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China's OBOR is not up India's street for now

OBOR was imagined, planned and designed to be executed all by China. Thus, in its present conceptualisation OBOR has very little appeal to India, writes Sreeradha Datta for South Asia Monitor

May 1, 2017
By Sreeradha Datta
 
As with all things that China chooses to do,  hosting of One Belt One Road (OBOR) conference for all its "friends and allies" at Beijing next month promises to be a rather grandiose event. An initiative by Chinese President Xi Jinping, OBOR is essentially an economic and transport corridor that proposes to link Asia with Africa and Europe through multimodal infrastructure, including railways, ports and energy grids. Interestingly a critical component of China’s "New Silk Road" initiative is the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which passes through Gilgit-Baltistan in what is known as Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) area.
 
CPEC, going through the Karakoram Highway in the Pok region, is a 3,200 km-long land corridor that will enable China to be connected with Middle East and Central Asia. While India has in no uncertain terms expressed this as "unacceptable’, as the region is disputed territory, it is possible to argue that while India holds an unambiguous position on the PoK its reaction to any developmenti n the region has limited to only verbal communications. To recall the opening up of the Karakoram Highway in 1979 connecting China and Pakistan didn’t evoke any stronger reaction.
 
Drawing closer to the grand event in Beijing there has been several media reports about China and Pakistan encouraging India to join the OBOR meeting, more specifically the CPEC initiative, leaving aside "politics". There is clarity in their positions, and naturally so.  But what about Indian position and its options? Should it to join or be isolated from Asia’s grandest project? A certain section in India suggests not joining the largest economic corridor that brings the world to your doorstep is hardly an option. Apparently, having missed out many such opportunities in the region and elsewhere has not been without a significant price for India. Political differences has not come in the way of China becoming India’s largest trade partner so why stay out of OBOR, is a typical argument doing the rounds, since it appears to be a win-win situation for all partners.
 
So let’s briefly examine the ground realities. Evidently, India is on a both an economic and political high. An annual growth rate of 7%, implementations of Make in India proposals, domestic reforms galore, alongside an unprecedented foreign policy outreach undertaken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, has given India a new standing in the global order. 
 
And all this despite any of the proposed regional economic corridors taking off the ground from  their drawing or discussions boards. BCIM, BIMSTEC, TAPI are just one of the few connectivity projects that India is engaged with both in the South Asian region and outside. Certainly all these initiatives will at some point come together along with Asian Highway projects to form the largest web of roads, rail and waterways that the world would have witnessed. Of course, the one with some immediate potential was the Bangladesh Bhutan India Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicle Act that was to facilitate free movement of goods and services sub-regionally but that run into obstacles from environmentally sensitive Bhutan that is way of its ecological implications. . 
 
So while OBOR is a substantial project it is not the only economic corridor traversing the region that India can hope to benefit from. More importantly, it’s a plan drawn up by China who now wishes to sell it to all its friends and well wishers.  How does India see itself in that group? The bilateral economic cooperation between the two Asian powers was supposed to lead the way to resolving some of their outstanding political differences. But from being resolved, political differences are in fact increasing over the CPEC, Dalai Lama, and other issues of strategic import to India. 
 
OBOR was imagined, planned and designed to be executed all by China. Thus, in its present conceptualisation OBOR has very little appeal to India. As seen from India, China’s apparent unilateral top down imposition approach with very little transparency or clarity in the entire OBOR project is insupportable. If at all, the OBOR discourse needs to incorporate a cooperative engagement process, that involves the regional players in an equitable and fair partnership process. India with or without OBOR will be able to hold its own; it has far greater issues to devote its attention to. At present OBOR holds no great  promise; so if India wishes to play its usual card of being discreet and lying low it really has very little to lose.  Wait and watch is highly recommended for now.
 
 (The author is Director Maulana Azad Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies, Kolkata. Comments and suggestions can be mailed to editor@spsindia.in)

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