This article was originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Is it wise for India to stay out of Silk Road initiative?’, South Asia Monitor, 12 May 2015, before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China.
Of the predictions that came true, more sister-province/state and sister-city agreements, announcement of a new visa arrangement, an India-China Think-tank Forum.
It is now slowly but increasingly evident to Indians across the board that China, their largest neighbour, will likely be their most important foreign policy challenge for decades to come. Gradually but surely, China will come to occupy regular attention in India across a range of fields from geopolitics to scientific research and development to political and ideological creativity. In this context, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s forthcoming visit to China and the media coverage it will generate will be an important milestone in how Indians perceive and understand China.
Modi has gained a reputation for extreme secrecy and last minute ‘deals’ during visits abroad. China, however, will not be such an easy place to do this. Unless, of course, CPC General Secretary and Chinese President, Xi Jinping, is willing to play ball. This however, is unlikely, given the Chinese self-image of being in a league of just two, contending with the US for regional and global domination while everybody else is for all practical purposes, and despite any rhetoric to the contrary, slotted into lower tiers of importance.
What then are the possible agreements that the two sides might reach during the Modi visit?
The agreements related to economic cooperation including infrastructure construction, industrial parks and sister-city and sister-province/state ties will likely number quite a few, even if they will not match the 51 agreements that resulted during the Xi visit to Pakistan. Boosting bilateral trade and investments at the service of the Prime Minister’s flagship ‘Make in India’ campaign will be a big item on the agenda, if not the most important one.
More sister-city and sister-province/state agreements could help accelerate a trend of Chinese sub-national enterprises targeting specific sectors and localities or states in India for economic opportunities. It also makes immense sense for two countries the size and complexity of India and China for their cities and regions to develop their own independent economic linkages with each other. Along the way, there could be significant spillover effects in terms of increasing mutual understanding, greater familiarization with each other’s cultures and ways of working, tourism, educational exchanges and so on.
An agreement for a more liberalized visa regime between the two countries was to be signed during Xi’s India visit in September but was finally abandoned. The agreement will be extremely important for Chinese investors, businessmen and tourists seeking to explore and commit to India.
It is also quite possible that an agreement of some sort on trans-boundary river waters will come to fruition. To expect an all year-round sharing of information might be too much to expect from the Chinese. It is more likely that China will agree to give India another 15 days worth of data on any one river.
An India-China Think-tank Forum is a proposal that has been doing the rounds for some time, now and will likely reach fruition during this visit. This would be an important avenue for a frequent and unhindered exchange of views between the policy and scholar communities on both sides and replicates a similar exercise in the Sino-US context.
One important marker of the Asian century will be how India and China are going to cooperate in the science and technology sector to create solutions for uniquely Third World problems as well as to overcome problems that come from copying a Western model of economic development. To this end, cooperation and joint development of renewable energy technologies, to name just one sector, should be a big part of the agenda, capable of being slotted into both the infrastructure construction and ‘Make in India’ campaigns.
Scientific research can also provide the opportunity to avoid or overcome suspicions in other areas. One idea doing the rounds is cooperation between the two countries on the development of deep sea mining in the Indian Ocean. The Chinese are already engaged in this in the southwest Indian Ocean and so is India, so perhaps, this is an opportunity to not just cooperate but also keep an eye on what the other side is doing.
The problem, of course, arises since it is China that is expanding opportunities and finding reasons to be in the Indian Ocean while India’s opportunities to partner with China in similar endeavours along or opposite China’s coast are limited either because of China large territorial and consequently EEZ claims or because India does not often have the wherewithal or the incentives to venture that far. Where it has, New Delhi has preferred to partner with the Japanese or the Vietnamese.
This then leads to a major issue that is also likely to crop up during the visit, namely of Indian receptivity to China’s new ‘one belt, one road’ idea and in particular, the Maritime Silk Road. Given the particular version of historical reinterpretation, rewriting even, that the initiative involves, India is wary of joining in. However, given also the potential of the Chinese initiative to transform the economic, and possibly, the political landscape of Asia, New Delhi must seriously consider if staying out and being unable to exert influence on the process is an option.