Chinese President Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping

China a Wealthy Partner, Don't Close the Door; India Urged

The strategic think tanks have urged the Narendra Modi government to increase the bilateral engagements with China on the new road connectivity projects announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Former National Security Advisors (NSAs), diplomats and maritime experts have cautioned that India’s dismissal of One Belt One Road (OBOR) Project may backfire.

"Don't close the door on it," former Foreign Secretary and ex-NSA Shyam Saran said. "Before taking a stand, we ought to engage the Chinese, understand what the components of the initiative are, and whether and how India can participate to its advantage," he said.

The OBOR initiative, announced by Chinese President Xi in September 2013, is his signature foreign policy initiative, and is aimed at carving out modern trade corridors - through land and sea - connecting Asia, Europe and East Africa.

Engagement with China on the initiative would also allow India to try and influence it from within to protect its interests, some of the experts argued. India has protested China's decision to invest in building a part of the land corridor - called the China Pakistan Economic Corridor - through Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir.

"Conveying our concerns over those components of this project that violate our sovereignty must also be a key part of the engagement," Saran said.

The OBOR consists of two major components named after ancient trade corridors that connected the Eurasian land mass - a Silk Road Economic Belt on land, and a Maritime Silk Road binding the South China Sea, South Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean through a series of ports.

Over the past twenty months, over fifty countries in Asia, East Africa, Central and Eastern Europe have committed to participating in the initiative, including India's neighbours Pakistan and Sri Lanka. China has promised $46 billion worth investments just for the Pakistan leg of the project. It has created a Silk Route Fund, and launched an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that several US allies in Europe have also joined, which will finance OBOR projects.

India, while joining the AIIB, has largely avoided even speaking on the OBOR. "We have not really had a detailed discussion on this subject," Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research Srinath Raghavan said. "It is not for us to welcome it or not welcome it."

Instead, India has unofficially pitched its own rival corridor - named Project Mausam, Cotton Route, and Spice Route - but has neither specified the terrain it will cover, nor hinted at any financial commitment yet.

"China is supporting its neighbourhood policy with its deep pockets," Kishan Rana, former Indian Ambassador in Mauritius, Kenya, Algeria, Germany and Czechoslovakia, said. "India's foreign aid budget is a tiny fraction. If China takes an initiative to build infrastructure that we can use too, we should be open to joining it."

Some components of what will be subsumed in the OBOR predate Xi's announcement - like the Bangladesh China India Myanmar (BCIM) corridor building a network of roads that will connect India's Northeast to the country's immediate Eastern neighbours.

Few within India's government and strategic community doubt the economic benefits for India from joining the OBOR initiative.

"You need money to bring about the connectivity the Modi government has indicated it wants to focus on. And if you are getting a wealthy partner in China, why not?" said Sridhar Venkiteshwaran, Executive Director of Avalon Strategy Consultants.

The experts also pointed to the Chinese initiatives and India's own connectivity proposals in the Indian Ocean. While China has proposed linking up the OBOR with Indian initiatives, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs V K Singh told Parliament recently that New Delhi was not considering any such linkage.

Security concerns are critical in India's reticence towards the OBOR - and China's commitment to build the corridor through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir has only reinforced worries in New Delhi about a larger strategic gameplan to encircle India. India's reaction till recently also appears driven partly by a ‘false sense of nationalism,’ Saran said.

"Beijing and New Delhi agree that the Sino-Indian border - the 4,000-kilometre Line of Actual Control (LAC) - has remained entirely peaceful for forty years. Yet, even as a series of military Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) have forestalled any shooting,” Saran said substantiating that low-grade confrontation continues as both armies patrol territory that they claim, ignoring the other side's claim to the same area.

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