Three years after the plan for the Belt and Road Initiative (B&RI, formerly called the Silk Road Economic Belt or One Belt One Road) was announced, China has concluded the first Belt and Road Forum. While 130 countries participated, of which at least 68 are now part of the $900-billion infrastructure corridor project, India boycotted the event, making its concerns public hours before the forum commenced in Beijing.
India's reservations, according to the carefully worded statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs, are threefold. One, the B&RI’s flagship project is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which includes projects in the Gilgit-Baltistan region, ignoring India’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
Two, the B&RI infrastructure project structure smacks of Chinese neo-colonialism, and could cause an “unsustainable debt burden for communities” with an adverse impact on the environment in the partner countries. And three, there is a lack of transparency in China’s agenda, indicating that New Delhi believes the B&RI is not just an economic project but one that China is promoting for political control.
These concerns are no doubt valid, and the refusal to join the B&RI till China addresses the objection over Gilgit-Baltistan is understandable. The decision to not attend even as an observer, however, effectively closes the door for diplomacy. It stands in contrast to countries such as the U.S. and Japan, which are not a part of the B&RI but sent official delegations.
Each of India’s neighbours, with the exception of Bhutan, has signed up for the B&RI, expecting to see billions of dollars in loans for projects including roads, rail, gas pipelines, oil pipelines, electricity and telecommunications connectivity. India’s anxiety about the possible debt trap may be well-founded, but it ignores the benefits these countries believe will accrue from the project.
Simply put, India cannot appear to be more worried about these countries than their own governments are, or to determine their stance. As a friend and neighbour, India can at best alert them to the perils of the B&RI, and offer assistance should they choose another path. India may also face some difficult choices in the road ahead, because as a co-founder of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and as a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (from June 2017) it will be asked to support many of the projects under the B&RI.
At such a point, especially given the endorsement from the UN Secretary General, who said the B&RI is rooted in a shared vision for global development, India should not simply sit out the project. It must actively engage with China to have its particular grievances addressed, articulate its concerns to other partner countries in a more productive manner, and take a position as an Asian leader, not an outlier in the quest for more connectivity.
The Hindu, May 16, 2017