Ram Madhav is a learned and well-read leader of the BJP. At a time when the ruling party has chosen to outsource most of its public communication to jingoistic, ill-informed and, often, bad-mouthing propagandists on social media, its national general secretary provides clear arguments to defend the party and the Modi government in the mainstream media.
His article in this newspaper (‘Turning down China’, IE, May 17) on why India has opposed China’s Belt and Road Initiative (B&RI) is no exception. However, it fails to take a holistic view of the risks and opportunities. First, Madhav is wrong in concluding that turning down China’s invitation to participate in the Belt and Road Forum convened by President Xi Jinping in Beijing on May 14-15 — and the undiplomatic manner in which it was turned down — “does not affect bilateral relations adversely”. The statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs may please the ultra-nationalist domestic audience. But one has to be naïve to believe it has not introduced an avoidable sour note in India-China ties.
Second, Madhav, like others shaping the Modi government’s China policy, seems unwilling to recognise that it is in India’s own vital and long-term national interest to join B&RI and become an influential player in it. Actually, B&RI provides India a rare opportunity to play a leadership role in the infrastructural and economic integration of South Asia, the most populous but least integrated region in the world.
National interest, narrowly defined and myopically viewed, has led the Modi government to oppose B&RI. The same
criterion of national interest, understood from a holistic and long-range perspective, suggests how India-China cooperation can work to India’s — and entire South Asia’s — advantage.
Madhav rightly concedes that “Belt and Road is China’s most ambitious initiative in history”. He accepts that this is an “infrastructure project of gigantic proportions”, which has brought together “the biggest constellation of nations in the 21st century”, has “seen the signing of contracts worth more than a trillion US dollars”. If so, is India not isolating itself by staying out of the “constellation of nations”?
The main reason for India’s non-participation in B&RI is legitimate and fully understandable. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a “flagship” project under B&RI, passes through Gilgit Baltistan (GB) in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). Therefore, New Delhi is right in telling Beijing that CPEC violates India’s sovereignty. But herein lies the inability and unwillingness of the Modi government — and of all mainstream Indian political parties — to see the big picture: India can never gain PoK, just as Pakistan can never gain the Indian side of Kashmir. War cannot settle this issue one way or the other. It can only produce catastrophic consequences for the two nuclear-armed neighbours.
Unless we want this problem to remain alive for eternity, our two countries have to find a peaceful and negotiated settlement. This calls for new, innovative and bold thinking that guarantees win-win outcomes for both India and Pakistan, and for Kashmiris on both sides of the divide.
India’s participation in B&RI, besides bringing huge opportunities for our economy, opens up space for precisely this kind of creative solution to the main dispute between India and Pakistan. Here are my four specific ideas, which I put forth in Beijing as India’s unofficial delegate at the Belt and Road conference. One, instead of simply opposing CPEC (and hence, B&RI in general), we should propose an India-China Economic Corridor (ICEC) that passes through the same part of GB, and also through the rest of J&K, to enter north India. This will partly address India’s sovereignty concerns. Two, we should also propose an India-Pakistan Economic Corridor (IPEC), extending to Afghanistan, Iran and beyond. This much-needed land access will benefit both India and Pakistan.
Three, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor should be expeditiously implemented. This will be a boon to our eastern and north-eastern states, which are today deprived of markets and infrastructure access towards the east. It will also impart flesh and blood to India’s “Act East” policy. Lastly, BCIM, IPEC, ICEC, CPEC and other existing Indian connectivity initiatives such as the high-speed north-south and east-west freight corridors, should be inter-connected, along with the port connectivity projects of participating countries. Imagine how destiny-changing this can be for the whole of South Asia. Will China agree to this? Yes, it will, provided India joins B&RI.
Madhav is wrong in saying “Belt and Road is essentially a Chinese project”. Though started by China, BR&I is multilateral. Given its sheer global scale, China cannot control it, nor impose a “China solution” on other countries, even if it wishes to. Instead of quoting from, and endorsing what western sceptics have said, I wish Madhav had read and critiqued President Xi’s own comprehensive keynote address at the Beijing forum.
B&RI in its current conception is certainly not perfect, nor is it cast in stone. It will evolve. It will encounter many problems and legitimate criticisms as it is rolled out. India, given its civilisational wisdom, size, population and growing economic might, has a voice China cannot ignore. It has an opportunity to make B&RI a more democratic and win-win proposition for all by participating in it. However, India cannot do so by staying out. And it is bound to gain far less, and attract more risks, by opposing it or, worse, by trying to float a rival initiative.