China will be hosting its second high-profile Belt Road Initiative (BRI) meeting from April 25–27 in Beijing. According to Chinese Foreign Ministry, over 37 heads of the states and governments have already confirmed their participation in the event. More than 150 countries are sending their representatives and 80-plus international organisations have also confirmed their participation. Prime Ministers of Pakistan and Nepal are among the participants this year from India’s neighbourhood. However, India reaffirmed its stand of not joining the BRI or participating in the forum.
China announced in 2013 its flag ship project of reviving the old silk routes for trading with the global community. The aim of the project is to develop corridors for trade, energy, infrastructure and telecommunications. The first BRI forum held in 2017 was attended by several world leaders and representatives of various countries. India, China’s immediate neighbour and one of the largest markets in the world, refused to attend the forum. India argues that China’s flagship project China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is part of the BRI, violates its sovereignty and territorial integrity in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) that India considers its own territory. The projects including the Diamer Bhasha Dam, 180-MW hydel power project and many economic zones and expressways along Karakorum Highway are contested by India as they fall in the Gilgit-Baltistan region — a disputed territory.
India maintains that connectivity initiatives must follow universally recognised international norms, principles of openness, good governance, transparency, environmental protection and its preservation including the promotion of skill and technology transfer and financial stability. However, with respect to the BRI, India argues that the countries which are part of the project may fall into debt traps and may not receive technological transfers and the projects can lead to environmental unsustainability.
The BRI so far has covered more than 200 projects in 70 odd countries. A trillion-dollar initiative is aimed at providing countries with financial assistance to develop infrastructure and developmental projects. However, the BRI has proved to be controversial because of its nature and terms and conditions related to it. India along with the US have been vocal about the ulterior motives of the initiative that has created debt traps for countries such as Sri Lanka, where China has taken Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port for a lease of 99 years as debt swap. The countries such as Myanmar, Malaysia and recently Maldives, under the newly elected President Ibrahim Solih, have decided to review and renegotiate some of the projects under BRI. Even Pakistan, arch rival of India and “all weather ally” of China, is reviewing some of the projects under CPEC over debt concerns.
India maintains that China’s BRI has geopolitical implications for the region in general and global in particular. The Silk Road and Maritime Silk Route corridors built under BRI pass through Asia into the heart of Europe. Italy and Luxemburg are the two new entrants from Europe to be part of the BRI. The corridor provides China access by way of linking ports to countries in Indian Ocean, Africa and Europe. China denies any geopolitical motives behind the initiative and has referred to it as an open and inclusive economic cooperation initiative.
In Indian Ocean, China has developed its first Naval Base Djibouti, civilian port at Gwadar Pakistan, a port facility and a special economic zone in Hambantota province Sri Lanka and Kyaukpyuport in Myanmar. India considers this as a deliberate attempt by the Chinese to encircle the country from all sides.
In ASEAN region, China has invested in long-awaited “Sihanoukville Expressway” in Cambodia, upgraded Kuantan port in Malaysia and is developing “Pan-Asia Railway Network” consisting of three major railway routes in Thailand. Vietnam has agreed to align the BRI initiative with the “Two Corridors and One Economic Circle” plan for strategic interests.
In Africa, the BRI projects are operational in countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Algeria and Sudan. In Europe, China is building infrastructure in Armenia, Greece and Italy. More than 15 major European cities are directly connected to China.
It should be noted that India cannot stop countries going ahead with Chinese-led BRI. At best, India can initiate projects on its own or in collaboration with countries like Japan or US for developing infrastructure and connectivity with neighbouring countries and in the extended neighbourhood. The Asia-Africa Growth Corridor is one such project where India and Japan have decided to connect African countries with India and South East Asia via ports. This is an ambitious project wherein India would provide with the technical and human resources and Japan its capital. This project is seen by many as counter to Chinese BRI. Others include the Chabahar port development in Iran to reach out to the landlocked Central Asian countries and recently signing an agreement with the Nepalese government to build a rail link to Kathmandu. With US, India is pooling its resources to provide sustainable infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific region.
Whatever the case maybe, India has to keep on providing institutional assistance and promoting free and transparent environment. Unless India is satisfied that these conditions are met, it will be reluctant to endorse Chinese-led BRI. As on April 5, 2018, the India’s Ministry of External Affairs reiterated its previous stand on the BRI and put out statement: “Our position on OBOR/BRI is clear and there is no change. The so-called ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’ violates India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. No country can accept a project that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity. We are of firm belief that connectivity initiatives must be based on universally recognised international norms, good governance, rule of law, openness, transparency and equality, and must be pursued in a manner that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
However, the subcontinent’s geography is such that it makes it plain that Indian Market will be hugely benefited if India becomes part of the BRI. But the presence of persistent competition and conflict over borders between India and China make projects for both countries less productive. Chinese media have also highlighted that India will lose out a lot in terms of economic opportunities that the BRI promises if it is again going to boycott the second meeting. Onus in on India to deal with the issue and policymakers in North and South Block in Delhi should come up with policies that are inherently suited for India’s interests.