India may have stayed away from China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but Beijing is keen that New Delhi joins the multi-billion-dollar venture that criss-crosses three continents through various projects. The Chinese government, the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the country’s experts want India to be part of the five-year old, albeit controversial, project.
Reasons are not far to seek. The seal of approval from a country as big as India, it being one of the most important nations in Asia and a growing one at that, the kind of investments that China could make in its Asian rival, not to speak of the credibility that India joining the BRI brings, would be key for the success of the project that was launched in 2013.
Conceived by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the BRI is being implemented in about 80 countries in Asia, Europe and Africa that together account for half the world’s population and a quarter of global GDP. The ‘belt’ in BRI refers to the overland interconnecting infrastructure corridors and the ‘road’ denotes the sea route corridors. The entire project is expected to cost over $1 trillion.
New Delhi has refused to join the global venture citing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, a part of the BRI that passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, impinging on Indian sovereignty.
The recent developments -– Malaysia reneging on two Chinese projects costing $22 billion and reports of several countries that have been extended massive loans by China having come under debt trap -– have been a matter of concern in Beijing. An Indian entry into the BRI would be, from the Chinese perspective, just what the doctor ordered. Chinese leaders believe that even if India remains opposed to CPEC, there is a way out in joining BRI through the proposed China-Myanmar-India corridor. New Delhi has, however, brushed aside the proposal.
Sun Haiyan, director general, Asian Bureau, International Department of the Central Committee, CPC, echoes this sentiment: “We believe that the Indian government and its people are smart enough to join us. Political parties in all countries must put the interests of the people ahead of their own political interests.
“This is an inclusive project. Countries which are not participating in BRI should continue to allow their companies to implement the projects. Look at the benefits: four Indian companies implementing various port projects in Myanmar under BRI have brought in $770 m in benefits. It is an example of how even companies from non-BRI countries benefit even if their governments don’t participate. Everyone stands to gain through BRI –- over 200,000 jobs have been created in neighbouring countries. Smart businessmen know that BRI is good for their countries.”
Lie Kien of the China Foundation for Peace and Development is in favour of all Asian countries joining BRI. “The BRI is for the entire Asian community and everyone stands to benefit and share gains. The Chinese government has paid importance to trade, finance, people to people exchanges, etc. We want NGOs to help us as we need to help local communities. We have built a primary school and hospital in Myanmar, a training centre at Gwadar in Pakistan”.
Peng Dapeng, vice president, China Communications Construction Company Limited (International), pointed out that while his company — one of the world’s leading construction giants — employs labour from the host country, it is not always easy to find them. “In some countries, it is difficult to find labour, there may be no skilled resources. We even source from other countries, like for Pakistan’s Karakoram Expressway project, we got labour from Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, etc.”
The CCCC has implemented several projects in India, including Delhi Metro, a bridge in Mumbai, Bihar expressway, etc., but none of these are under BRI. With 217 offices in 115 countries, having invested in 148 countries and earning $20 billion in profits, the CCCC, according to Peng Dapeng, has implemented 600 BRI projects in several countries. “We need more understanding with different countries, we are still finding our way in getting proper cooperation.”
China has been worried over the criticisms coming from different countries regarding the way BRI projects are being implemented. These range from complaints of corruption, that local labour is not being hired, that local companies are not encouraged to participate in the project, that proper consultation is not held with various stakeholders, etc.
Sun admitted to some of these when she said: “while central governments are supportive of BRI, local governments are not. I hope, in future, this will change. Local government officers in many countries are corrupt. Due to corruption, we encountered problems. President Xi wants a corruption-free BRI.”
The experts are not unaware of the shortcomings of the BRI. According to Sun Haiyan, there is a need to strengthen dialogue and communication in countries where BRI is being implemented. “There is a need to, and room for, improvement in multilateral consultation. There is a feeling that we did not enjoy adequate consultation with local governments, NGOs, etc. We are aware that benefits of infrastructure projects will take time, so we need to focus on benefits to local people in the short-term.”
Sun says the Chinese have also encountered setbacks. “Due to (political) transitions in some countries, there were setbacks. Because of transition, some projects were removed”. She said the West was criticising China for supporting backward countries.
“These countries do not have funds, so we supported them. It is wrong on the part of the West to blame us for supporting these countries. We will continue self-evaluation of our work. We will provide financial safeguards, medical care, etc. The BRI is also aimed at people-to-people cooperation. We will push BRI bilaterally through more consultation. We will engage countries bilaterally. We must co-operate with our friends.”
(The writer was recently in Shanghai, Wuhan and Beijing at the invitation of the Communist Party of China)