It is es­sen­tial to know why In­dia should keep out of China-led ini­tia­tive

New Straits Times - - Opinion - The writer, NST's New Delhi cor­re­spon­dent, is the pres­i­dent of the Com­mon­wealth Jour­nal­ists As­so­ci­a­tion 2016-2018 and a Con­sul­tant with Power Pol­i­tics monthly mag­a­zine

INDIANS are feel­ing upstaged by the rich and pow­er­ful guy next-door driv­ing the en­tire town around in a swank limou­sine promis­ing a merry feast.

A mix of anger and con­cern is pal­pa­ble since they stayed away from the open­ing in Bei­jing of the Chi­nese-led One Belt One Road (OBOR), or Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive (BRI).

If they saw it com­ing since it has been in the works for four years, they found no ef­fec­tive way to counter it. Con­cepts they have floated or boosted, like Sa­gar Mala and In­dian Ocean Rim, did not take off since they lacked the deep pock­ets the Chi­nese have.

Even the United States, on whose sup­port In­dia seemed to count heav­ily, joined the band­wagon at the last minute. In came the United Na­tions and mul­ti­lat­eral agen­cies. That Ja­pan or Aus­tralia has reser­va­tions or Euro­peans kept away is not much of a con­so­la­tion.

See­ing the over­whelm­ing sup­port from Asean na­tions and across Asia, it is es­sen­tial to know why In­dia should — and ask whether it should — keep out.

Is In­dia work­ing con­trary to the col­lec­tive wis­dom of 29 na­tions who at­tended the Bei­jing meet and two scores of oth­ers that have signed up? Can it match China that is spend­ing roughly US$150 bil­lion (RM640.3 bil­lion) a year in these 68 coun­tries?

More honey and manna would be show­ered in terms of goods, mar­kets and in­fra­struc­ture. But, there are also fears, not with­out ba­sis, of be­ing in­ex­orably dove­tailed into the vor­tex of one gi­ant econ­omy and its geopo­lit­i­cal and geo-eco­nomic goals.

The sim­ple, un­palat­able word is neo-colo­nial­ism.

Some have pub­licly ac­knowl­edged the likely pit­falls of putting all eggs in one large bas­ket. But no one wants to be left out.

Pak­istan’s debt obli­ga­tion in­di­cates that Bei­jing is happy to en­trap even its clos­est ally. The lay­out of most of the pro­posed land-based projects al­most en­tirely con­nects coun­tries to China, but very lit­tle con­nects other coun­tries to each other.

Large and re­source­ful, even if poverty-rid­den, In­dia doesn’t think it wants to be part of it. But, it is al­ready boxed-in.

The China fac­tor is over­whelm­ing. Bur­geon­ing bi­lat­eral trade can­not hide the deep dis­trust by In­dia and equally deep dis­dain of In­dia by China. Doves and hawks abound in In­dian in­tel­li­gentsia, but also in China.

In a sense, the age-old In­dian psy­che has been chal­lenged. Even when in­vaded and colonised in the past, In­dia held sway in the vast sub-con­ti­nent south of the Hi­malayas. With OBOR, China wants to al­ter this.

Global re­align­ments have been for­tu­itous for In­dia. The Soviet Union’s demise left it with­out its big­gest ally, stand­ing alone, more non-aligned than it had been in the cold war era. That was when “Look East” be­gan. But “East” is no longer be­nign.

Con­nect­ing with the West and align­ing strate­gi­cally with the US, nur­tured through Clin­ton, Bush Jr. and Obama eras, In­dia has re­ceived a jolt un­der Trump — who hasn’t?

In­deed, the in­ward Amer­i­can thrust, away from South and South­east Asia has va­cated a vast geopo­lit­i­cal and geo-eco­nomic space for China and its OBOR. But, it doesn’t help to blame the win­ner.

In­dia has is­sues that prob­a­bly no one else has. Its real con­cern is the China-Pak­istan Eco­nomic Cor­ri­dor (CEPC), a key com­po­nent of the BRI and China’s road to the In­dian Ocean. The Modi govern­ment has near-unan­i­mous sup­port to rais­ing the sovereignty is­sue since this new Silk Road tra­verses the ter­ri­tory in Jammu and Kash­mir that Pak­istan wrested il­le­gally and equally il­le­gally, ceded it to China.

Opin­ion is di­vided whether In­dia should have boy­cotted the BRI’s open­ing with­out leav­ing a win­dow open to pos­si­bly re­con­sider its de­ci­sion at a fu­ture date.

Since Bei­jing has said the BRI was not touch­ing sovereignty is­sues, In­dia could have at­tended, mak­ing it clear that it was do­ing so with­out prej­u­dice to its ter­ri­to­rial dis­pute with Pak­istan. But it’s not that sim­ple.

There is an im­por­tant rider to which In­dia has got no re­sponse from China so far. Bei­jing con­sid­ers the In­dia-Pak­istan ter­ri­to­rial dis­pute a legacy of the colo­nial past that ought to be ne­go­ti­ated and set­tled bi­lat­er­ally. But, does Bei­jing con­cede that the set­tle­ment would cover ter­ri­tory it ac­quired from Pak­istan? If so, then the dis­pute is not just bi­lat­eral.

Given the closed-clasp Chi­naPak­istan re­la­tion­ship, Bei­jing can­not ac­com­mo­date In­dia. Pak­istan protested a pub­lic of­fer to re-name CPEC, made by Chi­nese en­voy to In­dia. When New Delhi, too, ridiculed it, Bei­jing re­tracted.

It is dif­fi­cult to buy Bei­jing’s ar­gu­ments that it plans to splash a few tril­lion as a be­nign gift to the world. This should not sur­prise any­one among the 68 na­tions and is not nec­es­sar­ily an ar­gu­ment against BRI. Great pow­ers of­ten pro­vide global pub­lic goods through ac­tions that ben­e­fit oth­ers, and en­rich them­selves.

All is not lost for In­dia. It can re­vive the Asian High­way pro­gramme as a counter-nar­ra­tive. Some of its neigh­bours who scut­tled it so that In­dia should not ben­e­fit, may now join in.

Ev­ery na­tion to­day is suf­fer­ing from the on­go­ing global slow­down. A project of this mag­ni­tude owned by all stake­hold­ers could do for Asia what the New Deal did in the 1930s for the US.

Opin­ion is di­vided whether In­dia should have boy­cotted the BRI’s open­ing with­out leav­ing a win­dow open to pos­si­bly re­con­sider its de­ci­sion at a fu­ture date.


Heads of states and of­fi­cials at the Belt and Road Fo­rum in Bei­jing on May 15.

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