India’s Absence at China’s Belt and Road Forum

In May, China hosted its first heads of government/state-level event under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI Forum represents the culmination of over three years of intense Chinese diplomatic activity trying to sell what is likely going to be Chinese president Xi Jinping’s most significant foreign policy legacy.

For this reason alone, there should be no doubt that the Chinese initiative is strategic in nature – not just in economic terms or militarily but also in terms of setting regional and global political agendas.

Western notions of China’s models of economic development and global engagement or of its ambitions are possibly irrelevant today and nowhere near what the Chinese themselves seek to achieve. The BRI’s heavy stress on cultural contacts and people-to-people exchanges is often ignored but is part of a promotion of China’s soft power underlining in turn its political/ideological agenda. This agenda is a direct challenge to India’s own political values and system.

Even if not clearly articulated, these reasons appear embedded in India’s unease about the BRI. China’s insistence that BRI is merely an infrastructure development project and an activity providing global goods cannot be taken at face value. The Indian government more than many others has been acutely aware of this reality and has responded accordingly by turning down China’s invitation to attend the Forum in Beijing.

In the event, the MEA spokesperson’s statement on 13 May highlighted issues of transparency, environmental protection, economic feasibility and technology transfer associated with the BRI. That India was right to do this is evident from the experiences some of its South Asian neighbours have had. Among the earliest and most enthusiastic supporters of the BRI, both Sri Lanka and Pakistan have begun to see problems cropping up and questions being raised on these issues by their own citizens.

The other issue is, of course, of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – portrayed as a ‘flagship project’ of the BRI – passing through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and China’s evident lack of concern about this violation of Indian sovereignty. Surprising, since China itself is extremely touchy about its sovereignty, including its rather expansive claims in the South China Sea.

What Costs?

An argument could be made that India should have attended the BRI Forum in some capacity, even if not at the ministerial level. Mere attendance need not mean acquiescence. And attendance would have also been an opportunity to inject a dose of reality and caution into the proceedings of the BRI Forum. India’s presence and candid talking could have also given greater confidence to smaller countries in the BRI project to declare their own misgivings at an important forum and at an early stage. Often these countries do not have the luxury of turning down Chinese largesse today on the grounds of potential negative effects at a later date nor even to broach difficult issues in a bilateral setting. India could have been a role model and a shoulder to lean on.

In the event, the Indian absence at the Forum was perhaps too hardline a position. Even the Indian Embassy was reportedly not represented even if there were at least three Indian participants in an associated think-tanks forum. While a clear signal to Beijing has gone out about India’s views on BRI, if New Delhi persists in an ‘opposition for opposition’s sake’ approach without following up on the MEA statement that would be a mistake incurring some costs.

While attention today in the India-China economic relationship is focused on the massive trade deficit with China, this in fact, should be a lesser concern compared to the scale and requirements of India’s planned economic transformation. Such initiatives as the Make in India manufacturing drive and the Skill India training programme as well as of course, the rejuvenation of its physical infrastructure capacities are all of a scale that will require active Chinese participation, even if they are not the only players.

Indeed, the BRI is the framework under which all of China’s big state-owned enterprises – those with not just the big bucks but also the expertise to design and execute large-scale infrastructure projects – operate abroad. Thus, the Indian hostility to BRI in addition to the general Chinese perception of India a difficult place to do business in could have implications. India’s need to generate employment and promote economic activity is such that multiple sectors need to move forward simultaneously with as many different investors in operation. And the Chinese are among the few that can bring such a whole-of-the-economy capacity to India.

This article was originally published online in May as Not Really a Miss?’ in the Business Today issue dated 18 June 2017.

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