Disclaimer: This analysis was written a few weeks ago and does not include the most recent developments in South Asia’s and especially India’s relationship to China.
China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative has tremendous potential to change the current world order and the economic scenario of the South Asian region. There are many procedural and managerial issues, which still need to be sorted out to implement this grand initiative. The aim of this article is to point out a few important issues in the South Asian geo-politics, which can play a major role in the success of BRI. To make the economic leverage of BRI a reality, China needs to assure peace and stability the South Asian region because without trust at all levels this initiative will remain unsuccessful.
Regional Peace in South Asia is the basic necessity for the success of China’s BRI initiative
China’s multi-trillion dollar dream project ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) surely has the potential to change the economic scenario of China and the whole of the South Asian region. But without regional security and peace in South Asia, the success of this initiative is highly questionable.
China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) was one of the flagship initiatives, which was undertaken as a part of the BRI initiative. This 46$ Billion investment connects Pakistan’s Gwadar Port in Balochistan province with China’s Xinjiang province. The main problem with this project is that, CPEC runs through Balochistan and Kashmir in the Pakistani region (which the Indians call Pakistan Occupied Kashmir or PoK and claim as their own territory), a highly disputed area between the two nuclear-powered arch rivals, India and Pakistan. The Government of India showed serious objection to this project when it was launched in 2015 but both the Chinese and the Pakistani administration did not pay much attention to India’s concerns and carried on with their development initiative. Indian administration still hasn’t changed their stance on this issue and remains skeptical about China’s intention and motives behind the BRI initiative. Just before China organized its Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF) in May 2017, India expressed its opinion that it cannot accept a project which hurts its sovereignty and territorial integrity. The heads of government or dignitaries of twenty-nine countries attended BRF, including Russia, U.S.A, and major European countries along with all the neighbours of India other than Bhutan. But India boycotted this forum and issued a statement just before the start of this forum, which addressed their concern on this initiative.
During the BRF inauguration in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping, made a statement that all countries should respect territorial integrity and sovereignty of other nations. It is very evident that he was indicating to India’s concern over CPEC, which runs through Kashmir in the Pakistani side. Pakistan has remained an all-weather ally of China over the past few decades. This relationship has evolved in the past few years because both these nations have outstanding issues with India. On regard to CPEC, China needs to play its diplomatic cards very carefully. China would surely want India to be a part of this initiative due to the sheer size of India’s growing economy and its market. The recent series of events make it very clear that even the Chinese administrators are capricious in dealing with this issue. India’s leading daily newspaper, Times of India reported on May 9, 2017 that the Chinese Ambassador to New Delhi, Luo Zhaohui, commented that China can consider changing the name of CPEC, if India is willing to participate in this initiative. But this comment triggered anger on the Pakistani side and they asked for an explanation from the Chinese Counsel General in Pakistan. After this incident, Chinese authorities silently deleted the comment of the Chinese Ambassador to rename CPEC from their Embassy’s website.
A few months back, Chinese authorities made it clear that the Kashmir-related dispute of India and Pakistan should be solved between the two countries bilaterally and that they are not going to interfere in this dispute. But when China decided to take the CPEC’s development projects through the disputed area of Kashmir on the Pakistani side, China automatically made itself a party to the dispute directly or indirectly. Indian diplomacy has repeatedly made it clear that they are not going to accept any kind of third party interference in this dispute and it should be resolved between the two countries in a peaceful atmosphere. Therefore China needs to handle this issue very carefully for the successful implementation of the BRI project and to make India a party to it, for its own economic leverage.
The world community will also look forward to China’s process of dealing with Pakistan’s reputation of human rights violation in the Balochistan province where people have repeatedly protested against the CPEC and where the Pakistani administration has suppressed their voices with brutal force. Chinese security forces are increasing their presence in Pakistan to protect the CPEC infrastructure in Gwadar port and in other adjoining areas. This has also raised suspicion for some scholars. Is this another manifestation of ‘neo-colonization’? Common people in India along with the government are also skeptical about the real Chinese intention. China has repeatedly tried to encircle India from all sides by increasing its sphere of influence in India’s neighbouring countries. BRI will also involve maritime connections following the ancient Silk Route model. Therefore it appears to be highly possible that China, in a few years’ time, will try to enforce its soft power to dock its naval vessels in and around India in the signatory states of BRI by just citing security reasons or for the sake of giving a safe passage for the transfer of goods. This is also a major security concern for India.
Keeping in mind the Chinese perspective, it is understandable that the complex and problematic situation in the South Asian region is rather difficult to handle. India and Pakistan have been hostile neighbours from 1947 onwards. China has also some border issues with India which are still not resolved. And the recent standoff between the two armies in Doklam, Bhutan is a new addition in the list of global conflict zones in world politics. According to some school of scholars, the recent standoff in Doklam is an indirect way of increasing psychological pressure on India and Bhutan to be a part of the BRI initiative.
China surely needs to think about its diplomatic stance to deal with India if they want India on board of the BRI initiative. On the one hand Chinese leaders are using soft power to convince India about its involvement in BRI through various platforms and on the other hand the government is indirectly using its news daily Global Times (which is known to be the mouth piece of the Chinese government) in criticizing India’s domestic policies and its policies towards China on a regular basis. This is contradictory.
So, to conclude this article it can be said that the ball is on China’s court when it comes to dealing with the outstanding issues of the South Asian region. China needs to stop thinking of its own economic interests only. China is verbally saying that it respects the sovereignty of other nations but needs to showcase this through concrete actions. It is still not clear what will be the exact management and investment model of BRI but the global powers will surely keep a close watch on China with regards to how it deals with the two hostile nuclear-powered South Asian neighbours, India and Pakistan. Recently Iran and Afghanistan have also warned Pakistan to stop using their soil for “breeding terrorists”, which is destabilizing the peace of the whole region. China needs to address these issues with its ally, Pakistan. Ultimately the success of BRI will depend upon the regional peace in South Asia. There should be an atmosphere of trust at all levels in order to make this kind of grand initiative successful. And China needs to play a much more constructive role in this regard, to make BRI a reality through which not only China will prosper but all the nations involved with it.
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