India will be absent from China’s Belt and Road Initiative (B&RI) Forum beginning Sunday, the government said on Saturday. The External Affairs Ministry explained that while the government supported connectivity projects, they “must be pursued in a manner that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity”. India has objected to the $46-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor part of the B&RI, as it includes projects in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).
“The international community is well aware of India’s position. No country can accept a project that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the Ministry spokesperson said on Saturday night, just hours ahead of the Forum’s inauguration.
All neighbours of India, except Bhutan, will have senior-level participation at the forum. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde and World Bank President Kim Yong will be present as China unveils plans for infrastructure projects estimated at $500 billion across Asia and Europe.
In a dig at China’s high-interest project loans in the region, which India believes will lead to a “debt trap” in countries such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, the spokesperson added that the B&RI must pursue “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”.
According to experts, India’s absence from the forum will be seen as a major snub to China, that is pitching it as a “prestige event” to which it has confirmed 110 official delegations and 29 heads of state and government.
“Attendance doesn’t mean endorsement,” said expert Ravi Bhoothalingam at the Institute for China Studies, “But absence is a rebuff. Sending a representative at an appropriate level is what both the U.S. and Japan have chosen as their response,” he added.
Both the U.S. and Japan are not signatories to the Belt and Road initiative, but will be represented by senior advisers to President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe respectively.
Hailing the decision by India not to participate unless China took its territorial concerns over PoK seriously, former Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal said India didn’t need to worry about losing out.
“China needs the Indian market more than India needs Chinese investment. The Chinese should stop preening about their economic success which is real but not take it to mean that the world will fall at their feet,” Mr. Sibal said.
The Chinese government had doubled efforts to convince India to join. In a speech last week, the Chinese Ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui suggested a four-step initiative to repair ties damaged over differences on the CPEC, entry to the Nuclear Suppliers Group and UN designation for JeM chief Masood Azhar, and even suggesting that China could consider changing the name of the corridor through Pakistan. However, subsequently, the reference in the Ambassador’s speech was deleted online after Pakistan protested.