Can India be persuaded to join ‘One Belt, One Road’?

Spearhead Analysis – 15.05.2017

By Shirin Naseer
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Despite mounting pressure from member countries, India has refused to join China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) Initiative—which has more than 60 countries interested and is expected to reshape regional economic and trade relations drastically. India has so far protested over the development of the $62 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as it passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Notwithstanding its potential to facilitate the transformation of infrastructure and achievement of domestic developmental goals for India, the country seems fairly immune to its appeal.

Debate over the possibility of India joining the OBOR initiative initially started with members of the Chinese media highlighting the opportunities CPEC could open up for India’s own development and the India-Pakistan relationship. However, owing to India’s uncompromising stance there has been a subtle emergence of an alternate strategy; China seems to have shifted gears in its approach by now focusing on what India has to lose as opposed to what it has to gain from the multi-billion dollar project. Implying that New Delhi will risk isolation as its allies Russia and Iran, and neighbors Nepal and Sri Lanka grow increasingly enthusiastic and eager to join the project, the Chinese media sources claim that India is only depriving itself of an opportunity for great economic growth by not complying with the proposition.

Pakistani scholars have now also chimed in on the issue.

India overlooking Pakistan’s advice to join CPEC can be understood in the context of the current pugnacious state of Pakistan-India relations. The more Chinese media attempts to push India and Pakistan closer together the more suspicious Indian policymakers seem to get of CPEC. Understandably, CPEC can only reach its true potential and all of Asia can only truly be ‘transformed’ once India is also in the picture. Perhaps what is needed is a re-examination of strategy.

New Delhi’s existing hesitations and sensitivities must be more closely studied in order to make a better offer that appeals to the country’s needs, and not its fears. Then only can there be a real chance of getting India on board.

India has made no secret of its desire for global leadership. In that, it sees China as competition. Consequently, by virtue of being a Chinese initiative Indian policymakers see OBOR as a manifestation of Chinese ambitions—which directly threaten India’s strategic interests. Since CPEC is interpreted as just another means for the Chinese to enhance global influence, Indian reluctance to joining OBOR can be better understood.  

Following the 1962 Sino-Indian War, also known as the Sino-Indian Border Conflict, and China’s age-old relationship with Pakistan there has been obvious mistrust in the Sino-Indian bilateral relationship. While economic cooperation is a long-standing policy solution to deteriorating relations between two countries as it has the ability to divert attention from broader issues, unfortunately India and China have not been able to cure the mistrust in their relationship with investing in greater exchange.

Granted there have been some efforts to improve relations. India has backed China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) initiative. There has been a positive transition in the bilateral relationship with both countries uniting under the formation of the New Development Bank under the aegis of the BRICS grouping. A China-led OBOR initiative still increases China’s prominence in the international world order and India continues to see this as a threat.

It is significant to recall that as a matter of tradition India has always followed an independent foreign policy.  Pushing for India to join the OBOR insinuating that it would risk standing alone otherwise is not the best strategy. India is unlikely to comply just because other countries are interested in the OBOR. President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have opportunities to meet each other on the sidelines of summits to be held by the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, G20 and BRICS. India’s apprehensions must be addressed specifically and clearly if it is to be convinced to alter its position on the matter.

We are gradually moving towards an increasingly multipolar world. India may instead choose to align itself with other powers in the region to balance against the pro-OBOR group. In order to avoid this it is important for dialogue on CPEC to take place with this possibility in mind– bringing on board countries that could be competition for the OBOR initiative could be a step in the right direction.

President Donald Trump nominated his special assistant and the point person on Asia in the National Security Council, Matt Pottinger to represent him at the weekend meeting in Beijing. Upgrading US participation and signaling the desire to form deeper ties with Beijing clearly shows where US interests lie with respect to OBOR. Growing US-China closeness under President Trump surely does not agree with Modi government’s current China policies.

India however remains seemingly unmoved. PM Modi’s decision to boycott China’s high-profile Belt and Road Forum took Delhi’s protest over its sovereignty issue with the development of CPEC to newer levels.

In any case, it is important for China to address India’s concerns and sensitivities.

Despite Beijing’s overtures and the participation of the US in the multi-billion dollar project discussions, India remains absent from the negotiating table. India has warned China against pursuing projects that can create an “unsustainable debt burden for communities”, harm the environment or encroach on other countries’ sovereignty.  India has made no secret of its reservations over the OBOR, concerning the way CPEC passes through Azad Jammu & Kashmir, raising sovereignty concerns.

China has held that it has no intention to get involved in sovereignty and territorial disputes between India and Pakistan. Beijing has clarified its position on the subject numerous times saying, “China harbors no intention to control or threaten any other nation. China needs no puppet states,” it added, describing the Beijing summit as a chance not “to assert a new hegemony, but an opportunity to bring an old one to an end”. China supports the solution of the disputes through bilateral negotiations between the two countries. But India has so far declined any offers made by other countries to mediate between India and Pakistan.

India is adamant that all of Kashmir stretching up to the Wakhan Corridor belongs to India. And so, PM Modi’s China policies seem to be rooted in a very parochial view of the CPEC project, one based on long-held prejudices that the country has harbored against Pakistan–prejudices which are highly untenable and unsustainable in the context of CPEC.

Revisiting its foreign policy India may be able to find that exploring the viability of aligning China’s “One-Belt-One-Road Initiative” (OBOR) and India’s ‘Act East Policy’ holds great potential for both countries. The OBOR can provide China and India with new opportunities for bilateral cooperation. While it may be too early to imagine major changes in the state of India-Pakistan relations, India’s participation in the OBOR can also open much needed channels for cooperation between India and Pakistan.