China is making strong efforts to persuade India to join its ‘One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. India has, however, not yet openly agreed to be a part of the project which aims to connect the Eurasian landmass and Indo-Pacific maritime routes through an overland ‘belt’ and a ‘maritime’ silk road. The project envisages the construction of a maze of road, rail and port projects through a number of countries to connect mainland China to markets in Asia and Europe.
The OBOR initiative includes a number of projects including the “flagship” China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM), New Eurasian Land Bridge, China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor, China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.
Some experts have warned that India would end up isolating itself if it refuses to join the OBOR initiative, which has been apparently getting international support. Most of India’s neighbours, including Nepal and Bangladesh, have already agreed to participate in the project.
Talking about the benefits India would get by joining OBOR, Chinese ambassador to New Delhi Luo Zhaohui on Monday said New Delhi should grab economic opportunity offered by OBOR initiative. “Now the GDP of India is roughly that of China in 2004, some 13 years ago. China leads India by 13 years mainly because we started reform and opening up 13 years earlier,” he was quoted as saying by PTI.
It has been widely projected that India’s reluctance to join OBOR is mainly because of the CPEC, which violates India’s sovereignty as the project covers the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) region. It has been suggested that India may shed its reluctance to join OBOR if CPEC is renamed, or China declares CPEC is not the part of Belt and Road initiative.
On Monday, Luo even made several suggestions, including the renaming of CPEC. He offered to start negotiations on a ‘China-India Treaty of Good Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation’, finding an early solution to the border dispute New Delhi and Beijing, renegotiating China-India Free Trade Agreement, exploring the possibility of aligning India’s ‘Act East Policy’ with OBOR.
China’s aggressive efforts to take India onboard OBOR may make one believe that India is deliberately losing out on a golden opportunity. However, this would be a very simplistic conclusion. Reason: OBOR would massively strengthen China’s economic, political and security influence in India’s neighbourhood. Strategic Affairs expert C Raja Mohan writes in The Indian Express that OBOR would involve “the export of Chinese capital, labour, technology, industrial standards, commercial benchmarks, use of the Yuan, development of new ports, industrial hubs, special economic zones and military facilities, under Beijing’s auspices.”
The expert says the scope of OBOR is bigger than the one undertaken by the British empire in the 19th Century.
For India, it would be difficult to play number 2 to China in its own region of influence. Not just India, even Japan has refused to join the project and started its own Belt and Road initiative named as “Partnership for Quality Infrastructure” which would cover Indo-Pacific and Eurasian regions. Japan has also invested around $150 billion for this project.
OBOR project is expected to give China an incomparable upper hand vis-a-vis India. New Delhi aspires for a friendly neighbourhood but considering the constant security threat, it faces from Pakistan and often from China even now, India cannot afford to play second fiddle to Beijing. And even if it decides to join OBOR, it cannot afford to be a junior partner.
India needs to speed up its own infrastructure projects and find ways to strengthen its sphere of influence. Raja Mohan suggests at least three ways in which India can tackle China’s OBOR challenge:
- First, India should ramp internal connectivity. Raja Mohan says that China didn’t start OBOR as an external initiative but it was “built upon the top of the internal “Go West” strategy that focused, over the last two decades, on unifying China’s domestic market and connecting its developed east coast with the interior provinces.”
- Second, the expert says that India should modernise connectivity across its land and maritime frontiers with neighbouring countries. “China is certainly not responsible for India neglecting its inherited trans-border connectivities since Independence; nor has Beijing stopped India from building road and rail links to its borders.”
- Third, India should work with countries like Japan and multilateral institutions to develop regional connectivity in the Indian Subcontinent and beyond.
(With agency inputs)