Missing Opportunities: India and OBOR

Originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘India and OBOR: It’s Not Complicated’, BRICS Post, 16 October 2016.

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping met for their bilateral on the sidelines of the 8th BRICS Summit in Goa two issues dominated. One was the Chinese resistance to India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The other was China’s refusal to support UN action against terrorists living under state protection in its ally Pakistan, who were involved in the attack on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi in 2001 and the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai.

It is unlikely that New Delhi will get anywhere with the Chinese on either issue. The reasons are rather simple. One, NSG entry for India would be an acknowledgement of Indian exceptionalism in international relations, something the Chinese are loathe to concede given their own self-perception as an Asian and global power. Two, any public Chinese criticism of Pakistan on terrorism seemingly at Indian behest would seriously set back the China-Pakistan alliance, a risk that India has given little cause for the Chinese to think it worthwhile.

What is probably central to resolving such Indian problems with China, however might be New Delhi’s response to China’s ‘one belt, one road’ (OBOR) initiative. Sold by the Chinese as an infrastructure and economic development project, OBOR is read by the Indians – and correctly so – as a deeper strategic initiative. The rather unimaginative Indian response however, has been to simply oppose or cold-shoulder the Chinese initiative.

A case in point is the very legalistic Indian opposition, valid as it may be, to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – the unofficial ‘flagship’ project of the OBOR – based on the fact that it runs through Indian territory in Gilgit-Baltistan under Pakistani occupation. However, since the Karakoram Highway was first built through this area in the 1970s, it also needs to be noted that New Delhi seems to have done precious little by way of influencing or trying to bring this region back into the Indian fold.

The Chinese, meanwhile, have taken the huge risk – as ambitious players and aspiring great powers are wont to do – to complicate their hitherto simple relationship with Pakistan and shift it from an interaction only with Pakistan’s military and political elite to one that brings them in greater contact with ordinary Pakistanis. This is a move that risks damaging their positive image among Pakistanis and indeed, some of this already in evidence in the newspaper editorials and statements by Pakistani intellectuals, as well as questions about where the promised jobs are, what the terms of contracts are, what the actual price of power will be. The Chinese embassy in Islamabad is desperately trying to tweet its way out of the problem and have given the short shrift to China’s vaunted principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries by meeting all and sundry from across Pakistan’s political spectrum and signaling to the Pakistani Army to take over management of the CPEC from the civilians.

Why is all of this of interest to India? While it correctly perceives the intention of the OBOR as regional and global domination, New Delhi also ought to see from China’s experiences with CPEC so far that the OBOR is not a well-thought out plan and that it is prone to multiple vagaries. That said, the Chinese have the will and wherewithal to both stay the course and make the adjustments necessary as they have in pulling out or downgrading several CPEC projects or asking the Pakistanis to show them the money first.

Thus, from the Indian perspective, OBOR/CPEC has four implications.

One, it is open to change in course and content and Indian engagement therefore, is also an opportunity to shape the OBOR to Indian needs and interests.

Two, given that the CPEC appears to be floundering, Indian willingness to participate and obviously create greater economic viability would also generate great goodwill within important sections of the Chinese state. This goodwill could well influence politics elsewhere including on the NSG and a willingness to increase pressure on Pakistani state actors on terrorism both in private and in public.

Three, participation in the CPEC specifically, and OBOR more generally in Central Asia and Southeast Asia also allows India to play the role of a ‘swing factor’. An Indian buy-in into the Pakistani economy through the CPEC, for example, is also an opportunity to influence Pakistani politics and state actors. Will the Pakistanis or the Chinese agree? There will be groups in both countries that will see business sense in involving India and might well push both their as well as the other side to agree.

India will have to take the initiative. And so four, to make all of this work, will require the Indian government to restructure, reorient and expand its foreign policy establishment as well as expand and improve its military diplomacy and the country’s intellectual capacities on its near neighbourhood.

 

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