countries, with two-thirds of the world’s population, 55 percent of global GDP, and 75 percent of global energy reserves. It will consist of 900 infrastructure projects, valued at about $1.3 trillion.

India can forge economic partnerships with other countries like Japan and the US alarmed by Chinese initiative on the lines of what Zaid Haidar suggests for the US. In fact, India is already pursuing a maritime initiative with Japan that completely bypasses all Central Asian countries through a maritime route as an alternative to China’s B&RI. The project hardly brings any benefit to Central Asian countries. It looks more like a duplication of the costly and tedious facilities that are being used currently with a different nomenclature. Giorgio Fiacconi writes, “ The Indian proposal, moved by India’s dissatisfaction with the large Chinese investment through Kashmir territory controlled by Pakistan, will probably never see adequate implementation, but it clearly represents an obstacle OBOR should expect in developing its projects in this part of the world.
Hence, along with forging partnerships with competing countries, for India at this stage, it appears reasonable to keep the doors of engagement with China open and carve out a niche for itself in the B&RI initiative. On the bedrock of this niche, the future of B&RI will witness an active Indian role in B&RI, on account of its historical and cultural ties with the participant countries. To sum up, this writer would like to conclude that India must stop seeing the B&RI initiative through the prism of 1962 and explore all the opportunities of constructive engagement with China and rest of the participant countries. And, it becomes even more important as India’s neighbors like Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have already joined the initiative.


The views expressed are authors own views and does not reflect of the organization

AUTHOR: Abhinav Pandya
Abhinav Pandya is a policy analyst who specializes in counterterrorism, Indian foreign policy and Af-Pak geopolitics. A graduate in public affairs from Cornell University, he has more more than seven years of experience in public policy, counterterrorism, electoral politics and the development sector in India and the US. Pandya has worked as a member of the United Nations’ (UN) national level specialist team to review the flagship employment guarantee scheme of India. He regularly writes for the Huffington Post, Fair Observer, Indian Military Review and Vivekananda Foundation, India’s premier think tank, on security affairs and diplomacy. He has also written an evaluation paper on the counterterrorism committee of the UN. Pandya is currently a consultant with Vidya Bhawan, Udaipur.