Why is India staying away?
Four years after it announced to the world that it was planning a mega project to revive the old Silk route for trading, with a corridor for infrastructure, trade, energy and telecommunications, China brought together leaders and officials of 130 countries, 68 of which they claimed had already signed on to the Belt and Road Initiative (B&RI) project. Several participant countries sent their heads of state, others like Japan and the U.S., who aren’t part of the initiative, sent senior officials, but India sent no one, not even a local embassy official to take notes. 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 travelling for the B&RI Forum.
Just hours before the forum was due to open in Beijing, the MEA issued a comprehensive statement on its objections to the B&RI, which were three-fold: the corridor includes projects in land belonging to India; the projects could push smaller countries on the road into a crushing debt cycle, destroy the ecology and disrupt local communities; and China’s agenda was unclear, with the implied accusation that this was more about enhancing its political influence, not just its physical networks.
All of India’s neighbours, with the exception of Bhutan, have entered the B&RI, and India’s concerns have been heightened by the growing presence of China in Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
What is the main objection?
India’s main objection is on the principle that the B&RI includes projects in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that are located in the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir’s Gilgit Baltistan, including the Diamer Bhasha Dam, 180-MW hydel power projects, and more expressways and economic zones along the Karakoram Highway built in the 1970s. Ever since the announcement of the CPEC in April 2015, India has made those concerns felt, beginning with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China just weeks after and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj raising the issue at the UN General Assembly that year. However, India didn’t explicitly say it would not join the B&RI, leaving room for speculation that there was place for talks on the issue, if the Chinese were willing to discuss alternate routing. If not, India made it clear during talks in February 2017 that it couldn’t either join the project or even attend the forum with the B&RI map showing Gilgit Baltistan in Pakistan as part of a ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.’
Did China try to talk?
India claims that China has not only been insensitive to its sovereignty, but has never fully explained its plan for the Belt and Road (formerly called One Belt One Road) initiative. China’s reply has been that none of the other countries in the project has complained about lack of transparency. Chinese and Indian officials have spoken about the project a few times, but India remains unconvinced.
In May, about 10 days before the forum, China’s Ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui gave a speech at a military think-tank with a four-point initiative to improve tense ties between India and China, including a suggestion that China was open to renaming the CPEC if that would resolve India’s B&RI problem. Foreign Minister Wang Yi also said that if sovereignty alone was the issue, China could work around it as it had during the China-Pakistan border dispute of 1963, in which they agreed that all negotiations were subject to re-negotiation after the “settlement of the Kashmir dispute.” China also pointed out that India is a co-founder of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which will support many B&RI projects, and also remains committed to the Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar economic corridor, which connects to the B&RI. But it was possibly too late by then, and India’s decision was made.
At the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) next month, Mr. Modi will meet President Xi Jinping, as India officially becomes a member of the grouping. It remains to be seen whether the SCO, which also officially endorses the B&RI, or Mr. Xi himself are able to allay India’s fears over the project.