OPINION

Carving out a path on China’s road

New Delhi has recently made a subtle move by trying to reverse the Kashmir discourse hitherto scripted and played by Pakistan for seven decades. The new move is accompanied by a sudden spurt in video clippings showing Pakistani atrocities in Gilgit-Baltistan. Hopefully, this is not a propaganda stunt and the policy shift will gain seriousness from now on.

New Delhi’s move comes against the backdrop of China’s renewed push into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir through its $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) initiative. The subsequent “Karamay Declaration” of August 2015 defined Pakistan’s role in China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. The nexus is nothing new but the motivation, significance and implications of CPEC needs careful analysis.

Iron brothers

The plan seemingly aims to build a crucial two-way bridge-link for China to access the Indian Ocean and conversely for Pakistan to reach out to Eurasia. But it is likely to deepen the already complex strategic ties between the two “iron brothers”, dubbed now as equivalent to the U.S.-Israel links. China expects CPEC will yield far-reaching economic benefits and regional security is instrumental for this purpose.

First, the Karakoram (land) with Gwadar (sea) alignment has both commercial and military significance to serve as strategic chokepoints vis-à-vis India.

Second, the CPEC is suspected to be about offsetting the growing U.S.-India intimacy as also in China’s quid pro quo to counter India’s “Act East” policy.

Third, it seems linked to preventing the Afghan-Pak area from potentially becoming a safe haven for Uighur militants once the U.S. troops leave Afghanistan. Beijing’s frantic initiatives for Afghan reconciliation talks explain that.

Clearly, Beijing seeks new opportunity to fill up gaps where India has largely failed. Considering PoK’s strategic location, it could have many ramifications for India. It is here that CPEC is linked to Pakistan’s recent attempts at manipulating the legal and demographic profile of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB). Islamabad wants to make GB the fifth province of Pakistan. As speculations go Pakistan could lease additional areas in GB to China like the Shaksgam Valley that was surrendered in 1963. Opening a Chinese Consulate is also in the offing. This is too serious for India to ignore.

Meanwhile works under the CPEC have started, ranging from building of hydro projects, roads and tunnels to leasing land in Gwadar. While Beijing has justified CPEC as a “livelihood project”, Pakistan is going the whole hog to get the landlocked Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) members to join the corridor and offering them access to the Indian Ocean. For India, China’s OBOR plan posed a dilemma: joining it raised fears of getting sucked into China game plan, but not joining is inconsistent with New Delhi’s broader diplomatic strategy. New Delhi also seems more peeved over the way Beijing announced the plan without prior discussion.

India’s non-endorsement of OBOR has raised eyebrows on the future course of India-China relations. China’s plan obviously carries security undertones, but staying outside it seems short-sighted.

Creative engagement

Clearly, India requires a two pronged strategy. First, New Delhi should start placing Gilgit-Baltistan plus Ladakh (82 per cent of J&K) on the centre-stage as a keystone policy to blunt both the Kashmir rhetoric and CPEC. It is also time to start working on Pakistan’s domestic resistance i.e. in Baluchistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan. The “Modi effect” seems to be already working as these regions are now abuzz with pro-freedom slogans.

Second, India should explore opportunistic aspects in the OBOR especially for regaining access to the northern axis, prevented by loss of GB to Pakistan. Therefore, India needs to weigh the option of getting a physical entry into GB, Sinkiang and Wakhan areas hitherto remained out-of-its-way — it can’t be in India’s interest to support the project and not reap all the economic benefits. Further considering the region remains a critical focus of India’s threat perceptions, being on the road would be beneficial for tracking regional terrorism and developing capabilities to respond to future uncertainties Opting out is a diplomatic risk as Pakistan may exploit India’s absence. As in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Pakistan would be on the lookout to place India in the role of the spoiler within the SCO. Clearly, Russia and others would want India in the OBOR as a counterweight to Chinese influence. Regardless of economic interests, India can’t ignore the symbolic significance as it was along the Silk Route that Indian trade and philosophy (Buddhism) once travelled to the rest of Asia.

It’s an open question whether this type of diplomacy will be successful, but India’s philosophy should be is clear: travel on the road. This is a tricky balancing act, but the challenge is to re-conceptualise and seek new economic, diplomatic and security realities on the ground. Just as India joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a wise approach would be to creatively join the Silk Route.

In fact, a countervailing strategy would be to offer a mollifying connectivity plan for a direct transport, energy, trade, fiber optics and communication highway connecting Persian Gulf with China through Indian Territory under the rubric India-China Silk Route Corridor. It could serve multiple interlocking advantages for India from infrastructure building to buying guarantee against Chinese misadventures. The idea could help open a new path and become a masterstroke counter-strategy in India’s long-term home and foreign policy.

(Phunchok Stobdan is a former ambassador and an expert on Inner Asian affairs.)



Opting out of the CPEC is a diplomatic risk as Pakistan may exploit India’s absence in the regional grouping