Indian policy makers should not shut the door on diplomacy and engagement over China’s Belt and Road Initiative
It has been close to three years after the plan for the Belt and Road Initiative (B&RI), previously known as the Silk Road Economic Belt or One Belt One Road, was announced, China has concluded the first Belt and Road Forum early this week. About 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 its meeting in Beijing. India’s concerns and reservations, according to the carefully worded statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs, are threefold. Firstly, the B&RI’s flagship project is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which includes projects in the Gilgit-Baltistan and Aksai Chin regions, ignoring India’s ‘sovereignty and territorial integrity’. Secondly, 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 thirdly, there is a lack of transparency in Chinese agenda, indicating that New Delhi believes the B&RI is not just an economic project but one that China is promoting for political control in the South Asian region. These concerns are no doubt valid, and the refusal to join the B&RI till China addresses the objection over Gilgit-Baltistan and Aksai Chin is understandable. The decision not to attend even as an observer, however, effectively closes the door for diplomacy. It does not go with the trends and best practices in diplomacy going on around the world on all major issues that concern the peoples of different countries. Even if the Indian diplomats do not agree with the proposals and economic belt being backed by China, the engagement cannot be stopped just for the heck of big brother attitude. It stands in contrast to countries such as the US and Japan, which are not a part of the B&RI but sent official delegations. Similarly, India could at least make its presence felt at the forum with its participation while taking up the major issues with Chinese diplomats through backdoor channels so that diplomatic engagement could continue.
It is worth noting that all neighbours of India, with the exception of Bhutan, have 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 concerns about the possible debt trap under this project may be well-founded, but it ignores the benefits these countries believe will accrue from the project. In the first instance, India cannot appear to be more worried about these countries than their own governments are, or to determine their stance on the proposed project. 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, since 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 of the project. India needs to continue its engagement with China on all outstanding issues and not to give an impression that it has closed its doors on diplomatic front. In fact, other alternatives are open before India when it can engage with its neighbours on host of other issues and continue the broad-based dialogue process in the interest of peace and take a lead as a peace maker in the region. It must actively engage with China to have its particular grievances addressed, articulate its concerns to other partner countries in a more productive manner. India should take a position as an Asian leader, not an outlier in the quest for more connectivity in the entire region where welfare of the peoples of all the countries should be the prime mover for more innovative initiatives. Such a stance will go a long way in ensuring peace and friendly ties with all the neighbours.
Editorial, Kashmir Times : Friday, May 19, 2017