Way to get back on board

In February 2014, when the Chinese government first brought up with India its plans for the Belt and Road (B&R) Initiative, four months after President Xi Jinping had unveiled the idea in Kazakhstan, it seemed an unworkable, ambitious pipe dream. China would need all the friends and partners it could get to make its plans for a 60-nation network encompassing 4.4 billion people. In the Chinese scheme, India could be a major partner, and maps of the time show the B&R travel east to west right through India.

Swerving off the road

A few months later Russia was enlisted through the $400-billion “Power of Siberia” pipeline, and Mr. Xi’s friendship at a time when the West had decided to isolate and cripple Moscow over Crimea’s annexation brought President Vladimir Putin firmly into the fold. With India, China’s plan was a grander one: the newly elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, would visit Xi’an, the original starting point of the old Silk Route, in May 2015, and both leaders would announce their cooperation in the B&R project (then called OBOR or One Belt, One Road), along with plans for the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that was set up in October 2014.

Somewhere along the way, the script soured, and whether it was Mr. Modi’s announcement of a joint vision with U.S. President Obama for Asia-Pacific (read South China Sea), or Mr. Xi’s announcement of the $46-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that runs through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), the May 2015 plan never materialised, although Mr. Modi did visit Xi’an.

China says it still hasn’t given up on Indian participation, and the National People’s Congress spokesperson this week repeated the hope that India will attend Mr. Xi’s mega B&R conference on May 14-15 this year. Mr. Putin, British Prime Minister Theresa May, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif are among the invitees expected.

China says it still hasn’t given up on Indian participation, and the National People’s Congress spokesperson this week repeated the hope that India will attend Mr. Xi’s mega B&R conference on May 14-15 this year. Mr. Putin, British Prime Minister Theresa May, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif are among the invitees expected. However, the government has made it clear it is prepared to sit out the event over the principle of sovereignty. When asked, a senior official said, “It is impossible for us to go and sit even as observers in the conference at this point — with the Belt and Road map on display showing parts of India in Pakistan.” While the outcome is unfortunate, India’s stand over the line going through PoK is understandable. The more important questions are: how did India get boxed into this corner, and does it want a way out of it? If so, is there one?

A reset in ties required

There is every indication that after ‘annus horribilis’ of 2016 for India-China ties, overshadowed by China’s opposition to India’s entry into in the Nuclear Suppliers Group and its vetoing of a proposal at the United Nations to declare Masood Azhar a terrorist, New Delhi is looking for a reset. During Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar’s recent visit to Beijing for the restructured Strategic Dialogue, he said as much, calling for a more “stable, forward-looking” relationship to deal with an “international situation in flux”, a clear pointer that global uncertainties triggered by the Donald Trump administration in the U.S. must force a geopolitical review.

Much has been written about the impact of the new U.S. President’s actions on India. The most obvious ones are cutbacks on immigrant visas, restrictions on outsourcing, and ‘Select USA’ which will make a dent in the ‘Make in India’ programme, both for manufactured goods and defence purchases. Those actions are held responsible for creating an atmosphere of xenophobia in the U.S. where Indians could be targeted as much as people from countries on the travel ban, and the government has already had to exert considerable diplomatic leverage to exact words of assurances from the U.S. government on behalf of NRIs and PIOs.

However, it is what Mr. Trump doesn’t do that will have more impact on India in the long term. If the U.S. decides not to build on its pivot to Asia, in addition to pulling out of free trade negotiations like Trans-Pacific Partnership, or doesn’t bolster its naval strength in the Indo-Pacific, those spaces will be occupied by China. In the same vein, if the U.S. continues to cut troops in Afghanistan, lowers its interest in the reconciliation process, or pulls away from the larger discussions on Afghanistan’s future, then Russia has proved willing to move into those roles. If this is to be the reality of Asia, then India will have to rethink its own rebalance of the past few years towards the U.S.

Neighbourhood on board

A rethink may also be required on India’s own neighbourhood policy. In September last year, the government exerted considerable heft with each of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries to cancel a summit in Pakistan after the Uri attacks. The move was a part of India’s plan to “isolate” Pakistan until it takes action on terror. The truth is that the plan worked for the SAARC summit, but not beyond that, in part because of Pakistan’s involvement with China and the B&R initiative, which has already been signed on to by Afghanistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh (Nepal is expected to join soon). Even Afghanistan and Bangladesh, which suffer the most from terrorism emanating from Pakistan, will inevitably be drawn into the B&R group of countries more and more for connectivity and trade, more so in the absence of SAARC. Significantly, it is the Afghanistan leadership that has come out most strongly on the need for India to find its way into the B&R. Both President Ashraf Ghani and former President Hamid Karzai, on visits to India in the past few months, have stressed the importance of connecting India to Central Asia via Afghanistan, joining a “strategic arc” of countries from Iran to Russia and China. These countries, including Iran, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Pakistan, are connecting to each other via B&R through Iran’s North-South corridor, CPEC and other routes already in place, while India’s plans for Chabahar port are still to get off the ground. “Economically, Afghanistan has become a part of Central Asia,” Mr. Ghani has said. Clearly, Afghanistan’s desire to reduce its dependence on Pakistan trade will eventually cut it off from all of South Asia.

Contours of a compromise

If China so wishes, it could still make amends by using the Afghan desire to remain connected by putting the CPEC on an alternate route: to Afghanistan and not PoK, connecting it to the Silk Route envisaged. This would not only build a bigger arc for the B&R route, it would sidestep India’s concerns over sovereignty, and leave the door open for it to join the project on its eastern frontiers via BCIM or to even just be an observer. The issue of specific projects in PoK and Gilgit-Baltistan would remain, but they could be dealt with in the manner the Chinese funding of the Karakoram highway or USAID and Asian Development Bank contributions to the Diamer-Bhasha dam were.

The founder of the old Silk Route, Zhang Qian, was not a Chinese emperor or ruler, but a diplomat-warrior. He set out to look for strategic allies for Emperor Wu on a journey that began in 138 BC from the Han capital of Chang’an (now Xi’an). When he returned he told the emperor he had also learned during his stay in Bactria (Afghanistan and Central Asia) that a more important route for China lay within Shendu (India), through which China could trade over the mountains of Sichuan province. Two thousand years later, it may need both diplomacy and a push from Afghanistan and Central Asia to once again align the lines between India and China, if New Delhi and Beijing wish to ensure that the success they shared via the old Silk Route is given another chance.

The Article First Appeared In The Hindu





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