China’s Belt & Road Initiative is largely seen as the China Pakistan Economic Corridor in South Asia, but this overlooks the potential for trade, water cooperation and research collaboration

China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), also known as One Belt one Road (OBOR), is China’s flagship project to create the infrastructure for connectivity for trade linking China to the world.

The BRI roughly follows and expands the old Silk Road on the land side and complements it with a maritime part to build a series of economic corridors with the goal of boosting trade and stimulating economic growth across Asia, Europe and Eastern Africa.

In South Asia the biggest part of BRI in south Asia is the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through which China is financing a series of energy and infrastructure projects. While exact numbers are hard to ascertain, the estimate is that over USD 50 billion will be involved in CPEC as grants and soft loans.

The project has courted controversy ever since it was announced in 2015 when India cited sovereignty issues about the implementation of CPEC. A part of CPEC goes through the erstwhile princely State of Jammu & Kashmir, whose territory is claimed by both India and Pakistan in full, though both countries only control parts of it.

While the Indian government has dismissed CPEC as violating its sovereignty, political parties from the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir have demanded that Kashmir should be made part of CPEC. For example, former chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti, has demanded it several times in recent months.

She reiterated this demand while delivering a talk on “Kashmir: The Way Forward” at a think-tank, the Observer Research Foundation in Mumbai on 14 December. She said that for Kashmir’s future it is important that it be included in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), arguing that Kashmir’s inclusion in the corridor will be an opportunity for the state and “not a security threat as perceived by the security experts and policy makers.”

China and Pakistan have also invited India to join CPEC, but the government of India has maintained its objections. In April 2018, the Indian ministry of external affairs issued a statement stating that ‘the so-called’ China-Pakistan Economic Corridor “violates India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Can Water Lead to Cooperation?

Despite official roadblocks to cooperation, the water crisis, exacerbated by the developmental path being pursued by the countries in the region, might force cooperation. In the face of climate change, water-sharing in the region presents both an opportunity and challenge. A report published in September 2018 by the Hong Kong based non-profit China Water Risk, revealed that China, India and Pakistan “simply do not have sufficient water to ensure food and energy security” plus develop under the current export-led economic growth model.

According to Ashok Swain, professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden, cooperation over sharing of water resources has already started happening owing to these dynamics.

“I think, China’s emergence as an active user of Himalayan Rivers in recent years is gradually pushing India to be more accommodative and build water cooperation with its neighbours in South Asia, particularly in the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin,” he said.

“In the Indus basin, the cooperation treaty (Indus Waters Treaty) should bring in two other riparian countries, China and Afghanistan. Bringing in only China will be good in itself, but it might be objected by India for the fear of China and Pakistan coming together against her. Inclusion of Afghanistan might help India to feel comfortable and work towards a basin based Indus water cooperation.”

Swain said that China sharing Brahmaputra river flow data with India in return of a fixed payment is a riparian cooperative behaviour and it should be promoted in all the trans-boundary river basins.

“In the Indus basin, at least China, India and Pakistan should establish a joint mechanism of sharing river flow data. In transboundary water cooperation, data sharing is a low hanging fruit but unfortunately upstream countries are reluctant to use it as they intend to use it as a bargain in bilateral negotiations,” he said.

Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, who heads the Department of Earth Sciences at University of Kashmir, said that in an era of telemetry, India and Pakistan should agree to the real-time exchange of data on river flows and meteorology.

“This would be one of the important confidence building measures between the two countries and would win goodwill for India in Pakistan and the international community,” he said.

“Under the IWT (Article VI), it is mandatory for India to share the river flow/discharge data on the Indus and its tributaries with Pakistan. Though, India does share the data with Pakistan, [the] later complains that the data is not shared regularly. I believe that the delay in the sharing of the river flows particularly during the flooding [of September 2014] had added up to the mistrust between the two countries,” Romshoo said.

Daanish Mustafa, a Pakistani professor who teaches Politics and Environment at King’s College London, said that Pakistan wants real-time flow data and timely notice of any infrastructural development projects upstream from the [Indus basin] rivers flowing into Pakistan. He said that sharing real-time data flow “has nothing to do” with security concerns.

“I can’t imagine any legitimate security concerns in this realm. Also, if one knows anything about water, one knows that securitising water is more based upon ignorance of basic hydrology, as well as a means to feed jingoistic nationalist agendas,” Mustafa said.

As regards the deepening role of China in south Asia thanks to BRI, Mustafa said, “So far, the indications from leaked documents on CPEC in Pakistan are that the Chinese are angling for a major investment stake in the Pakistani agricultural sector. My fear is that [China] is really looking for Pakistan’s water [to] transfer that as virtual water to China. But the Pakistani state is too enthralled with the USD 52 billion number to see what it is allowing China to do.”

Romshoo also said that CPEC in south Asia is a large issue that “will have significant impact” on the political and diplomatic environment in the region. “Already India is aware of it and needs to use the initiative for improving the security situation in the region,” Romshoo said. Unfortunately this does not seem to an issue getting its due priority.

“In India, experts are not hopeful about India’s inclusion in CPEC”

“If you look at the history of Pakistan-China relations, it primarily hinges on adversarial ties that both countries share with India. In this context, it is rather premature to consider that OBOR will provide an opportunity for the three countries to mend equations and build unanimity on projects that are planned therein. Also if we look at the developments post announcement of the OBOR project, dynamics between the three countries have been far from cordial, especially with regard to a section of the CPEC passing through Kashmir – territory that is claimed by India,” said Priyanka Singh, an Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi, a defence think-tank funded by the Indian government.

Some, however, feel that India can consider joining CPEC on the basis of certain modifications. Deepankar Sen Gupta, who teaches Economics at University of Jammu, said that the potential of the CPEC for the Indian economy is very large, should India choose to join it on the basis of certain modifications.

“If CPEC is no more than a single economic corridor from Xinjiang to Gwadar, then, of course, there is not much that India can expect. If, on the other hand, if this corridor has tributary road/pipelines/electric lines to/from Central Asia to India then India will have access to the Central Asian Energy Sources, both hydrocarbons as well as hydel power from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan,” Gupta said.

“Thus, India can gain from the OBOR provided India engages with the process and the Chinese allow these modifications in the OBOR and allow India to be connected to Central Asia.”

Muhammad Amir Rana, Director of Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), said that CPEC (BRI) will help to bring closer three neighbours and will provide an opportunity for constructive engagement. Rana said that BRI is a geo-economic integration initiative and if India joins it, it can prove an effective channel to build confidence between India and Pakistan which will provide better opportunities to discuss bilateral disputes including water issues.

Ongoing Cooperation

It is not as if there is no cooperation at all between India and China on some issues. For example Chinese academics have now been part of the four-country Brahmaputra Dialogue which includes India, China, Bangladesh and Bhutan. While this is a non-governmental interaction, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), based out of Kathmandu, has more formal levels of cooperation, with governmental representation.

ICIMOD has brought India, Pakistan, China and Afghanistan together in its work on the River Basins Programme has done focusing on the Upper Indus. ICIMOD has fostered trasboundary cooperation between Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan for conservation of biodiversity in its Ban-e-Dunya Network, which may be a model that could be followed in South Asia.

Lastly, ICIMOD has also been working with scientists and researchers on the “Hindu Kush Himalayan Monitoring and Assessment Programme (HIMAP)”. This collaborative effort by scientists and researchers on one of the most under-studied regions – the Hindu Kush Himlayas – which is also one of the most affected by climate change, and key to water management for the Indus, Ganga, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Yellow and Yangtze river basins offers a basis on which further collaboration may happen. The only real question is whether the countries in the region have the political will to do so.

Editor’s note: The article reflects the author’s opinion only, and not necessarily the views of editorial opinion of Belt & Road News.