Belt and Road is China’s most ambitious initiative in history. Popularly known as One Belt One Road (OBOR), this infrastructure project of gigantic proportions attempts to bring under its sway more than 60 countries, from the Scandinavian world to the South Pacific Islands, in its land and maritime versions. The ancient Silk Route is said to be the inspiration for this initiative launched in 2013.
For President Xi Jinping, Belt and Road is a project of personal ambition and honour. His government has not left any stone unturned to make it a reality in a span of less than four years. In the first three years, various projects have seen the signing of contracts worth more than a trillion US dollars.
In a world of competing economic and trade alliances, OBOR has overtaken many others active in the region and beyond. The European Union has some 27 member countries; the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has 13 countries; the East Asia Summit has 18 countries; even a religious grouping like the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has only 57 countries as members. APEC, TTP, SCO — none comes anywhere near the Belt and Road initiative which boasts of the involvement of more than 60 countries.
By all means, this is singularly the biggest constellation of nations in the 21st century. One prominent nation missing in this mega show is India. Like other countries, India too was invited to the Beijing conclave, with invitations reaching six different ministries for participation in various forums during the summit. The Chinese were hopeful till the last moment about Indian participation. But the government of India decided not to send its representatives to the summit.
Belt and Road is essentially a Chinese project. Two major Chinese financial institutions are supposedly taking responsibility for arranging the necessary finances for participant nations. When completed, the rail, road and maritime routes of this project are expected to boost bilateral and multilateral trade in a big way.
Where the project is a matter of pride for the Chinese leadership, it is also mired in controversy over sovereignty questions and fears about debt servicing obligations. Projects like this one, involving multiple countries, are launched only after proper deliberations among the beneficiary countries and after addressing their concerns.
In the case of Belt and Road, however, the Chinese have opted for a different course. They first announced the project and then initiated the dialogue process with various stakeholder nations. It suited some; for some, like Nepal, it is too big a proposal to be rejected. India is probably the only country that didn’t find it virtuous or beneficial to join this mega alliance.
India’s reservations need to be looked at from the sovereignty perspective. China routinely threatens countries when it finds issues even remotely connected to its own sovereignty question being “violated”. Not just China, no country compromises with its sovereignty for the sake of some trade and commerce interests.
India’s Achilles’ heel is the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, popularly known as CPEC. The CPEC is seen as a part of the Belt and Road initiative although it started much earlier. In fact, when the Chinese entered into an agreement with Pakistan in 1963 to build the Karakoram Highway in the Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) region, India had vociferously objected to it on the very question of sovereignty. The region through which the highway was to pass belonged to India and has been under the illegal occupation of Pakistan. The Chinese side, thus, has full knowledge of India’s concerns about the region.
The CPEC today passes through the same region of PoK called Gilgit Baltistan (GB). India has time and again raised its concerns over Chinese activity in the region, the latest being in 2011 when information came out about the presence of thousands of Chinese troops in the region. Adding insult to injury for India is the very name of the project, CPEC, although the region through which it passes doesn’t belong either to Pakistan or to China. In such a scenario, for India to participate in the summit would have meant acceptance of the CPEC proposition.
There is no reason to assume that India’s decision will affect bilateral relations with China adversely. Both India and China have a mature leadership under Modi and Xi. Both work together on many other multilateral forums like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB), BRICS Forum, etc. In bilateral relations, there are certain irritants that have either been inherited over time or are a result of realpolitik. That includes China’s position on Pakistan and terrorism sponsored by it on Indian soil. India hopes that China appreciates its concerns and takes mutually satisfactory and reassuring measures.
However, being not just a nation but a civilisation in itself, China has time and again betrayed its own style in diplomacy. In his book The Hundred Year Marathon, Michael Pillsbury suggested that Chinese strategists have a definite road map for their country to overtake all other world powers, including America, by the time their Maoist Revolution completes a hundred years in 2049, becoming the sole super power. But President Jinping seems to be a man in a hurry. He wants to achieve it much earlier.
As pointed out by The Economist magazine, China today talks not in terms of the China Model or the Beijing Consensus as it used to. The terminology used these days is “China solution” and “guiding globalisation”. Its initiatives, including OBOR, need to be viewed from the perspective of these newly coined phrases.