There is a huge difference, of course, between agreeing to discuss and collaborating with China on large transborder projects.
As China reconfigures India’s neighbourhood through its active promotion of new silk routes — over the Great Himalayas and across the Indian Ocean — New Delhi must make up its mind on how best to respond. That Delhi is shedding some of its past defensiveness is evident from the UPA government’s recent decision to discuss the Chinese proposal for the so-called BCIM Corridor that will integrate eastern India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and southwestern China. Delhi also appears to be ready to consider positively Beijing’s invitation last week to join China in the construction of a “Maritime Silk Route” between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
There is a huge difference, of course, between agreeing to discuss and collaborating with China on large transborder projects. China has been pushing the BCIM corridor at least since the late 1990s. India’s default position was to duck and fume. The reluctance in Delhi’s foreign and security establishments against any overland connectivity projects with Beijing has been deep and is tied to the difficult political relationship and unresolved boundary dispute. Delhi has also been wary of China’s growing maritime presence in the Indian Ocean, which it sees as India’s backyard.
While Delhi fretted, China has over the last decade and a half dramatically expanded its connectivity over land and sea with India’s neighbours in the subcontinent. In the north, China built the spectacular Tibet Railway to Lhasa and is planning to extend it to Nepal. To the east, Beijing plans to build road and rail connections to Bangladesh through Myanmar. China has built a twin pipeline system that will move oil and natural gas from Myanmar’s Arakan coast to the Yunnan province. It also has plans to build a road and rail corridor parallel to the pipelines.
In the west, China is modernising the trans-Karakoram highway, linking China’s Xinjiang province and Pakistan’s northern territories. It is now ready to invest billions of dollars to develop what is being called the “Kashgar Corridor” that will connect Xinjiang province with the Arabian Sea. In the south, China has built new ports in Hambantota, Sri Lanka and Gwadar, Pakistan. As its economic interests grow rapidly in the Indian Ocean, Beijing is looking to develop maritime infrastructure all across the littoral as part of a new maritime silk route.
Together, the Chinese projects compel us to rethink our long-held assumptions about India’s physical space. The Great Himalayas are no longer a protective barrier for the subcontinent, as Chinese economic power now radiates out of inner Asia and connects markets and peoples that were once considered remote.
In the Indian Ocean, we have focused for centuries on Western primacy. As China becomes the world’s foremost trading nation with an increasingly powerful navy, Beijing is all set to redefine India’s maritime environment. In boldly re-engineering the subcontinent’s physical environment, Beijing is behaving much like the British Raj, which sought to open new trade routes between India and inner Asia and develop connectivity with Xinjiang, Tibet and Yunnan.
The difference, of course, is in the scale of the resources that China can mobilise today. If Beijing is reviving the Raj tradition, Delhi has largely forgotten it. If Partition physically shrunk India and separated it from many adjoining regions, an inward-looking economic policy devalued external transport corridors.
India has finally woken up in recent years to the implications of Chinese infrastructure projects in the subcontinent and beyond. Although Delhi now mutters the mantra of connectivity, its ability to turn words into deeds has been less than impressive.
In responding to China’s silk route development around the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean, Delhi must discard any residual notion that it can build a “great wall” against Chinese economic influence in its neighbourhood. Nor should India believe economic cooperation with China will in itself help resolve Delhi’s other political disputes with Beijing. The next government in Delhi must outline a bold vision for connectivity in India’s frontier regions and across borders and identify a set of ambitious projects. If China can be useful in implementing some of them, Delhi must go ahead without any political hesitation.
For India, China is not the only option. Japan has been eager to build corridors between India and Southeast Asia. Multilateral institutions like the Asian Development Bank have long been eager to develop transborder projects between India and its neighbours. It is Delhi that has fallen short until now in geo-economic imagination and pragmatic project implementation.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor
for ‘The Indian Express’