How long can India sit out China’s Belt Road Initiative?

Simran Sodhi

Published: Updated:

With the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) China has made it boldly plain to the world that it intends to shape the world in an image of itself. Or at least an image where the Chinese imprint on everything, from roads to dams to ports and to technology is evident.

Some suspect that this imprint will slowly start to emerge on the militaries around the world too. While today more than 70 countries from across Europe, Asia and Africa have come on board this ambitious Chinese initiative, there are still some that are sitting outside.

The European Union, for one, isn’t entirely happy with the BRI. The United States feels it is the latest Chinese trick to take on the mantle of the world’s lone superpower, something which under Xi Jinping’s leadership is quite possible, given again US President Donald Trump’s stance to move his country away from a position of global leadership.

In the Asian continent, it is India that is holding up. It has steadfastly refused to join the BRI and going a step further, today sounds increasingly critical of the BRI and its many projects. For India, there are primarily two problems it sees with the BRI and its many projects.

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One, the Chinese economy is far stronger than the Indian economy and China can afford to dole out billions of dollars as loans to smaller countries, something India is unable to match. According to 2018 data released by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) the Chinese economy is today the world’s second largest economy worth $14 trillion.

India stands at position seven with a worth of $2.85 trillion. Add to this the fact that the BRI and its projects are totaled at $1trillion and one begins to understand India’s dilemma.

China apart from lending billion dollar loans around the world and especially in India’s neighborhood has also started a “debt-trap” diplomacy in South Asia. Bangladesh has been a recipient of Chinese generosity as has been Sri Lanka.

Chinese loans to Dhaka and Colombo both undermine India’s desire to be seen as the regional super power and also upset security and strategic networks that India has with its smaller neighbors

Simran Sodhi

Debt trap diplomacy

But then the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka has also today become an example of the Chinese debt trap diplomacy. (The port in Sri Lanka cost more than a billion dollars to build and China loaned the sum.

But now with Colombo unable to re pay the debt, the port has been leased to China for 99 years). The Chinese loans to Dhaka and Colombo both undermine India’s desire to be seen as the regional super power and also upset security and strategic networks that India has with its smaller neighbors.

Former Foreign Secretary Shashank points out that in some projects India and China are already co-operating and it is only in CPEC that India has objections. “CPEC passes through Gilgit and Baltistan which are parts of India. China will have to come to some understating with India on this.”

He gives the example of Afghanistan where India, China and Afghanistan are working on a trilateral project, as an example of how India and China don’t necessarily work at cross purposes.

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“There are some infrastructure projects that we are a part of with China. Then we have joint membership of the SCO. Our concern is when China undertakes projects like in Sri Lanka where Chinese submarines were to be docked and that then becomes a threat to our national security. Otherwise if other countries want to work with China, how can we object?”

The BRI was first projected in 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping. It was then called the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. In May 2017, China hosted the ‘Silk Road Summit for International Cooperation’, which was attended by over 60 countries (excluding India).

Today, under the BRI China has reached out to the European Union, ASEAN and SCO members and West Asian countries. China has also entered into BRI-related construction agreements with countries of the Middle East. It has obtained affirmations of support for BRI from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman.

As more and more countries join the BRI, India increasingly looks isolated on the global stage. Earlier this year in June, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Qingdao city, India was the only country that refused to endorse BRI.

Pakistan corridor

India’s second problem with BRI is the part of the project that runs through Pakistan, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). India has strongly criticized the project as it runs through parts of Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK).

CPEC is a $50 million transportation project that Pakistan hopes will infuse money and jobs into its faltering economy while for China the gains are many. With CPEC, many now regard Pakistan as a satellite state of China. India is wary of this close China-Pak relationship which it feels is a major security issue.

Former ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar said that in his view more and more countries are now getting “anxious” and “wary” of the BRI. “I feel that the opposition to BRI is growing. The bids are closed, projects don’t seem economically viable, most countries feel that they don’t need these projects and most countries are landing in debt trap because of this.”

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In response to the fact that it is not just Chinese money but other international organizations too that are today lending money for BRI, Sajjanhar pointed out that there is a need for ‘transparency’ in the projects.

To counter China and the BRI projects, India, Sajjanhar said cannot do it alone, other countries like Japan and the US will also have to come forward to provide alternatives to smaller countries and also alternative funding.

India’s official stance on the BRI and specifically on CPEC has remained constant through this year. The official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in a statement earlier this year laid out India’s concerns and said, “Our position on OBOR/BRI is clear and there is no change.

Territorial integrity

The so-called ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’ violates India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. No country can accept a project that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity.

“We are of firm belief that connectivity initiatives must be based on universally recognized international norms, good governance, rule of law, openness, transparency and equality, and must be pursued in a manner that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

While both of the above two concerns expressed by India vocally, at many domestic and international forum are valid, the question now is how long can India afford to sulk and sit out?

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As more South Asian countries in its neighborhood from Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh make a bee line to be part of BRI, how long before India also joins the bandwagon and protects its interests from the inside than outside?

India joining the BRI may not be an easy sell in the domestic politics too. For far too long, all political parties have used Pakistan and China as the enemies India needs to protect itself against. The economics of it might make sense but politically it may be bad arithmetic.

As India goes into election mode 2019, any concrete policy movement on BRI is unlikely till a new government is elected. But New Delhi needs a fresh take on BRI and simply a sit out in protest is hardly going to get it any strategic gains.

Simran Sodhi holds Masters Degree in International Relations from American University (AU), Washington DC. She has contributed to leading newspapers like The Indian Express, Mail Today, The Statesman and The Tribune and has reported from the US, Pakistan, Israel, Tokyo and Beijing. Since 2012, she has also been appearing as anchor and guest on All India Radio programs, mainly on issues of foreign affairs. Her book on the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008, titled Piercing the Heart, Untold stories of Mumbai 26/11 was published in 2009 and was featured amongst the bestsellers of the country.

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