What are India's objections to China's Belt and Road Initiative summit?
As China gears up to host the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative conference, India has chosen to keep a distance and maintain ambiguity over its participation. Naturally, this has kept China guessing.
This is despite China's argument that keeping away from the project will lead to isolation.
Meanwhile, India has been rather outspoken about its reservations with the project. For instance Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who also holds the charge for defence, said in in Japan recently that “I have no hesitation in saying we have some serious reservations about it, because of sovereignty issues”.
“I think connectivity in principle is a good idea but in this particular proposal, there are several other collateral issues and this is not the forum to go into it,” Jaitley was quoted as saying on the sidelines of an Asian Development Bank event in Yokohama.
It is evident that China doesn't want an Indian boycott of the important forum. This became evident when the Chinese envoy to New Delhi offered a four step solution to restore ties. However with less than a week to go for the event, the Indian government has still kept its cards close to its chest, signaling that it will play hardball and expect something in return from Beijing which has been needling New Delhi on a range of issues – from India’s bid to the Nuclear Supplier’s Group to blocking Masood Azhar’s name as a terrorist on the important UNSC list.
As a former diplomat put it, “For India, it is not about the Road so much as it is about the Chinese attitude and approach towards India.”
The four day forum which will commence on May 14 will see the Chinese leadership host as many as 28 heads of states including Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Meanwhile, India continues to tell the Chinese about its reservations with the ambitious project where the Chinese have planned a 'belt' to Central Asia through South Asia unto Europe and another maritime silk 'road' to Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.
That China Pakistan Economic Corridor where the Chinese have promised to invest a massive $50 billion in Pakistan to shore up infrastructure is an important part of the BRI, is where India’s reservations also stem from.
The Xinjiang-to-Gwadar port project passes through Gilgit Baltistan, which according to the India, is its integral part, under the unlawful occupation of Pakistan. Moreover, the growing Chinese proximity to Pakistan, and aggressive Chinese outreach to other countries in the Subcontinent, including Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka et al, is being seen as a move to encircle India. The BRI is as much about economics and trade as it is about Chinese strategic and geopolitical ambitions.
For India, endorsing BRI would mean weakening its claim on Pakistan Occupied Kashmir areas. That the project was christened as CPEC was enough to upset India and was seen as some kind of an endorsement of the Pakistani occupation.
India has also maintained its opposition to Pakistan ceding Aksai Chin region to the Chinese.
However, Chinese have time and again sought to downplay these assertions.
Speaking in Mumbai in April, Chinese deputy chief of mission Liu Jinsong had asked India to carefully study the 1963 agreement between China and Pakistan which, according to him, called for renegotiation between the two countries once India and Pakistan get to a solution on the Kashmir issue. He said that any road link between China and Pakistan would have to pass through PoK and how it is unavoidable.
On Friday, Chinese Ambassador to New Delhi Luo Zhaohui, speaking at a closed door event at the United Services Institution, sought to further placate Indian concerns, even as he offered mediation on the Kashmir issue “if both sides accept it.”
“The CPEC is for promoting economic cooperation and connectivity. It has no connections to or impact on sovereignty issues,” he said as he pointed out how China supports the solution of the disputes through bilateral negotiations between the two countries. The text of his statement was released by the Chinese Embassy on Sunday.
The envoy pushed the view that the ambitious project would work to the benefit of both the countries and that China was even willing to change the name of CPEC.
“Even we can think about renaming the CPEC. China and India have had successful experience of delinking sovereignty disputes with bilateral relations before. In history, we have had close cooperation along the ancient Silk Road. Why shouldn’t we support this kind of cooperation today? In a word, China is sincere in its intention to cooperate with India on the OBOR, as it is good for both of us,” he said.
India's reservations, meanwhile, are not confined to nomenclature.
As Indian and Chinese relations undergo a rough patch, the Chinese envoy offered a four step solution.
“Firstly, start negotiation on a China-India Treaty of Good Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation. Secondly, restart negotiation of China-India Free Trade Agreement. Thirdly, strive for an early harvest on the border issue. Fourthly, actively explore the feasibility of aligning China’s ‘One Belt One Road Initiative’ (OBOR) and India’s Act East Policy,” he said.
Meanwhile, a section amongst the diplomatic community in the country also seeks engagement with China on the BRI.
Former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, for example, has maintained how it presented a limited opportunity for India and how India must prepare itself for the change that would come once this mammoth project is fully functional.
“We might explore which portions of the public goods that the BRI creates – whether infrastructure or connectivity – serve India’s interest in improving connectivity and economic integration with the Asian and global economy. To that extent, the BRI represents an opportunity for India,” Menon wrote in an article for a news website even as he made it clear that sovereignty aspects of the CPEC remain unacceptable.
For now, India seems to be in a wait and watch mode.