The OBOR Summit and India


India has been invited to attend the One Belt-One Road (OBOR) summit scheduled to be held in Beijing on 14-15 May 2017. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi renewed the invitation in a press conference in Beijing on 17 April 2017. In the same breath, he clarified: “Although, an Indian leader will not be here but India will have a representative.” Who would represent India? The minister gave a broad statement: “We welcome Indian representative, members of the Indian business community and financial community to take part in the discussions at the summit”. What does it mean? India has neither confirmed nor regretted its participation. It is however almost certain that India will not participate in the summit. And there are reasons for India’s consternation and constraints.

China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)

Well known among these constraining factors is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which passes through the Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) and the Gilgit-Baltistan region. Any participation in OBOR amounts to India legitimizing Pakistan’s occupation of territories that India claims legally belong to it. India remains unconvinced with China’s repeated assertion that OBOR is essentially an ‘economic’ venture, and that CPEC has ‘no direct link’ to Kashmir issue. Even if China re-jigs CPEC, renames it or separates it from OBOR, India is not getting convinced.

Rather, more disconcerting around CPEC have been recent developments: China has raised the proposed expenditure on CPEC from US$46 billion to $62 billion; and, CPEC now gets extended to Afghanistan and Iran. There have been reports since the start of 2017 that both Russia and Iran have been keen on joining the CPEC. Russia wants many of the arteries of the ancient Silk Roads in Central Asia revived including the North-South Corridor that had historically linked Russia with India via Central Asia and Iran. India has been working to access the same corridor through its Chabahar port project under an agreement between India, Iran and Afghanistan.

The Silk Road to Domination

India has consistently maintained that OBOR is a unilateral initiative of China. It is a euphemism to say that OBOR is a geostrategic initiative to establish Chinese hegemony over oceans and trade routes in the coming decades, if not in years. India questions the very principle on which OBOR project rests; OBOR seeks to assign India permanently the role of a subordinate in Asia and the Indo-Pacific. This goes against the very grain of Indian state and nationhood. And China knows it well; it knows that India will never join the OBOR in its present form.

India could find it hard to sustain its position. OBOR project has indirectly received the backing of the UN Security Council in its resolution of 18 March 2017, which extended the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) by a year. The resolution calls on all countries to “strengthen the process of regional economic cooperation, including measures to facilitate regional connectivity, trade and transit, including through regional development initiatives such as the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road (the Belt and Road) Initiative.” China understandably is buoyed up. The Security Council resolution means that international community has embraced the concept; and, further, accepts OBOR for what it is – an international public good offered by China for global governance and development.

The ‘Great Game’ in South Asia

Isolation may not always be splendid and perennial. Chinese capital and technology has penetrated the Himalayan ramparts, altering in the process the geostrategic scenario in South Asia. At the Kathmandu summit of SAARC countries in 2014, nearly all of India’s neighbours had supported the idea of China joining the regional organization as full member. For the neighbours, China is now a South Asian country: its friendship counterbalances India and its largess is alluring. In attendance at Beijing summit will be heads of government and ministers of all the SAARC countries except India. The summit could see billions of dollars more in promised investment in the neighbouring countries. For instance, China has invested billions in Bangladesh including $3.14 billion in Padma Bridge Rail Link project; and the two countries would sign an inter-governmental framework and financial agreement at the summit. What to do?

To counter the Chinese allurement, India is raising its own offers. Neighbouring countries are to reap maximum benefits from the new ‘great game’ that seems to have begun in South Asia. In a span of three weeks during April, heads of the government/ state from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal were in New Delhi; and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be in Colombo around the time OBOR summit takes place in Beijing. Neighbours are being feted. India announced a concessional line of credit of $5 billion to Bangladesh and signed two dozen agreements promising additional $9 billion investment. India also plans to develop rail, road and water connectivity in the sub-region comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal, which sound very much like OBOR. In the latest, India has gifted a South Asia Satellite to its neighbours.

As many as 28 heads of state and government, including Vladimir Putin of Russia, foreign ministers and vice ministers of 16 other countries, and 190 officials from as many as 92 countries would be in attendance at the two-day summit in Beijing. Japan will be represented by the secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Besides Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the UN, Jim Young of the World Bank and Christine Legarde of the IMF besides another 80 leaders of various international organisations would be present. The summit will have 1200 participants.

As for India’s own much-hyped connectivity projects, so many remain interminably delayed while others are simply non-starters. India denies any link to the CPEC, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) has seen no activity except a seminar of experts and academics in Kolkata in April 2017. What does one make out of India’s stance: it is opposed to OBOR; its own connectivity projects are few and overly delayed. Many find India’s detachment from OBOR incomprehensible.   There is, however, a sliver of hope: India may not be averse to participate in standalone bilateral connectivity projects with China.

Speaking at a military think-tank in New Delhi on 5 May 2017, Chinese Ambassador Luo Zhaohui outlined a four-point roadmap to “manage differences” between the two countries – a new treaty on good neighbourliness and friendly cooperation; a free trade agreement; early resolution to the border issue; and, significantly, alignment of OBOR with India’s ‘Act East policy’. He reportedly even offered to rename the CPEC. Hope remains.

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