Raja Mandala: The politics of territory

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is a wake-up call for India: Geography is tied to economics and strategy

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Updated: May 16, 2017 12:11 am
China’s Belt and Road Forum, Beijing China’s Belt and Road Forum, President Xi Jinping, Chinese President Xi Jinping, India, Indian Express, Indian Express News Chinese President Xi Jinping, front row third right, waves with leaders attending the Belt and Road Forum as they pose for a group photo at the Yanqi Lake venue on the outskirt of Beijing, China, Monday, May 15, 2017. (Source: AP Photo)

If Delhi was conspicuous by its absence at China’s Belt and Road Forum this week in Beijing, it cited a number of reasons for staying away. None of them was more important than the question of India’s sovereignty over Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK), through which an important part of China’s Silk Road Industrial Belt runs. In a statement late on Saturday, hours before President Xi Jinping opened the forum in Beijing, the foreign office in Delhi referred to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and affirmed that “no country can accept a project that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Contrary to the warnings of some in Beijing and the fears of many in Delhi, international isolation is not India’s biggest problem as China’s connectivity projects under Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative gather momentum. India is too large an economic and political entity to be isolated by another power. Occupying a critical geographic location, India can contribute to the success of China’s Belt and Road Initiative or create needless complications. India’s real challenge is to match its claims on territorial sovereignty with effective action on the ground.

India’s arguments with China on the BRI have had one important effect. It has helped bring the triangular dynamic between India, Pakistan and China in Jammu and Kashmir into sharp focus. Although the popular discourse in India sees Kashmir as a bilateral issue with Pakistan, China has always made it a three-body problem. Unlike the Anglo-Americans who fancied mediation between India and Pakistan in the past, and the Hurriyat separatists who now pretend to be the third party, it is China that is the real third force in Kashmir.

Beijing is in occupation of a large part of Ladakh in the north-eastern part of J&K. To the west, Pakistan had ceded part of the territory controlled by it to Beijing after the Sino-Indian border conflict of 1962. China’s first trans-border infrastructure project in Kashmir — the Karakoram Highway — dates back to the late 1960s. Since then, China’s presence in Pak-occupied Kashmir has steadily grown. As the CPEC deepens the integration between Pakistan occupied Kashmir and China, Beijing looms larger than ever before over J&K.

Although Delhi did often object at the bureaucratic level to China’s role in PoK, India was continually tempted to sweep the problem under the carpet in the name of larger political solidarity with China. Thanks to Xi’s huge political investment in the BRI, the special importance that Beijing attaches to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and the intensity of India’s opposition to the CPEC, the triangular nature of the Kashmir question can no longer be masked.

In the last few days, Beijing seemed eager to address India’s sovereignty concerns about CPEC. Delhi was not impressed though, for the pickings seemed meagre. Nevertheless, the effort by the two countries to address the tricky issue of territorial sovereignty in Kashmir are welcome and must continue. While it may be prepared to talk, Beijing is unlikely to suspend work on its economic and strategic projects in Pakistan occupied Kashmir.

Even as it engages in a necessary and patient dialogue with China, Delhi needs to take a number of steps of its own. For one, Delhi must step up the effort to modernise and deepen J&K’s connectivity with the rest of India. Second, Delhi must test the sincerity of the Pakistani and Chinese statements that CPEC is open for Indian participation. Delhi has not been averse to cross-border infrastructure cooperation in Kashmir and it has made specific proposals to both Pakistan and China in the past. Delhi must now articulate a political framework for economic and commercial cooperation across the contested frontiers of Kashmir in all directions.

Third, the Sino-Indian argument on CPEC in Kashmir is deeply connected to the question of Arunachal Pradesh. While China asks India to downplay the sovereignty argument in Pakistan occupied Kashmir, Beijing objects to all Indian activity, political or economic, in Arunachal Pradesh. The state is part of the Indian Union, but is claimed in entirety by China. In Arunachal, Delhi needs to raise its game on accelerating the state’s economic development and its connectivity to the rest of India.

Fourth, Delhi must devote high-level political attention to the long-neglected Andaman and Nicobar islands that sit across China’s planned maritime silk routes in the eastern Indian Ocean. It is only by realising the full strategic potential of the island chain that Delhi can cope with the maritime dimension of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Fifth, in opting out of the Belt and Road Initiative for now, Delhi has renewed its strong commitment to promoting connectivity with neighbours in the Subcontinent, South East Asia and the Gulf. On Saturday, the foreign office identified a number of projects currently under implementation. There is no doubt that the Modi government has imparted new energy to these projects, some of which date back to the Vajpayee era. Completing these projects quickly is critical for lending credibility to Delhi’s tough posture on the BRI.

Whether it is in Kashmir, Arunachal, the Andamans or the neighbourhood, India’s neglect of its frontier regions has weakened its regional position. Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative promises to worsen that disadvantage, unless Delhi presses ahead with its own connectivity initiatives within and across its frontiers. While the geographic imperative has driven modern China’s strategic policies, it has not been one of independent India’s strengths. But President Xi appears to have shaken India out of its geopolitical stupor.

India’s belated rediscovery of the relationship between geography, economics and strategy is probably one of the more interesting but unintended consequences of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.


The writer is director, Carnegie India, Delhi, and contributing editor on foreign affairs for ‘The Indian Express’

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  1. R
    Ramesh Nittoor
    May 17, 2017 at 4:39 am
    Both Palestine and Israel are with India when the polarization induced by India taking a pole position on BRI pits India squarely against China. The risk ahead is breakup of SAARC. Most of the Middle Eastern nations are likely to opt fora long scenario which brings polity of Indian subcontinent on the same page. This thrust clearly works against the political economy CPEC within BRI seeks to thrust. The strategic establishment within stan will have to think deeply about long term implication to their cultural and economic evolution, since the pace of event can ume a risky turn which may also be irreversible. Did the founding fathers of stan seek the scenario which they are subjecting their innocent population to? Surely not! stan can not break the stalemate on Kashmir with Chinese help, instead their region could turnout to turmoil zone for very long term.
    1. R
      Ramesh Nittoor
      May 17, 2017 at 5:01 am
      This kind of gradual, deliberate infrastructure build by China has parallels with their island creation in South China Sea. But triangulation of Kashmir issue, which Dr. Rajamohan has highlighted in this article, introduces a different kind of dynamics which has made it difficult to predict in which way the cookie shall crumble. It is I think evenly poised, and perhaps slightly in Indian favor; the loss at stake for China are two nations, one Islamic and the other Buddhist, presently under their occupation. CIS lesson may repeat for the second Communist order, in near future if the turn out of events, already in bit of Indian favor turn bit decisively in decades ahead. The Indian centrifugal thrust is no less determined than Chinese onward forays.
      1. R
        Ramesh Nittoor
        May 17, 2017 at 5:09 am
        The gradual approach followed by China suits India as well, as priority of both nations is to focus primarily on economic development, and this includes great opportunities for economic co-operation and sharing technology foe sustainable environment. The economic and cultural matters gaining priority serves well to avoid conflagration. But being aware of the contentions and preparing for it in democracy by properly accounting for it is also necessary. The days of bhai-bhai is over, so are the days of dusman-dushman as well. A mature, no-nonsense Indian stance is the need of the order, and is likely to be available as and when the balancing factors are in proper play.
      2. R
        May 17, 2017 at 4:02 am
        We will know in time whether OBOR is a success, although my own analysis tells me that there will be huge hurdles. On CPEC, I see any of the following scenarios taking place: a) To ensure peace along CPEC, stan may be forced to negotiate realistically with India on the Kashmir issue and settle on accepting the line of control as the permanent border of a divided Kashmir (if Indian government does not up the ante and insists on claiming all of Kashmir; b) The West, led by the U.S., wanting to thwart the OBOR project tilts toward India on the Kashmir issue, pushing Delhi to settle for nothing less than entire Kashmir; c) China forces its new colony stan to reach a speedy negotiated settlement with India on the Kashmir issue to protect its CPEC and OBOR projects. I don't rule some quid pro quo from China to India on the Arunachal issue also. So let us how it all plays out, but as a strategic thinker I believe we have promising times ahead to settle some long-festering issues.
        1. R
          May 17, 2017 at 3:43 am
          Very insightful analysis. Mr. Raja Mohan's analysis is too intellectual for most posters here to understand or appreciate. They would rather have Tavleen Singh's type of emotional sermonizing that even a 4th grader can understand.
          1. K
            May 17, 2017 at 2:24 am
            Amazing un-insightful article!!! Mr. Rajamohan!! What new insights are you going in this article?
            1. V
              vibhore singh
              May 17, 2017 at 3:32 am
              Probably you didn't notice ,but he mentions BRI has forced India to look inwards at its own connectivity project which have been lying in shambles for past decades. You can't compete with China and offer carrots to neighbors until your own house is in order. Not only this article but a series of articles by Mr. Raja on BRI has taken a very objective and pragmatic approach of what India can do to counter the Chinese influence in the region.
            2. G
              May 17, 2017 at 1:05 am
              Don't believe all the g standing press releases by the Chinese. -China's intent is to unnerve the world, overwhelm their neighbours (whom they don't consider as neighbours anyway), exploit the natural resources of countries in Asia and Africa in the name of OBOR (one belt one road) and provide employment for their own population while masking the slowing down of China's economy. -For India, there has never been ONE ROAD. It is a peninsula and it has always been MULTIPLE ROADS and multiple sea routes. India should be mindful of China but at the same time maintain its independence, just like an and Australia.
              1. G
                May 17, 2017 at 1:07 am
                J a p a n and Australia – IE swallowing letters.
              2. K
                KAmarnathr KR
                May 16, 2017 at 8:42 pm
                OBOR is in-and-out a Chinese initiative to sustain a slowing down economy using their very well oiled manufacturing industry. Owing to very efficient manufacturing segment, which has outstripped demand world over, China now wants newwr markets. Developed western coontris can no morr absorb chinese goods at sustenanle prices, which is already rock bottom. To get a picture of this, one just needs to enter mega stores (like walmart, sams, costco etc) in a wester country, be it UK or USA. These are filled with cheap chinese goods. The picture is pretty bad for the chinese manufacturing industry. Yet another eye opener is are the stock prices of Ross stores, tjmax. These chains are thriving over past few years. These stores are filled with chinese goods, which are passed on from higher end stores because these are out of season apparels or could not be sold. India will not be able to compete with China on prices. China's manufacturing prowess will only overrun India Small Scale Sector.
                1. S
                  May 16, 2017 at 7:47 pm
                  India has done well in not suc bing to the Chinese pressure as it had done in the past. China has to understand that the threat of economic isolation cannot stop India from claiming its territorial sovereignty and in doing this India has put up a brave and resolute face in front of the world. While to everyone else it is just an economic opportunity to India it is core issue of its Territorial right. I just hope that India is also formalising some kind of legal framework to counter CPEC at International Forum.
                  1. Y
                    May 16, 2017 at 7:45 pm
                    China growth model was its internal OBOR. Eevery district connected by high speed train, expressways. Now that is all over, its growth has stagnated. Hence it wants to implement same model internationally. A better response is to run an internal Indian OBOR. Plenty of scope. But making own internal high speed trains, low corruption, property rights will remain a challenge as done by China. Even a start in that direction is not bad. It does not have to happen at same pace as China.
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