China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was announced by Chinese Premier Xi Jinping in 2013 as a new connectivity network spanning Asia, Europe and Africa with the primary goal of enhancing regional integration on an enormous scale. The project includes six main corridors, both over land and sea, and currently includes over 70 countries.
This seeks to increase trade and stimulate economic growth across the region. The BRI is also expected to involve over $1 trillion in investments, largely in infrastructure development projects for ports, roads, railways and airports, as well as power plants and telecommunications networks.
All countries, however, are not convinced of the solely developmental aspect of this initiative and see it as a push for Chinese dominance in global affairs by building a China centred trading network.
India is one such country having voiced its concerns numerous times along with skipping the BRI Summit in Beijing in May 2017. From India’s perspective, the BRI presents a twofold concern.
First and most importantly, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which is being constructed through Pakistan Administered Kashmir (PaK) has the potential to seriously impact the geopolitics of the region.
Secondly, China seems to be pushing the idea of a ‘Maritime Silk Route’ which invariably involves the construction of numerous ports across the Indian Ocean in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Often dubbed as the ‘String of Pearls’ strategy by analysts, such a move to encircle India on China’s part could potentially undermine India’s security.
These two aspects of the BRI and how they effect the geopolitics of the region and in turn effect Sino-Indian relations will be further elucidated below.
China-Pakistan Economic Corridor
The flagship project of the BRI, the CPEC is a $62 billion project to modernise Pakistan’s infrastructure through a network of modern transportation links, energy projects and special economic zones. India, however, has raised the issue of this project being in violation of its territorial integrity and sovereignty at the 39th session of the UNHRC.
The CPEC passes through disputed territory which is claimed as a part of the undivided Jammu and Kashmir state of India.
It is also important to note that if not for the PaK, Pakistan and China do not share a common border, thereby nullifying the project. Furthermore, the path of the project runs parallel to the Line of Control between India and Pakistan and thus, could pose an increasing military threat to the Indian border.
This also means that the People’s Liberation Army may increase its presence in PaK and could boost Pakistan’s military confidence vis a vis India. On an economic front, due to the enormous flow of Chinese investments into Pakistan, the former will now be a permanent fixture in Pakistan to ensure a stable Pakistan that can pay back its loans. In turn, this means that the “all weather friendship” between the two countries will get further entrenched.
String of Pearls
The Indian Ocean is a region of growing strategic interests. Containing vital sea lanes that carry more than 80% of the world’s seaborne trade in oil through the choke points on either end, and its increasingly complex, constantly evolving strategic developments make it difficult to stress the significance of this region enough.
Keeping this in mind, the Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI) is the sea route of the BRI to ensure and protects its interests along the sea lanes of communication due to the heavy reliance of China on trade that passes through the ocean.
This aspect therefore includes the developments of ports in countries across the Indian Ocean Region and includes ports in Chittagong, Bangladesh, Kyaoukpyu and Sittwe in Myanmar, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and Gwadar in Pakistan.
These developments have caused uneasiness in New Delhi as they have the potential to threaten Indian national security if converted to naval bases. It is referred to as a ‘string of pearls’ by analysts who also see it as a geo-strategic manoeuvre to encircle India and prevent her expansion into the Indian Ocean.
Furthermore, with Hambantota being leased to the Chinese for 99 years, a growing China-Pakistan military partnership, and an overall growing Chinese presence in the South Asia, the government in New Delhi has tangible concerns.
Implications for Sino-Indian Relations
As mentioned above, the CPEC and the String of Pearls are two points of contention between India and China. Combined with the unresolved border issue which led to a war between the two countries in 1962 and is still a thorn in their relationship, these recent developments have caused tensions to escalate.
Although India and China have a flourishing bilateral trade, India must be cautious in how it approaches a growing Chinese footprint in the region. Having a major Chinese presence in Pakistan and Sri Lanka is worrying for India and although it seems unlikely that India will join the BRI in the foreseeable future, the country needs to ensure it does not end up being encircled by China.
China must also keep New Delhi’s concerns in mind as it could end up pushing the latter towards a coalition, further hindering Chinese interests. Most importantly, the situation of a security dilemma should be avoided which would only lead to further destabilisation of the region.