It’s a pity that India’s common interest with China on connecting the shared neighbourhood has not translated into Delhi’s support for Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. Delhi’s decision to turn its back on this week’s Belt and Road Forum in Beijing underlines the enduring tragedy of Sino-Indian relations. Deep distrust spawned over the decades by unresolved territorial disputes, intensifying competition for regional influence and fears of mutual encirclement through alliances with third parties have been reinforced by recent difficulties over trade and growing divergence on multilateral issues like nuclear order, terrorism, Asian security architecture and governance of the global commons. That list has just got a little longer with the addition of the BRI.
It has been no secret that India was deeply wary of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative — the collective name for Beijing’s expansive plans to connect the Eurasian landmass and the Indian-Pacific littoral through trans-border road and rail networks, oil and gas pipelines, industrial corridors and inter-linked production chains backed by Chinese capital. Yet, Beijing was hoping that official India would participate at some level in the Belt and Road Forum. The quiet bilateral effort to facilitate India’s presence at the Forum was apparently unsuccessful. Hours before Xi opened the Forum, India announced its decision not to join and explained its decision by laying out three sets of concerns.
One was about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor transgressing India’s sovereignty in Pakistan occupied Kashmir. Second, while India’s concern on PoK was well-known, Delhi surprised everyone by putting out a short but succinct critique of China’s BRI by pointing to the lack of transparency, underlining the questionable economics, and highlighting the negative impact on communities and nations hosting BRI projects. Third, Delhi expressed its displeasure at the air of haughty unilateralism surrounding Xi’s initiative.
The Belt and Road Forum has adjourned on Monday, but the issues dividing India and China on the question of connectivity and regional integration will stay. India’s long-term response to the BRI must be three-fold. One, Delhi must impart greater energy and urgency to its own internal and regional integration projects. For the gap between India’s rhetoric on connectivity and performance on the ground has been too wide. Two, Delhi must match its criticism of Chinese political and financial terms for connectivity projects with the demonstration of a different Indian model that is less hegemonic and more in sync with global norms. Three, Delhi must continue to press Beijing for a sustained dialogue on connectivity that will not only minimise the current contentions but also address the deeper questions on territorial sovereignty and regional rivalry that have been greatly reinforced by China’s Belt and Road Initiative.