India has stayed away from the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) summit which began in Beijing on Sunday, citing sovereignty, procedural and leadership issues. As many as 120 countries, including 29 at the top leadership level, attended the inaugural, underlining President Xi Jinping’s description of this being the “project of the century.”
India has cited the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which passes through Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir as the main reason for refusing to participate in the summit. Sovereignty and territorial integrity issues, which tie in with the nationalist nature of prime minister Modi’s government, are clearly top of the agenda.
Interestingly, this is true for Xi Jinping as well. China’s sovereignty claims over the disputed South China Sea islands has led it to challenge the world. Also, President Xi, soon after taking over as the leader in 2012, suggested he will not sacrifice “core interests” for the sake of developmental interests.
So is the CPEC only a “commercial” project? Surely, that’s not true. The fact that the Chinese have begun to deploy 30,000 “security personnel” to protect the projects along the CPEC route makes it an active player in the politics of the Indian sub-continent. Clearly, this is a case of double standards.
Former external affairs Anand Sharma, from the Congress party, was willing to concede Chinese investments in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir provided similar investments were made in Kashmir. However, the ruling BJP is clearly made of a different cloth. External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, soon after taking over in May 2014, told her counterpart Wang Yi that India’s “One China” policy must be congruent to China’s “One India” policy, meaning, the Chinese must be sensitive to India’s claims in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir.
But the Chinese went ahead with the CPEC. For the BJP, this is also a highly sensitive issue as it is a coalition partner in the government in Jammu and Kashmir.
India has also expressed concern on the evolution of the BRI. The foreign ministry spokesperson pointed out that mutual agreements on infrastructure projects should be transparent and debt repayments be made easier for recipient countries. The latter element is fast emerging as the key ideological difference between the two Asian powers as they expand their sphere of influence in South Asia.
The context of this rising tension is important. Chinese troops have allegedly crossed the Line of Actual Control that separates India in April 2013, in September 2014 during Xi Jinping’s visit to India, as well as in October 2015 and mid-2016. Chinese press reports say this was in response to the Indian logistics build-up and raising of a Strike Corps. Indian reports say it was only responding to a Chinese logistics build up in Tibet since the 1980s.
More recently, China has been reluctant to proscribe Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar at the UN Security Council as well as refuse India full membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. India’s decision to allow the Dalai Lama to visit Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh didn’t go down well in Beijing.
Ironically, India is the second largest contributor to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which has allocated $100 billion for BRI and also funds the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor. India has over 8 per cent voting rights at AIIB, and remains rightly concerned about the larger strategic issues of the BRI.
President Xi’s ambitions are clear. At the BRI inaugural he said it would usher in a “new type of international relations”. In June 2013 he had told former US president Barak Obama about China’s intention to establish a “new type of major power relations” — suggesting that China’s global ambitions had increased beyond the inward-looking US, depleting Russia and the crises-ridden European Union. But Xi also insisted that the BRI’s objective is to build partnerships and not alliances. This opens the door for maneuverability, on China’s part as well as on the part of countries like India.
India’s decision to boycott the summit is not surprising. There was some talk about Delhi being represented by Indian embassy officials in Beijing. However, this was rejected as the presence of any junior or senior officials, representatives of the government of India, would be seen as sanctioning the summit.
Certainly, the battle for South Asia has been joined. Delhi is clearly worried about China’s expanding presence in its own neighbourhood – which it believed to be part of its own sphere of influence. But China’s maritime understanding with Sri Lanka, its decision to sell eight submarines to Pakistan and enhance the facilities at Gwadar port, prowl the Indian Ocean with its submarines as well as build a base in Djibouti in Africa have enraged New Delhi.
The dragon is spitting repeated streaks of fire. How long can the elephant be left behind?