On March 17, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution on security in Afghanistan. It includes a reference to regional development initiatives such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China promptly announced that this reference (possibly inserted at its instance) reflected a global consensus on the BRI. This is part of an intensifying campaign to mobilise high-level attendance at a summit — the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF) — being hosted by China in mid-May. The declared purpose is to review progress of the BRI, obtain perspectives of stakeholders and plan new trajectories of cooperation.
The grand design
The BRI originated from two speeches by President Xi Jinping in Central Asia in 2013, outlining plans for China’s global outreach through connectivity and infrastructure development. The Silk Road Economic Belt includes land corridors from China through Central Asia and Russia to Europe with spurs to West Asia and to Pakistan — the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The 21st century Maritime Silk Road links China’s east coast through major sea lanes to Europe in the west and the Pacific in the east. Together, they constitute the BRI (originally “One Belt One Road”, until the Chinese recently changed the name). The concept was subsequently fleshed out with multiple justifications and project ideas, finally giving it wings as the grand strategic vision of President Xi.
Among Chinese objectives of the BRI are finding outlets for excess capacity of its manufacturing and construction industries, increasing economic activity in its relatively underdeveloped western region, and creating alternative energy supply routes to the choke points of the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca, through which almost all of China’s maritime oil imports pass. The political subtext is strengthening China’s influence over swathes of Asia and Africa, buttressing its ambitions to be a maritime power, and developing financing structures parallel to (and eventually competing with) the Bretton Woods system. It is a rich mix of economic, developmental, strategic and geopolitical motives. It is also the most ambitious global infrastructure project ever envisaged by one country.
Connectivity and infrastructure development are unexceptionable objectives. Much of Asia lacks them and the finances required to develop them. The devil is in the detail. Analysts have highlighted a number of potential issues: Chinese overcapacity may override host countries’ development priorities in project selection; political tensions between countries may prevail over considerations of economic benefit; local elites may corner the “spoils” from new projects, thereby exacerbating social tensions; and financing strategies may result in countries sleepwalking into a debt trap (the Hambantota development projects in Sri Lanka provide a telling example). Much will depend on how sensitive China is to international and local concerns on these counts. However, even if only a part of the grand BRI design is eventually implemented, it could have a major political and economic impact.
India and the mid-May meet
Officially, India says it cannot endorse the BRI in its present form, since it includes the CPEC, which runs through Indian territory under illegal Pakistani occupation (Gilgit-Baltistan). Some analysts have argued for the more “pragmatic” approach of a partial endorsement: as the initiative rolls out in various countries, India can engage with them (and with China) to promote projects that would be of benefit.
Judging from recent Chinese actions, their major focus today is not so much securing endorsement for the BRI as ensuring high-level global attendance at the BRF. Whatever its other objectives, the principal role of the forum is to showcase international endorsement of President Xi’s strategic vision of economic cooperation for peace. The forum is timed to enable him to carry this aura of global recognition into the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party later this year, where he will put his policy stamp on his second term as party general secretary.
As of April 21, China confirmed attendance of 28 heads of state and government at the BRF. They include leaders of Russia, Turkey, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Indonesia. This is a relatively disappointing list. The U.S. of course, but also Germany, France and the U.K. will not be represented at the top level (because of their leaders’ domestic preoccupations). There are only two each from South Asia, Central Asia and Africa and none from West Asia. It is no wonder then that China is launching an all-out charm offensive to attract more quality attendance at the forum. India has also been a target, since it has apparently not yet conveyed the level of its attendance. China’s argument, that India would be “isolating” itself by staying out, is a pressure tactic: roads, ports and railways are public goods, which cannot be open to some and closed to others, based on nationality.
Scope for give and take
India should ask China whether it is willing to address its concerns in such a way as to enable high-level Indian participation. Would China be willing to declare that the CPEC is not a component of the BRI but a separate bilateral China-Pakistan project?
The sovereignty issue needs to be addressed. China’s Foreign Minister declared that the CPEC does not change Beijing’s stand on Jammu and Kashmir. A senior Chinese diplomat was more explicit, drawing attention to Article 6 of the 1963 China-Pakistan “boundary” agreement (in which Pakistan ceded the “Trans-Karakoram tract” to China), wherein the two sides agreed that after the J&K issue is resolved, China would renegotiate the boundary with the relevant sovereign country. Would China be willing to say the same today about the CPEC — that once the status of Gilgit-Baltistan is agreed bilaterally between India and Pakistan, China will renegotiate with the sovereign authority the terms of transit of the corridor?
China argues that connectivity provided by the BRI would enhance economic cooperation and promote peace. Will it walk its altruistic talk and include the existing land corridor from India to Afghanistan, through Pakistan, in the BRI? This corridor would intersect the CPEC and may therefore open new routes for Chinese goods to both India and Afghanistan, besides promoting India, Pakistan and Afghanistan trade. With its investment in the CPEC now estimated at over $60 billion, its increasing bilateral assistance to Pakistan and its growing military presence in that country, China is in a strong position to persuade Pakistan to recognise that this is in its best economic interest: it may even transform the CPEC into a commercially viable project.
The Indian government may have other ideas on reciprocal actions. The short point is that the strong Chinese interest for a high-level Indian presence at the BRF may provide New Delhi the opportunity to extract something of commensurate value in return.