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.