SIGNALLING ITS strong displeasure at the inclusion of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as part of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, India on Saturday decided not to send a high-level representative for the Belt and Road Forum that begins in China on Sunday.
“Regarding the so-called ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’, which is being projected as the flagship project of the OBOR, the international community is well aware of India’s position. No country can accept a project that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity,” said the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) official spokesperson Gopal Baglay. “Connectivity projects must be pursued in a manner that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said.
Baglay said India “received formal invitation to participate in the six separate forums that China is organising as part of the Belt and Road Forum being held in Beijing on May 14-16.” India’s decision — which is along expected lines, as it is in line with New Delhi’s position which was made clear early this year — came on a day when Pakistan signed six new agreements with China, after a meeting between Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and China’s Premier Li Keqiang.
Baglay said India is of the firm belief that connectivity initiatives must be based on universally recognised international norms, good governance, rule of law, openness, transparency and equality.
Connectivity initiatives must follow principles of financial responsibility to avoid projects that would create unsustainable debt burden for communities; balanced ecological and environmental protection and preservation standards; transparent assessment of project costs; and skill and technology transfer to help long-term running and maintenance of the assets created by local communities, he said.
Giving an account of India’s efforts, he said New Delhi shares the international community’s desire for enhancing physical connectivity and believes that it should bring greater economic benefits to all in an equitable and balanced manner. India is working with many countries and international institutions in support of physical and digital connectivity in its immediate neighbourhood.
Stressing that expansion and strengthening of connectivity is an integral part of India’s economic and diplomatic initiatives, he said that India is pursuing the Trilateral Highway project under the ‘Act East’ policy; developing multimodal linkages with Myanmar and Bangladesh under ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy; engaged with Iran on Chabahar Port and with Iran and other partners in Central Asia on International North South Transport Corridor under the ‘Go West’ strategy; and the BBIN initiative is aimed at enhancing logistics efficiencies in South Asian region.
“We are actively considering acceding to TIR Convention,” he said, referring to the Customs Convention on International Transport of Goods which was cleared by the Union Cabinet in March.
“Guided by our principled position in the matter, we have been urging China to engage in a meaningful dialogue on its connectivity initiative, ‘One Belt, One Road’, which was later renamed as ‘Belt and Road Initiative’. We are awaiting a positive response from the Chinese side,” he said.
Asked whether India has confirmed its participation in the forum, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang had said on Friday, “As far as I know, there are Indian scholars participating in relevant activities during the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation.”
The May 14-15 summit will be attended by 29 heads of state and governments, including one of India’s strategic partners — Russian President Vladimir Putin — and high-level delegations from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar. The US, France, Germany and UK are among the major powers participating at the BRF.
India has objected to OBOR on the basis of CPEC through diplomatic channels. Last week, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, while responding to a query in Japan, had said, “I have no hesitation in saying we have some serious reservations about it (CPEC), because of sovereignty issues.”
In January, Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar had said that China has not been sensitive about India’s sovereignty and did not consult New Delhi on its US$ 54 billion project with Pakistan, referring to the CPEC.
Responding to questions at the second edition of the Raisina dialogue, Jaishankar had said, “China is a country which is very sensitive on matters concerning its sovereignty… so we would expect that they would have some understanding of other people’s sensitivity about their sovereignty. CPEC passes through a piece of land, which we call Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, which is a territory that belongs to India and is illegally occupied by Pakistan.”
“So, the fact that such a project has been initiated without consultation with India, I would imagine, people will understand what the Indian reaction to that would be. So I think in approaching the CPEC, there needs to be some reflection on how a country like India would see… would feel… I am sorry to say that we have not seen signs of that so far,” he had said.
Jaishankar’s comments came a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that “connectivity in itself cannot override or undermine the sovereignty of other nations”. “Only by respecting the sovereignty of countries involved, can regional connectivity corridors fulfill their promise and avoid differences and discord,” Modi had said in his inaugural address at the Raisina Dialogue. While India has raised the CPEC issue at various levels, including with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the BRICS summit in Goa last October, Jaishankar’s comments were the most critical and clear articulation.
Last week, in a bid to assuage New Delhi’s concerns, Chinese ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui offered to rename CPEC, insisting that it was an economic cooperation and connectivity enhancement project devoid of “sovereignty issues”. However, his comment suggesting the renaming was later deleted by the Chinese embassy from his speech posted on the embassy website.
A Chinese official in Delhi had also suggested last week that non-participation could lead to a situation where New Delhi would have “no voice” on Xi’s ambitious OBOR initiative to build seven economic corridors. “If India doesn’t attend the forum, the Chinese people will ask questions. It will give a feeling that you’re not constructive,” said the official. “If you’re absent, you have no voice.”
The official also suggested that China’s agreement with Pakistan for the CPEC wouldn’t affect any “future settlement” of the Kashmir issue.
Meanwhile, the MoUs signed by China and Pakistan today included an agreement to construct an airport in Gwadar, implementation of the Havelian dry port, and technical cooperation for the construction of the East Bay Expressway.
Xi met Sharif after the agreements were signed and said the construction of CPEC would be pushed forward. “The supplementary projects in and around Pakistan’s Gwadar Port should be steadily advanced and the study on the construction of industrial parks along the corridor facilitated,” state-run Chinese news agency Xinhua quoted Xi as saying.
According to Xinhua, Xi also said that China-Pakistan relations were a priority for Beijing and it was willing to enrich the “all-weather strategic cooperative” partnership with Islamabad. “The two sides should not only continue high-level exchanges, but increase interactions between governments, legislative bodies and political parties. The two countries should strengthen cooperation on areas including anti-terrorism and security, and enhance coordination on major international and regional affairs,” said Xi, according to Xinhua.