Dhaval D Desai
Come May, India could be facing a catch-22 situation when China prepares to host its first mega One Belt One Road (OBOR) Forum; China’s first big push towards consensus building on its ambitious plan, which has the potential to reset global dynamics in the 21st century.
India has given clear signals that it is in no mood to accept the invitation extended by Beijing, citing violation of its sovereignty by the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), OBOR’s flagship project, which cuts through the disputed territory of Kashmir.
However, given that the OBOR Forum is expected to be attended by at least 20 heads of state, representatives of 50 countries and a multitude of international organisations, India’s absence in Beijing will be conspicuous, to say the least.
Since 2013, when President Xi Jinping first unveiled the ambitious idea, OBOR has not only caught the world’s imagination, but has also become China’s single-minded obsession. This becomes clear when one visits the country, as this author has done thrice in the past one year – twice at the invitation of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and once as part of a study tour organised by the Chinese Consulate in Mumbai.
Irrespective of the topic, all the discussions with think tanks, universities and even private MNCs, such as Alibaba, eventually zeroed down to how China, through OBOR, will become the game changer in global governance in the 21st century.
OBOR’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road seeks to revive the connectivity between the Pacific and Indian Oceans by linking China’s coastline with Southeast Asia, West Asia and the eastern coast of Africa. The Silk Road Economic Belt envisages the revival of the ancient land link between China and the Mediterranean through Central Asia and Europe. It includes 60 countries, with two-thirds of the world’s population, 55 percent of the global GDP and 75 percent of global energy reserves.
The OBOR concept has thus brought the focus of the world on global integration on an unprecedented scale. At a time when the world is still grappling with issues of the divide between the Global North and Global South, OBOR presents a new paradigm in terms of a unique congruence of the Global East and the Global West.
Especially now, when led by President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ approach, and similar nationalistic developments globally, the world seems to be moving away from the very essentials of globalisation.
India is central to the OBOR design, and therefore, can potentially become its strongest or its weakest link.
CPEC is not the only reason for India’s legitimate reluctance to the idea. The proposed visit of the Dalai Lama to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, upon which China has made territorial claims, has already drawn aggressive responses in the state-owned Chinese media.
Coming just ahead of the mega OBOR Forum in Beijing, the Tibetan spiritual leader’s proposed visit and the continuing standoff on CPEC can potentially deepen the fissures in India-China bilateral relations.
India, therefore, needs to take a long-term view of OBOR and evaluate what it stands to gain or lose from its non-committal stand. On its part, China too, needs to demonstrate its willingness to engage with all countries to discuss the institutional, governance, legal and regulatory frameworks that an OBOR-connected world will need.
The forthcoming OBOR Forum in Beijing is perhaps an effort by China to walk the talk that the initiative will indeed be a ‘symphony’, where all countries will be equal partners, and not a ‘solo’ Chinese ambition.
In the past three years, the world, minus India, has slowly started to engage more closely with China on OBOR. In April 2016, the EU agreed to an infusion of €10bn into the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI) from the Chinese Silk Road Fund.
Under this arrangement, China, unlike its strategic and economic investments in Africa and CPEC, has agreed to comply with all EU regulations, including on procurement, labour and environment.
Much to the consternation of the US in 2015, several EU countries and nearly half of NATO members became the founding members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which is seen to be OBOR’s main source of funding.
Interestingly, India was one of the first countries to join the AIIB. China is AIIB’s largest shareholder (32.37 percent), India its second largest (9.09 percent), followed by Russia (7.10 percent). This is significant, as the three largest shareholders of AIIB are also the largest members of BRICS.
The BRICS’ New Development Bank, chaired by KV Kamath, is likely to fund, among other initiatives, infrastructure projects which could well fit into the larger OBOR agenda.
India’s ‘Act East’ policy, too, is very much in line with the Bangladesh–China–India–Myanmar economic corridor (BCIM-EC), another key OBOR project, which seeks to link Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan province to Kolkata through Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Along the way, it will connect Dhaka and Chittagong in Bangladesh and Mandalay in Myanmar to India’s northeast. Myanmar, which shares a land boundary of 1,700 km with northeastern Indian states of Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, is vital for the implementation of India’s Act East policy, providing seamless access to entire Southeast Asia.
Other major infrastructure projects, such as the flagging India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and the much larger Trans-Asian Railway also gel well with the OBOR agenda and can gain momentum from Chinese funding. Without such critical cross-border connectivity, it is impossible for India to reap the real benefits of its Act East policy.
However, what stands out is the unexpected fillip received by OBOR on 17 March, 2017, when the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) expressed support for OBOR in its resolution for authorising an one-year mandate extension for United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).
The text of the resolution, among other things, seeks to strengthen measures to facilitate regional development initiatives such as the “Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road” initiative. China has proclaimed this as proof of the global community’s approval of OBOR.
India pulled off a diplomatic coup by isolating Pakistan and ensuring that the 19th SAARC summit remained a non-starter in Islamabad in September last year. But can it ensure similar isolation of China on OBOR, by refusing to join in what seems to be slowly but surely becoming a global bandwagon? Even if India chooses to do so, will it make any difference to either the CPEC or the larger OBOR initiative?
India has genuine reasons to remain non-committal on OBOR. If CPEC is a violation of India’s sovereignty, repeated blocking of Masood Azhar being designated as a global terrorist by the UN has hurt Indian sentiments.
China’s recurrent opposition to India’s UNSC and Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) membership has further eroded public perception about China in India. In the backdrop of such actions by China, far from being a symphony, OBOR sounds like a jarring note to many in India.
In the aftermath of the recent Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, which the BJP won with a landslide mandate, a report in Global Times on 16 March, 2017, said that Modi’s growing popularity in India “will likely mean more difficulties in (India) making compromises in rows with other countries.”
It also highlighted the border disputes where “no silver lining has yet emerged” and how Modi demonstrated “his firm stance over the issue” by celebrating Diwali with soldiers at the Sino-Indian border.
The report, though, ended on an optimistic note: How seemingly inflexible “hardliners” can also use their popular mandate to take tough decisions in the larger interest of bilateral relations “as long as both sides are willing”. Certainly, an emergence of such a scenario would be ideal for both countries.
Can China, as the larger power, find within itself an aptitude to give greater political flexibility to India? Can India, as an emerging power, reciprocate and meet China halfway? These are tough questions that need to be answered by the respective leaders with wisdom and farsightedness rather than with confrontation and aggression.
It could be in the interest of both countries to swallow some pride and take an unprejudiced view of OBOR and also look afresh at the overall terms of bilateral engagement.
The author is senior fellow and vice-president, Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai.