Vol. XLI No. 21 May 21, 2017

Belt and Road Initiative: Blinkered View of Government

Prakash Karat

INDIA has isolated itself by not participating in the Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing on May 14-15. To justify its non-participation, the Modi government has questioned the motives behind the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative taken by China which is linking countries and regions representing 60 per cent of the world’s population and 30 per cent of the global GDP. 

China launched this initiative in 2013 with the aim of reincarnating the old silk road in a contemporary form. Through land routes from China extending through Asia to Europe and a maritime silk route from China to Europe, the ambitious project aims to establish connectivity and new economic and trade ties between countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. 

As part of OBOR, now called the Belt and Round Initiative (BRI), a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is being established which passes through Gilgit.  This is a part of Kashmir claimed by India which has been under Pakistan’s control since 1947. India has objected to the CPEC on the grounds that its sovereignty is being violated.  This also led to the announcement that it would not take part in the Beijing summit.

China, on its part, clarified that India’s stand on sovereignty is not being questioned and China’s stand that this issue must be resolved between India and Pakistan bilaterally remains unchanged. It asked India to see the CPEC as purely a project of economic cooperation.

Modi government has refused to accept this position.  By doing so, it has shifted from the longstanding position that India has had that notwithstanding territorial disputes, it would continue to develop economic and trade ties with China.  It should be noted that China had built the Karakoram Highway in 1960 which also passes through the same disputed territory of Gilgit. Moreover, India has direct border disputes with China. Both countries had decided that while efforts to resolve the border issue should continue, it should not stand in the way of developing India-China relations in other spheres.

On participation in the BRI, India finds itself isolated amongst its South Asian neighbours.  Apart from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives have attended the Belt and Road Forum.  Only Bhutan has not done so but then it has no diplomatic relations with China. 

Nepal signed a framework agreement to join the OBOR, just a week before the Beijing meet.  The Sri Lankan prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, left for Beijing to attend the summit a few hours after Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka ended.

29 Heads of States and governments attended the forum in Beijing.  Among those who attended were President Putin of Russia, President Erdogan of Turkey, President Widodo of Indonesia, President Nazarbayev of Kazhakhistan, President Michelle Bachelet of Chile, Prime Minister Gentolini of Italy and senior ministers from UK, Germany and France. The secretary general of the United Nations and the heads of the IMF and the World Bank too attended.  Even countries which have maritime disputes with China like Japan and Vietnam attended.  The latter was represented by its president, Tran Dai Quang.

To the surprise of the Modi government, the United States also sent a delegation headed by Matt Pottinger, special assistant to President Trump and a key member of the National Security Council.  Sean Spicer, the press secretary of the White House, said that the US will continue to work with China under the Belt and Road initiative as “It is a major trade initiative”. 

It seems a major factor for the Modi government’s negative stand on BRI stemmed from the understanding that it is in line with the United States’ policy of strategic containment of China.  The Modi government had committed to be part of the US pivot to Asia designed during the Obama presidency.  Even as recently as May 5, the US Pacific Fleet Commander, Admiral Scott Swift, had met the press in Delhi and questioned the intent of China’s BRI and stated that it is causing anxiety among the countries in the region.  The Modi government probably overlooked the  trade agreement which materialised after Xi Jinping’s visit to America last month.  The volte face by the Trump administration has exposed the bankruptcy of the pro-US foreign policy of Modi.

Having hitched India to the geo-political strategy of the United States, the Modi government is committing a series of foreign policy blunders.  Another illustration of this shortsighted approach is the effort to retrench economic ties with Iran as soon as the Trump administration ratcheted up sanctions against Iran.

In the case of the BRI, the Modi government is proving to be more loyal than the King himself.  As senior journalist, Prem Shankar Jha, aptly put it: “Modi has cut India’s nose off to spite China’s face.”

It is a fact that the execution of the infrastructure and connectivity projects under the BRI will be advantageous for China.  China has excess industrial capacity and large foreign exchange reserves.  As the world’s biggest manufacturing nation and exporter, the increased connectivity through Asia to Europe will, no doubt, greatly benefit China.  But the obverse is that there are obvious benefits for the countries involved in the BRI venture – new investment, new infrastructure, connectivity and new jobs.  The way the BRI has been designed, it is a platform in which each country can join according to its own requirements and the stake it wishes to hold.

At a time where the global economy is still to fully recover from the 2008 financial crisis, the BRI is being, by and large, welcomed as an innovative measure to prime investment, build infrastructure and develop connectivity that will help growth on a global scale. It is reported that 68 countries have linked up to the Belt and Road Initiative.  It is a pity that India is being kept out of this historic venture due to its blinkered government.