BRI: India sticks to its position

India has declined China’s invitation to attend the ongoing conference on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Beijing. The BRI is a multi-billion dollar international infrastructure building project launched by President Xi Jinping in 2013. The idea originated from the ancient Silk Route that Chinese merchants and monks travelled through. At a time when China is stashed with huge reserves of foreign exchange and investment to keep its domestic economy humming is saturated, China wants to invest its billions in building infrastructure in countries from its borders to Europe, instead of keeping the reserves idle.

This is the second Belt and Road Forum, the first time it was held was in 2017. India turned down China’s invitation to participate in the forum both times. This year, representatives from over 100 countries, including 37 leaders of governments, are attending the forum.

India is of the view that the inclusion of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which passes through a part of Jammu and Kashmir that is under illegal occupation of Pakistan, as a flagship programme of the BRI reflects lack of understanding and sensitivity to India’s concerns on the issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity. These concerns have been raised with the Chinese side at various levels on different occasions.

The CPEC is a conglomeration of infrastructure projects meant to deepen economic ties between China and Pakistan. It connects China’s largest province Xinjiang with Pakistan’s Gwadar port in Balochistan. The CPEC is not acceptable to India because it passes through Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, thereby violating India’s territorial integrity.

India is of the firm view that connectivity initiatives must be based on universally recognised international norms, good governance and rule of law, openness, transparency and equality. They must follow principles of financial responsibility and must be pursued in a manner that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity.

It may be recalled that earlier, in May 2017, while articulating its position on BRI, Delhi had said, “India shares the international community’s desire for enhancing physical infrastructure and believes that it should bring greater economic benefits to all in an equitable and balanced manner”. Highlighting India’s benign connectivity outreach in the region, the statement further added, “Expansion and strengthening of connectivity is an integral part of India’s economic and diplomatic initiatives.”

Under the ‘Act East policy’, India is pursuing the Trilateral Highway project with Myanmar and Thailand; under the ‘neighbourhood first policy’, India is also developing multimodal linkages with Myanmar and Bangladesh; and under the ‘go West strategy’, it is also engaged with Iran on the Chabahar Port and with Iran and other partners in Central Asia on the International North-South Transport Corridor.

Recently, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs observed in its report that unlike  the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the BRICs Development Bank or the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the BRI (earlier called OBOR or One Belt, One Road) is not a multilateral project and that it is the very antithesis of the development philosophy that India pursues abroad through its development assistance
programme.

When India first took its principled and courageous position on China’s BRI, it didn’t find many supporters, but now there is an increasing awareness about the possible adverse consequences of projects under the BRI. There is greater realisation in recent times that China’s projects are not necessarily financially viable and environmentally sustainable. Some countries have been pushed to debt. Maldives, for example, has fallen a victim to China’s ambitions, leaving the archipelago with a massive debt.

The Belt and Road projects have come to be seen as enormous debt traps despite China’s assurances to the contrary. Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port is yet another example of a debt trap. Malaysia and some other countries have also experienced similar ordeals. Even in Pakistan, where China has invested some $46 billion in projects, there are fears that the country will become an economic colony of China. In response to rising criticism, China recently cut down by 30% the cost of its projects in Malaysia.

While India has made its position clear and consistent with regard to the BRI,  India and China should pursue the developmental partnership between the two countries through the dictum of the ‘Astana Consensus ‘of June 2017. As per this understanding, the two countries have decided that their ties should become a factor for regional and global stability and that the two countries would ensure that their differences do not become disputes.

It is not out of place to mention in this connection that China should join the International Solar Alliance (ISA), which India has established in partnership with France. This will, according to Gautam Bambawale, India’s former ambassador to China, create a win-win situation and will provide an excellent example of how the two countries can work together in international organisations.

(The writer was formerly a Senior Fellow with the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi)

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