Society for Policy Studies in association with India Habitat Centre held a lecture in the “China's Belt and Road Initiative: Nature, Implications and India's Response”
By Amb. Ashok K. Kantha, Director, Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS) & Former Indian Ambassador to China
Chair: C Uday Bhaskar, Director, Society for Policy Studies.
China is a country in a hurry: Ambassador Ashok Kantha
“BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) is a highly imaginative, strategic enterprise of unprecedented scale and ambition. It represents the increasingly explicit great power ambitions of China,” said Ambassador Ashok K Kantha, Director, Institute of Chinese Studies and former Indian Ambassador to China. He was speaking on “China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Nature, implications and India’s response” as part of the Changing Asia Series.
The talk was organised by the Society for Policy Studies, a New Delhi-based think-tank in association with the India Habitat Centre.
Deliberating at length on China’s leadership ambitions, he opined, “The epic rise of China has unprecedented accumulation of power in the country. This could be the third wave of assertion by China for global leadership role after the economic depression and Xi Jinping’s coming to power.”
However, he observed that China is still reluctant to expand its international responsibility even though Deng Xiaoping’s policies have started receding.
“China is shaping the objective of the 21st century. China is today a country in a hurry. But the strategic opportunity may not be available for long with the ageing population, economic decline etc,” he said.
Referring to territorial disputes he said, “There is distinct pattern vis-à-vis contested territories. China is looking to assert its power by accruing investments. With rapid accumulation of power, China is no longer in favour of multi-polarity. Instead, it wants to establish a new order where it wants to strive for global domination.”
Throwing light on China’s BRI, Kantha took a cautionary note. “The BRI is a Chinese project and it is not a multilateral project. The idea came directly from the top and involves the direct guidance of Xi Jinping. Now with the Chinese Communist Party’s decision to scrap the two-term limit for China’s President, it is evident that he plans on to stay as the Supreme Leader,” he said.
Dwelling on the topic further, he opined that though the stated goal of BRI is to develop new markets, expand policy coordination, trade liberalisation, connectivity, employment generation and the desire to stabilise Western regions, it needs be understood that it is an initiative where the Chinese government has committed USD 1 trillion. It will always remain a geostrategy of China for binding all the countries closely. It also needs to be noted that China is also expanding its role in the existing infrastructure alongside.
“The BRI is a catch-all phrase. It is based on the imagined narrative of China as an ancient trading route. It is based on the contrived history of Chinese centrality as China was never the hub,” he added.
Shifting his focus to India-China relations, he said, “China has made very little efforts to take on India’s concerns. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is an advanced component of BRI, but it is not yet clear how it will bolster China-Pakistan strategic relations. The development of ports under Maritime Silk Road are serious concerns in India.” He pointed to the recent developments in Maldives and said it has reinforced the fact that China is impinging on the rights of other nations.
Kantha then went on to take note of the dangers of BRI. “Most of the BRI projects are opaque. According to a report, 89% of the contracts are given to Chinese companies, 7.6% to local companies and the share of foreign companies is a mere 3%. Often countries take on project that ate not sustainable. What happened in Sri Lanka should serve as a cautionary tale for all,” he said. He also pointed to the fact that beneficiaries including Pakistan has started having doubts. He warned that even a partially successful BRI will change strategic realities for India.
Turning his focus back on India’s response to China’s growing ambitions, he said, “India is opposed to CPEC due to sovereignty concerns. But India’s response has become more nuanced and evolved over time. India is willing to explore synergy-based cooperation which led to India joining Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). India joined 55 other countries and is the second largest stakeholder.”
He observed that though the AIIB has taken off as a viable multilateral initiative, positions on both sides have hardened since then. China seems to have lost interest in multilateralism as it wants all the projects to be under BRI. India has shed its studied ambivalence and has taken a strong stance against BRI.
“There are legitimate misgivings in India. The answer to the question whether India can join as a junior partner is negative. But both sides can agree on a synergetic approach. For this, both sides should show flexibility,” he opined.
Pointing to the international competitive bidding for AIIB projects, he said both the countries can explore similar opportunities. “Indian companies can utilise the infrastructure built by China,” he said.
Terming BRI as a geostrategic challenge, Kantha observed, “To respond to BRI, Project Mausam and Spice Route are not enough. It necessitates implementation of Prime Minister’s vision of SAGAR. We also need to ask if we can offer alternatives to what China has to offer. Given our limited resources, we cannot unless we get the support of countries that have concerns against China. We have to pitch our ambitions commensurate with our resources while also ensuring that our interests are safeguarded.”
Referring to an earlier agreement between both the nations, he said simultaneous re-emergence must unfold in a mutually beneficial manner. He ended his speech with the caution that how to address the current situation will be the biggest challenge in the foreseeable future.
C Uday Bhaskar, Director, Society for Policy Studies said, “When BRI was mooted, it was still a work in progress.” Now with USD 1 trillion being committed to the project, he opined that the questions that need to be deliberated on is whether BRI will pass the fundamental test of being sustainable and equitable. He pointed to the concerns that are being raised even in countries like Pakistan to sound a note of caution and urged for a deeper introspection of the initiative.