As the Narendra Modi government completes three years of its tryst with electoral destiny on May 16, it could not have wished for a more portentous international conference in far, but yet nearby, Beijing.
The One Belt One Road conference convened by the People’s Republic of China over the weekend to unveil and showcase the most ambitious connectivity project of modern times represents the grandest failure of Indian foreign policy and it’s quarantine into splendid isolation. However, first a word about the project.
Watch: Opinion | CPEC: Chinese Colonisation of Pakistan?
Chinese president Xi Jinping, in 2013, unveiled a novel economic structure that would connect China’s Silk Road Mercantile Belt project in Central Asia with its Maritime Silk Road, through linked bodies of water from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean. In principle, these trade stratagems centre on increasing China’s connection with countries along the ancient Silk Road in Eurasia, while creating a new Silk Road across Asia to South Asia and Africa.
One part of the project is focused on the creation of road connections between China and Eurasia, involving infrastructure projects such as highways and rail links. The other part of the project concerns maritime routes that will connect China with South East Asia, South Asia and ports up and down the east coast of Africa.
The measure of this concept, if it ever reaches fruition, is both the project’s greatest hawking point and conceivable trial. The trade links once established will cover 65 per cent of the world’s population, one-third of global GDP and a quarter of all goods and services in the international economy.
Such a focus of goods and services will upturn how conventional products, such as energy, are traded. Observers draw parallels with the Marshall Plan that reinvented Europe post the Second World War. With enormous sums of money, ranging from $ 800 billion to $1 trillion to be invested over the next five years, there is a lot of cash to spread around, even in China’s extended neighbourhood.
In comparison, the investment into the Pakistani component of this initiative, the Chinese Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), anywhere between $46-62 billion, is a mere pittance.
The summit in Beijing over the weekend was attended by 29 heads of states and governments which included Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Sri Lankan PM Ranil Wickermasinghe, delegations from all other South Asian countries barring Bhutan, as well as leaders and officials from the big boys on the global stage, namely Russia, US, Japan, UK, Germany and France.
That is where India’s lack of nimbleness became counterproductive. While our objection to the CPEC is extremely valid — that it passes through territory acceded to India by the erstwhile Maharaja of Jammu Kashmir, Hari Singh, on October 26,1947 and whatever is in the possession of Pakistan is illegally occupied — the moot point remains that we were not able to carry any of the big powers, including the US, and especially our neighbors along on the vital question of Westphalian sovereignty.
By boycotting the summit rather than showing up and making our voice heard loud and clear in the comity of nations, India has in fact sent out a message that it will make proforma noise on this issue but actually acquiesce to the fait accompli.
What this lack of dexterity does is allow the Chinese embrace of Pakistan to get even tighter. A front page exclusive in Pakistan’s ‘Dawn’ newspaper for the first time revealed to Pakistanis themselves the extent of Chinese colonisation this project would entail. But given the desperate, if not perilous, situation that Pakistan finds itself in, it would be surprising if there is any substantive protest by any section of the population.
A strategic relationship transformed into an economic vested interest means that India cannot bank upon Chinese neutrality in case of a possible conflict with Pakistan – which India may blunder into as the BJP-led government works overtime to use the Kashmir flashpoint to drive home the otherness of the citizens to the rest of India.
A two-front situation may become an unfortunate imperative that India may just have to deal with, given the fact China is revising its position on accepted principles with regard to the territorial dispute with India, in the protracted but ongoing Special Representative process.
With Gwadar becoming operational, China would be able to surmount its Malacca Dilemma — that is pump and transport it’s energy and mineral resources directly to Kashgar as they exit the Straits of Hormuz — thereby circumventing the Malacca chokepoint.
The fact remains that India would have to deal with Pakistani and Chinese navies jointly patrolling the Arabian Sea off India’s western seaboard and directly threatening India’s energy and resource supply lines. The story does not end there. With Hambantota also being developed as a Chinese resourced port in Sri Lanka, the Gwadar-Hamabantota axis may end up emerging as an access denial area in India’s home waters.
Then there is the eastern headache, which is the growing Chinese proximity to Nepal and Bangladesh, as well as the deep economic linkages with Myanmar. While Sheikh Hasina’s government is very friendly towards India, that may not be the permanent state of play. There is a perception in the Bangladesh polity, especially the principal opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), that India has put all its eggs into one basket.
Given the strained relations with Nepal post the economic blockade of 2015, Kathmandu’s propensity to explore other options especially energises the torturous land route with China.
While all this infrastructure development has been in the works for a while, where the Modi government has tripped badly is in its inability to tread the fine balance between the big powers. Though it’s perceived cosiness towards the US has not borne any tangible fruit in the past three years, what it has achieved is to drive both Russia and China into a state of ambivalence and antagonism, respectively. There is no better evidence of this than the recent Russian-Pakistani defense exercises, a first in 70 years.
It is therefore in India’s larger national interest to not allow the China-Pakistan embrace to turn into its greatest strategic nightmare. India must finesse it’s relationship with China, for there are other implications, namely in Afghanistan.
This is only one of the great blunders over the past three years. The others will follow in the days to come.