Belt and Road Action Plan: Choices for India


china-silkIn search of economic expansion and to gain strategic depth in the region, China has proposed a revival of the ancient trading route- the ‘Silk Route’- which connected East Asia to Eastern Europe, via Central Asia. While China maintains that its motives are purely commercial gain, others remain wary. India has been uneasy about the heavy investments made by China in South Asian countries, traditionally considered a part of India’s neighbourhood, and the hardliners see the ‘one belt, one road’ initiative as just a velvet coated ploy to further encircle India, as a possible extension of the ‘string of pearls’. In such scenario, there is a need for a nuanced examination of the initiative itself and India’s concerns and options.

 ‘Belt and Road’ initiative

In a very significant move, the blue print for the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative was spelt out by Xi Jinping in the recently concluded Bo Ao Forum for Asia, convened in Sanya, Hainan.

Xi JinpingThe concept was first proposed by Mr. Xi in a speech at Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan, in 2013. He said that to “forge closer economic ties, deepen cooperation and expand development” in the Euro-Asia region, there was a need to build an “economic belt” reviving the ancient trading routes, which had historically linked Asia to Europe. He proposed that traffic connectivity and economic integration needed to be promoted to open the strategic regional thoroughfare from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea, and gradually move toward the set-up of a network of transportation that connects Eastern, Western and Southern Asia.

The initiative of building Maritime Silk Road (MSR) had been proposed by Xi Jinping during his visit to Indonesia in 2013 in order to deepen economic and maritime ties. The MSR is to begin in Fuzhou, South East China, heads south into the ASEAN nations, crosses the strategic Malacca Strait, and then turns west to countries along the Indian Ocean. It then meets the land based Silk Road in Venice via the Red Sea and Mediterranean.  Under the ambit of MSR, China plans to build hard and soft infrastructure from Indo-Pacific to Africa upgrading transport, energy, water management, financial institutions, communication, earth monitoring, economic and social infrastructure.

China’s agenda

 With 32 littoral countries (including China) which are to touch the ‘21st Century MSR’, it is of great geo economic and geostrategic importance. The combined population of these countries is around 4 billion people, and the GDP of around $16 trillion. These are the countries with huge potentials and have archived rapid economic growth recently (the highest average annual growth rate of 22.83% that of Myanmar). China believes that the ‘21st Century MSR’ is going to be an important driver of regional as well as global economic growth and China is sees an opportunity for sustaining its domestic economy on one hand while strengthening strategic partnership with various countries on the other.

Announcements in the Boao Forum

xin_2120406181117953196122The document released on Saturday points out that economic connectivity is the core thrust and to make it financially viable, Mr. Xi has also announced the establishment of a Silk Road Fund with 40 billion USD to support infrastructure investments in countries involved, and linked the newly founded Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and BRICS New Development Bank to the initiative. The document talks about ‘Silk Road Spirit’ which embodies aspects of “peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit”. Stressing on the inclusive aspect of the project, Chinese ambassador to India, says that China does not prefer a solo but ‘a symphony performed by various countries.’ The document identifies five major goals of the initiative- promoting policy coordination, facilitating connectivity, uninterrupted trade, financial integration and people-to-people exchanges. It is in the view of its massive scale that the strategic community has raised various questions including how such initiatives are in sync with China’s foreign policy goals; whether the initiative is an antidote to the US led ‘pivot to Asia’ or ‘Trans Pacific Partnership’ (TPP) and if China is attempting to challenge US hegemony and rewriting the rules of geopolitical architecture in the region.

Why is India silent to China’s invitation?

Analysts and sceptics see these initiatives as part of ‘strategic encirclement’ of India, and club it with China’s similar but smaller initiatives such as China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the prospective Trans-Himalayan Economic Zone of Cooperation with Nepal and Bhutan, and the BCIM Economic Corridor that connects India’s northeast to China’s southwest, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Is it due to legitimate concerns on this ‘strategic encirclement’ that India is going slow on the BCIM Economic Corridor, even after it was officially signed during Premier Li Keqiang’s India visit in 2013. The security establishment and strategic community have always maintained that India cannot give China access to its sensitive areas. But, can the new government in office think differently on the issue?

As far as ‘Belt and Road’ initiative of China is concerned, India has been part of the initiative with the signing of the BCIM- EC. With added momentum on  India’s Look East Policy (now Act East Policy), the BCIM-EC is another area where the policy could be integrated, especially for developing the northeast region. There is certainly a need to take a leaf out of China’s experience to see how it developed and connected its far flung south-western and southern states to ASEAN. Look at boundaries as gateways but not barriers, and develop the border areas as a whole, would auger well for both sides.

India’s stand on the MSR initiative

Regarding the 21st Century Maritime Silk Route (MSR) India has been tight lipped so far, neither has it declined the Chinese proposal, nor has it shown eagerness to join the bandwagon. Notwithstanding its silence, India has been responding by its own strategy. It has been expanding and strengthening its maritime partnerships with the United States, Japan, Vietnam, Australia etc. countries on one hand and engaging ASEAN in various domains on the other. Besides there are new initiative such as ‘Project Mausam’ initiated by the Ministry of Culture, along with Archaeological Society of India (ASI) and Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA). Since area covered under the project extends from East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka to the Southeast Asia, and has been termed as “Indian Ocean World”, analysts and media have been seeing it as a means to project soft power in the region. Many in China have termed it as a “threatening and competing” initiative which may pose a major challenge for China’s belt and road plans.

India’s options

Even though India may have soaring ambitions, India lacks economic muscle required for such projects. Official Chinese policy is keen to rope in India, mentioning that the “Belt and Road initiatives can also be linked with India’s ‘Spice Route’ and ‘Mausam’ projects, thus forming a new starting point and a new bright spot in China-India cooperation”. China seems to be looking forward to Indian cooperation. Initiatives such as ‘Make in India’ and ‘Act East’ policies have been seen to have synergies with Chinese regional strategies. China  is cooperating with India in infrastructure up gradation such as in the railway sector where China is assessing mean to enhance the speed and heavy haul of trains, training of railway personnel, design of the stations and in building a railway university in India. India also cooperates internationally with China through Organizations as BRICS, which made big ticket announcements of founding the BRICS Bank and AIIB, which have now been linked to the Belt and Road initiative by China.

What should India do?

It would be unfortunate if India remains outside the value chain of such an initiative. The best option for now is to decide the nature of cooperation on a case to case basis.

China would also perhaps frame its responses and priorities towards countries along the Belt and Road. For example, it would have differentiated strategy while dealing with smaller and medium size countries, with conflicting parties in South China Sea, ‘pivot’ countries like Pakistan and big countries like India.

Also, while India faces uncertainties, it must capitalise on the geo-strategic space it has in the Indo-Pacific. If the US is attempting to offset China’s geopolitical pull by way of India confronting China or in tandem with the US and its allies in the seas and land it would be disastrous for all the stakeholders. From an Indian point of view, if the US is looking for a strong economic partnership with India, so is the case of India’s economic engagement with China and the US alike. It would be naïve to say that the US will dump its interests in China for India. Imagine the $521 billion trade volume between China and the US and compare it with our trade with China and the US combine! Therefore, if at all, India should position itself a valuable ‘swing power’ between China and the US, to pursue national interests and not get drawn into confrontation and conflict.

Finally, since the maritime ambitions of both India and China are soaring, the interests are overlapping too. There is an urgent need for initiating more comprehensive mechanisms. One in the offing could be a substantive maritime security dialogue which has remained a non starter since 2012.

(B R Deepak is professor, Centre for Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University)

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