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As China pushes ahead with B&RI, India must reconcile geopolitical interests with wider developmental goals

In a consequential development over the past week, India decided to stake out a clear position of defiance against the Belt & Road Initiative (B&RI), an ambitious Chinese idea that seeks to reshape the Eurasian geo-economic space. India’s absence in Beijing’s high-profile summit with representatives from over 100 countries, including 29 heads of state, has evoked surprise and debate. What is the calculus driving India’s China policy? Does India risk isolation as Eurasia moves towards a new chapter of connectivity and interdependence?

Delhi’s position can be clearly gauged from the Ministry of External Affairs’ May 13 statement. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a flagship project of the B&RI, is seen as a blatant disregard for India’s position on Jammu and Kashmir because it passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. But Delhi’s protest goes beyond the “core concerns” over sovereignty. The objection to the B&RI is actually more deep-rooted, namely, that China’s rise and projection of geo-economic influence is a direct challenge and threat to India’s great power aspirations and traditional position in the subcontinent.

Off the road: India cannot sit out B&RI

Two contending viewpoints

One influential strand of Indian thinking is that unless and until India develops its own regional connectivity plans and economic capacities at home, there can be no serious engagement with Chinese-sponsored projects. Any premature engagement is likely to entrap India and stunt its rise. An alternative view is that India’s rise itself needs engagement and connections with the wider Asian and Eurasian economies, especially in the post-2008 crisis world which has reduced the viability of the previous liberalisation model of drawing in western capital and basing India’s growth on a handful of service sectors linked to the West. In these changed circumstances, the B&RI is seen to provide an alternative source of finance capital and manufacturing opportunities to buttress India’s economy.

The first view is based on an image of intense competition and rivalry and leaves little room for collaboration. The second competing view is based on an image of interdependence where the idea of growth and development cannot occur in isolation from the world’s second-largest economy. Both world views have some merit. The problem really lies in India’s inability to imagine security more holistically and reconcile geopolitical interests with wider developmental goals.

Learning from others

If we carefully examine the approaches of the major powers and India’s immediate neighbours, we can discern a more sophisticated strategy of dealing with China. Both the U.S. and Russia are proceeding rapidly with their bilateral cooperation with China. Russia, of course, is central to any Chinese trans-Eurasian vision for the most basic reason: geography. Even a cursory glance at a map reveals that any long-range connectivity projects require active cooperation and coordination with Moscow and its Central Asian allies. Three of the six corridors outlined by China as part of the B&RI — the China-Mongolia-Russia corridor, the new Eurasian Land Bridge, the China-Central Asia-Western Asia economic corridor — all imply Russian cooperation. American companies too are deeply interested in opportunities that would accrue from B&RI projects and are scrambling to partner Chinese firms as well as hoping to serve as industrial suppliers in specific infrastructure projects. This is probably why U.S. President Donald Trump sent a senior White House official to Xi Jinping’s summit.

Clearly, neither of these great powers is, therefore, likely to buy into a zero-sum Indian interpretation of the initiative. This is not to suggest that the U.S. and Russia are unconcerned about their spheres of influence around China’s extended periphery. Rather they have chosen a policy of enhancing interdependence along with pursuing their own geostrategies of upholding traditional political-military alliances. Russia, for example, is developing its own connectivity project called the Eurasian Economic Union, which is actually at a far more advanced stage of institutional development having already established a single market for its five members.

Even in the subcontinent we can notice clear trends of a complex approach towards China. India’s neighbours such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar are all pursuing economic cooperation with China on a growing scale while also maintaining close connections with India and reassuring Delhi about their foreign policies and geopolitical orientations. It is instructive that all of India’s immediate neighbours, except Bhutan, sent representatives to the Beijing summit. This triangular setting suggests it would be extremely challenging, if not impossible, for Delhi to persuade South Asia to curtail or cut off ties with China. What India can realistically do is shape the type of relationship that its neighbours pursue with China and uphold certain redlines such as coming down heavily on regimes that invite China’s military to establish a foothold in the subcontinent.

Chinese neo-colonialism?

Finally, the underlying premise in much of the Indian debate that Asia, and South Asia, is ripe for Chinese neocolonialism or imperial expansion can be refuted. Asia’s national identities are much too strong for state agency to be brushed aside. Can anyone, for instance, make a credible argument that Vietnam — a country that has resisted China for a millennia — will fall under the dragon’s sway because of an engagement with the B&RI? What about Russia, one of the world’s strongest military powers with a history of geopolitical experience in Eurasia? Will it fall under China’s spell because a few billion dollars were invested in its economy or on its Central Asian periphery? Of course not! Even closer home, a tiny island state like Sri Lanka has apparently resisted certain provisions for port usage in the Hambantota project with China on sovereignty grounds. Almost every Asian state has a litany of issues with China’s rise but is pursuing a complex strategy of adapting without in any way folding up. There is little evidence of bandwagoning or the proverbial dominoes toppling into a Chinese sphere of influence.

The notion that China can literally purchase “regional leadership” by financing infrastructure or lending money is ludicrous. Power stems from something much deeper. It requires consent and an ability to provide public goods. China’s internationalism has, so far, been more materialistic than ideational, relying largely on the lure of capital and commerce. This cannot be an enduring prerequisite for order-building. It is instructive that the Chinese-sponsored or promoted institutions that have gained the most multilateral traction — such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the New Development Bank, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation — are the ones that are perceived to offer public goods and are built around a semblance of democratised norms or rules.

In short, there’s more room to shape the ongoing power transition towards a multipolar world. Schizophrenia and paranoia cannot be substitutes for smart and sober statecraft, which must include dealing directly with China.


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