It’s probably reckoning time again. Just a few weeks or so down the road, China is to hold its second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. Official statements are aimed at outshining its own performance in the 2017 forum, with some 40 heads of state expected to attend, as against 29 earlier.
Among the most important guests who are reported to have confirmed is Russian president Vladimir Putin. Pakistan will, of course, be in attendance, as will some of those like the Philippines who like Pakistan, can be seen as beneficiaries or debtors of Chinese munificence, depending on which side of the bank counter one is sitting on.
Since there are some 65 countries who can be counted as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) China can at least be assured of a captive audience at the coming meeting.
There is one hold out, however. India refused to part of the BRI in its earlier forum, and if recent reports are true, plans to stay out of the coming meeting as well. India’s ambassador to China Vikram Misri cited the same position as before, noting that “No country can participate in an initiative that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
This is a reference to the fact that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) the showpiece of the BRI, enters through the disputed areas of Kashmir that are occupied by Pakistan. That means both Gilgit-Baltistan and the so-called “Azad Kashmir”.
For years, India has raised objections and thus stopped any multilateral or bilateral funding for projects in these areas due to their disputed status. Chinese billions blew a hole in that position. Now Chinese funded projects like the Kohala dam on the Jhelum River near Muzzafarbad and a Special Economic Zone near Mirpur are part of CPEC funded projects, and it seems there’s nothing much that India can do about it, other than refuse to attend the BRI forum.
It’s beginning to seem dangerous like going into a sulk which essentially means grumbling loudly without the ability to do anything much about the grouse itself.
The basic issue is that the BRI is really huge and essentially limitless. As the World Bank notes, it covers “65 countries that account collectively for over 30 percent of global GDP, 62 percent of the population, and 75 percent of known energy reserves”. That’s a lot and includes the seaward part that is the New Maritime Silk Road, linking China to the nations of South East Asia, the Gulf countries and North Africa.
Six other economic corridors have been identified to link other countries to the BRI. China’s point is that unlike the Marshall Plan the massive American funding to get Europe back on to its feet after World War II it is an initiative, which anyone can join to their benefit. Unlike the Marshall Plan, it is not aimed at fostering strategic division (as between the Soviet Union and the “West’), nor aimed at fostering diplomatic exclusivity.
What both have in common however is that they funnel excess industrial capacity to the huge benefit of the donor (China/US), and will foster currency domination the dollar so far, and the renminbi in the future.
Neither of these are events that India can stop, at least not on its own. India has, therefore, joined the rising chorus of condemnation from a group of countries led by the United States who have been warning of severe adverse consequences of the way BRI is being implemented.
A lot of this is true particularly in countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives and the Philippines among others. That position is echoed in almost every forum both bilateral and multilateral. The India-US ‘strategic’ partnership, for instance, includes “the need to work collectively with other partner countries to support transparent, responsible, and sustainable debt financing practices in infrastructure development”.
That a clear dig at China. The same language can also be seen in joint statements with Japan and forms the broad basis for the “Quad”. The ‘BRI effect’ was most recently seen in the Maldives, where India and China seemed to come to a diplomatic face-off with however New Delhi now working with a friendly Maldivian government which has made it clear that its policy is “India first”. That what the BRI meant in security terms – it brought Chinese power and influence right on to India’s doorstep. That probably scared New Delhi of its diplomatic balance.
Here comes reality. In spite of all the bombast and the covert references, all of the others including the US, UK, Japan and Australia among others all sent reasonably senior representatives to the 2017 BRI forum. India sent none. At the time, Chinese Ambassador to India even offered to re-name the CPEC a not entirely worthy suggestion since it did not seem to offer entry to India.
There were also suggestions that India should at least send a low-level representative who could thereafter voice India’s sovereignty concerns about the BRI. While the exact reason is unclear, it seemed that the downturn in ties following China’s blocking of Indian membership of Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Chinese irritation on Arunachal Pradesh, and then (then) refusal to declare Masood Azhar all seemed to contribute to the general annoyance in New Delhi.
Now the sequence has reversed somewhat. China again voted against the Azhar’s designation but has indicated that it could change its position with time. No doors were closed when the foreign ministry spokesman rather enigmatically that (while) fighting terrorism was a global practice India needed “necessary international cooperation. And India needs to create favourable condition internationally for the same”.
Ambassador Luo Zhaohui’s recent statement also seemed to indicate optimism. Now the BRI forum lies ahead. A repeated Indian refusal to attend will only solidify the downswing in relations that is apparent on social media in calls to boycott Chinese goods in retaliation for the refusal to ban Azhar. Attending the forum doesn’t mean endorsing it. Far better to be within the conclave and state one’s case, then to be seen to be sulking outside.
In tandem, Beijing too has to take the really inconsequential step of endorsing the ban on Azhar. In actual terms, it means little even to Azhar himself.
He neither banks outside Pakistan or jets across the world. Ban or no ban he will remain a terrorist. Both can, therefore, save face (after all that’s what diplomacy is about), and move to address the issues that really matter.
India’s foreign policy has long been based on the lofty principle of non-alignment, which in reality gave diplomats a lot of elbow room to manoeuvre and sometimes run with the hounds and hunt with the hare. If this time it means dancing a complicated minuet with the bear sometimes close and sometimes afar and sometimes with different partners, then so be it.