Backed in a corner

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India’s isolation was clear enough at China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) forum. Not a single country of note was absent from the meeting. New Delhi’s contention it was staying away because the China Pakistan Economic Corridor violates Indian sovereignty in Kashmir was unconvincing. China has been in occupation of Indian-claimed territory in the disputed state since 1963. This has not stopped India from doing normal business with Beijing. Nor has Chinese occupation of Aksai Chin and other areas along the contested border prevented New Delhi from working with China.

 

The real reasons for India’s absence from BRI are quite different. It is galling to New Delhi that the entire world is lining up to do business with a rampant China and no one is paying India much attention. Envy apart, there is the strategic worry that China will ‘encircle’ India.

The real reasons for India’s absence from BRI are quite different. It is galling to New Delhi that the entire world is lining up to do business with a rampant China and no one is paying India much attention. Envy apart, there is the strategic worry that China will ‘encircle’ India. That China, with an economy five times the size of India, needs the BRI and an encirclement of India to deal with its weak neighbour is unlikely, but clearly this assumption motivates Indian strategic thinking.

In fact, BRI has little to do with India. It is about using excess Chinese capacity, financial and industrial. It is about ensuring that China has alternative markets for its exports given that the West and Japan could turn protectionist. It is about reviving China’s status as a great power, culturally and geopolitically. The land routes in Eurasia and Pakistan are, in addition, about dealing with Muslim extremism in areas adjacent to China’s restive Xinjiang. Beijing hopes that its massive investments in Pakistan will lift the Pakistani economy and drain the swamp of extremism – which, incidentally, is in India’s interest.

At least part of New Delhi’s calculations about BRI were that the burgeoning relationship with the US would counterbalance China’s ambitions. However, Donald Trump has cosied up to Xi Jinping because he needs his help on the US economy and dealing with North Korea. Trump also wants to ensure that China and Russia don’t get too close and so flirting with both suits him. In any case, US companies want a piece of the action in BRI.

Where does this leave India? More than ever, New Delhi has been pushed into America’s orbit and is losing strategic leverage. Being taken for granted by Washington is never a good idea. This loss of flexibility is being compounded by the fact that Russia is drawing closer to China and Pakistan.

Moscow has its worries about both countries, but its greatest worries are the US and Islamic extremism. It needs China against the West, and it hopes, like Beijing, that engaging Pakistan will stave off extremism. India is a market for Russian weapons, but it has gone too far into the US camp for Moscow’s comfort. Vladimir Putin doesn’t therefore care much about Indian sensitivities on China and Pakistan.

Finally, relations with Pakistan have hit the lowest ebb since the 1960s. Dialogue has ended. New Delhi for the first time has utterly refused to discuss Kashmir. Terror attacks from across the border continue. An Indian national may be hanged in a Pakistani jail, allegedly for spying. The government’s mishandling of protests in Kashmir and of PDP-BJP coalition politics are creating openings for Islamabad. With Chinese investments, potential Russian arms sales, and continuing US support, Pakistan is in quite a happy place strategically. All India’s gains over the Rao, Vajpayee, and Manmohan periods have been squandered.

As the prime minister gets on his plane to Israel, Russia, Germany, Spain and Kazakhstan over the next few weeks, he will have much to ponder.

The Article First Appeared In TOI

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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