As the countdown begins for the second edition of the Belt and Road Forum (BRF) later this month, Beijing is jubilant. Last month, China demonstrated that President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) had steamed into the heart of Europe. Late last month, during President Xi’s Europe visit, Italy became the first G7 country to formally subscribe to the China-led BRI. The Chinese have interpreted Rome’s decision as a historic event that revives ties between the European and Chinese civilisations. During his visit, President Xi also spoke about joint venture prospects in other countries, including in Africa. That apparently tickled a nostalgic nerve in European capitals, where it has been difficult to separate the guilt of colonisation from a whiff of romance. The geopolitical subtext of the visit is also fairly obvious. With its ties with the U.S. souring, China is making a bold move to chip away at the real or contrived fault-lines of the Trans-Atlantic Alliance. As in 2017, when there were plenty of red faces in China when India did not grace the BRF, there is once again a fear in Beijing that New Delhi may repeat the embarrassment. India had stayed out because of sovereignty concerns as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the flagship of the BRI, passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The question then arises whether there is third way out of the problem that would allow India to hold on to its position against official participation, but yet convey to the Chinese that New Delhi has no ingrained ill-will towards the BRI.
Perhaps, New Delhi can pull a leaf out of Japan’s play book. In 2017, after Tokyo had decided that it needed to rebuild bridges that had collapsed following a maritime dispute over a few East China Sea islands, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decided to send his trusted party ally, Toshihiro Nikai, to China. Mr. Nikai, the secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, though an established heavyweight, was technically not a part of government. His presence signalled that Tokyo continued to have reservations about the BRI, but was nevertheless open to an engagement with the enterprise, provided a course correction was carried out in the future. Significantly, Mr. Nikai’s delegation included the head of Keidanren, Japan’s Business Federation lobby — a pointer that its current misgivings apart, Japan could be open to business within the ambit of the BRI.
Taking the cue from Japan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi can also tap an influential party heavyweight to lead an Indian non-official delegation to the BRF, along with business leaders and reputed scholars. A mature and pragmatic Indian response, which keeps the door open for a future partnership with the BRI, may help keep afloat the reset achieved last year following the informal summit between Mr. Modi and Mr. Xi in Wuhan.
Atul Aneja is The Hindu’s China correspondent