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China's BRI has many question marks: India can afford to wait it out

OBOR is still evolving and has a long way to go. Of the 68 countries that attended, only 40 have signed up for projects.  OBOR will traverse many troubled areas and much rough terrain.  The question, therefore, of India's isolation does not arise; it is simply too early to judge OBOR/BRI and its potential success, writes Namrata Hasija 

May 20, 2017
By Namrata Hasija  
 
The One Belt, One Road (OBOR) Summit organized on May 14-15, 2017 in Beijing, had attendance from leaders across the globe with India as a major absentee. As in the case of the United States and Japan, China had hoped that India would send a delegation at the last minute. Instead, India chose to boycott "the project of the century". India’s major concern regarding the OBOR is the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). While many questioned India’s decision and called it a diplomatic failure, others called it a sign of India’s confidence. India’s reaction to OBOR cannot be compared to other nations, as for it it's a question of the violation of territorial sovereignty. The question remains -  was this a show of India's diplomatic strength or isolation? And even a bigger question remains on the viability of OBOR and whether the summit was a success or not?
 
The summit was declared as a success but if China could get only 30 odd heads of state, after lobbying for months, can this summit really be labelled thus? None of the major European countries attended it and the 28-nation EU rejected the trade statement issued by Beijing after the summit on grounds of lack of social and environmental sustainability and transparency. This is a huge blow to Xi Jinping, who hoped the two-day summit would bring world leaders behind his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
 
As far as India is concerned, those who say that CPEC was launched in 2013 and India chose to remain silent then are factually incorrect. OBOR was announced in 2013 but CPEC was flagged  much later, in April 2015. India raised its concerns at the highest level when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited China in May 2015, but  it was ignored. However, in his speech at the summit Xi Jinping laid out an expansive vision of OBOR as it moves ahead. He said it will respect core concerns and sovereignty of all countries. If so, he obviously did not take into account India's concerns. His effort was to reassure his audience that China would not use OBOR to dominate countries involved as CPEC is its first leg already has problems (protests in Gilgit region against OBOR) and so has Sri Lanka (unable to repay loans given by China).
 
Other than the sovereignty issue, India has also questioned its economic viability and motives. OBOR has been touted as an economic project to integrate the world and provide the much-needed thrust toward globalization after the protectionist policies of the US post Obama. However, one needs to ask is this project purely economic? In simple words OBOR is an attempt by the slowing Chinese economy to link itself to global production centres and markets. Besides it has clear strategic and military overtones as far as India is concerned. For example, a secure fibre optic link has been laid from Kashgar, the westernmost Chinese city in Xinjiang province, located near the border with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, to Rawalpindi, the Pakistan military's General Headquarters, and the recent developments in Gwadar port,such as the deployment of Chinese submarines, has clear military implications. Gwadar gives China access to the Indian Ocean. Its request to deploy another submarine in Hambantota, Sri Lanka also indicates that this project is not purely economic and will have military and strategic needs. What is more, the presence of 30,000 Chinese security personnel in Pakistan to ostensibly safeguard Chinese investment will sooner or later make Chinese non-interference in domestic affairs of other countries questionable.
 
In pure economic terms also the project viability is questionable -- the land route is four times more expensive than the traditional maritime route. Secondly, both the Bank of Pakistan and the Bank Sri Lanka have clearly stated that they are unable to repay the loan and interest to the Chinese government.
 
The four proposals advanced by the Chinese Ambassador in his speech at the United Service Institute in New Delhi on May 5 shows the eagerness of the Chinese to convince India to join OBOR. The proposals offer nothing new to India, other than the first point; the China-India Treaty of Good Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation, which also has not been defined and remains as vague as OBOR itself. They were merely offered as bait for India to come on board for OBOR.
 
OBOR is still evolving and has a long way to go. Of the 68 countries that attended, only 40 have signed up for projects.  OBOR will traverse many troubled areas and much rough terrain.  The question, therefore, of India's isolation does not arise; it is simply too early to judge OBOR/BRI and its potential success.
 
(The author is President, Taiwan Alumni Association in India. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to editor@spsindia.in) 

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