Rethink India’s Belt and Road options

(Venue of the Leaders’ Roundtable Summit at the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation meet, Beijing, April 25-27, 2019) 

India’s absence from the recently concluded second summit meeting of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on April 25-27 was more a topic of animated discussion in our country — that we “rejected” the Chinese invite, decided to “boycott” the event and administered a “snub” to China and so on. This was due to our media and think tankers’ tunnel vision.

On its part, China seems to have shrugged it off as if nothing else was expected — as of now, at least. From the Chinese indifference, it can be surmised that Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale who visited Beijing just before the event in Beijing would have given some reasonable explanation to the Chinese side why India was unable to participate in the summit. 

However, the larger question remains — India’s stance on the BRI as such. Evidently, there are some signs of a mellowing of the Indian stance. India has given up the pretensions that it would have a connectivity paradigm of its own to rival China’s. India’s reservation has increasingly narrowed down to a single point — namely, that the BRI projects are being implemented illegally in parts of Pakistan, which we consider as really belonging to India, and that it becomes violation of the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. 

Beijing doesn’t feel flustered. The ball is now entirely in the Indian court to decide whether or when to participate in China’s BRI. It is a happy situation insofar as our sovereign prerogative to decide on our foreign policy is intact here, as compared to the US’ bullying to make the Modi bend on the Iran oil sanctions issue recently. In fact, Wang was willing to to address our angst over the BRI recently.

To quote him, “One of our differences is on how to look at the BRI. The Indian side has their concerns. We understand that and that is why we have stated clearly on many occasions that the BRI, including the CPEC, is only an economic initiative and it does not target any third country and has nothing to do with the sovereign and territorial disputes between any two countries. India has its basic position on these disputes. Our cooperation… will not undermine India’s basic position on sovereignty and territorial integrity and at the same time it will provide more opportunities of development and help India in its modernisation endeavour. I believe this is a good option and choice for India.”

Indeed, Wang is right in saying so. Countries with territorial disputes find ways to cooperate without compromising on their respective stances on the disputes. What Russia and Japan are doing despite the intractable Kuril Islands dispute is a case in point. 

At any rate, India’s “boycott” didn’t cast a shadow on the the BRF summit, which turned out to be a successful event widely noted as a major development on the global stage. One concrete outcome of the summit impacting Indian interests is that China, together with 33 representatives from government transportation and customs departments, key port enterprises, port authorities and terminal operators from 13 countries – Egypt, Sri Lanka, UAE, Latvia, Slovenia, Belgium, Spain, Fiji, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, Romania and Singapore –jointly set up the Maritime Silk Road Port Cooperation Mechanism and released the Ningbo Initiative on the Maritime Silk Road Port Cooperation. Financial institutions also signed on to support projects.

Again, major financial institutions of China, the UK, France, Singapore, Pakistan, the UAE, China’s Hong Kong and other countries and regions signed up to the Green Investment Principles for Belt and Road Development. Also, China’s Ministry of Finance in collaboration with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the Corporación Andina de Fomento, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the European Investment Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the World Bank Group established the Multilateral Cooperation Center for Development Finance.

Most important, the keynote speech by President Xi Jinping at the summit on April 25 seemed to respond to international criticism of BRI’s lack of transparency, its inattention to corruption, its preferential treatment of Chinese entities, and its reputation as a “debt trap” for developing countries — concerns which Delhi too voiced in the past.

Clearly, a policy refresh on the implementation of the BRI is on cards, alongside an “internationalisation” of the BRI itself. This is all but inevitable, given the BRI’s growing traction in Europe, and by no means is to be construed as a recalibration for retreat. This shift also has a bigger backdrop where India would have profound interests — namely, China’s all-out effort to win the commanding heights of next generation technologies (fifth generation telecommunications and connectivity, artificial intelligence and quantum computing.) 

In sum, the most important message from the BRF summit is, as a report of the American think tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ Global Infrastructure Task Force puts it, China has made itself through the BRI “the most significant and ambitious strategic initiative of the twenty-first century so far.” It adds, “Over the next 15 years, more hard infrastructure is projected to be built around the world than currently exists. Make no mistake. The United States is way behind the power curve.” 

This latter point is very relevant if India is under any illusion that the US’ opposition to BRI will last till eternity. And, when — not if — the US slouches toward the BRI (which can be overnight), India should not find itself stranded as a lone supplicant. We must anticipate developments instead of being taken by surprise. The point is, Washington faces isolation as more and more western capitals start collaborating with the BRI projects.

The fact of the matter is that 22 European countries have inked BRI cooperation documents with China. Italy became the first country from the G7 to sign BRI cooperation documents. Ignoring the US criticism, Italian PM Giuseppe Conte attended last week’s summit in Beijing. The British finance minister Philip Hammond said in Beijing that Britain is committed to help realize the potential of China’s BRI, which he described as a “vision” that holds “tremendous potential to spread prosperity and sustainable development, touching as it does, potentially 70 percent of the world’s population, a project of truly epic ambition.”

The trends visible at the BRF forum summit are too powerful and potentially beneficial for India, and too consequential to ignore. The text of the joint communique of the Leaders’ Roundtable of the 2nd BRF summit titled Belt and Road Cooperation: Shaping a Brighter Shared Future is here.