Beijing: China is oscillating between using pressure and persuasion to get India on board its Belt and Road Initiative.
Forty years after China opened up its economy in 1978, the BRI is being seen as its next big economic push. The idea is seen as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s dream project, so much so that it was included in the party charter at the 19th Communist Party Congress in November 2017. Now, with both prestige and growth at stake, China is looking even more keenly towards India.
Sources in Beijing working closely with the government said that for any project to be economically viable and workable in Nepal, it was getting difficult to avoid India. Similar was the case with the proposed China-Myanmar-Bangladesh-India economic corridor. They said they value India’s cooperation but it was India that has been “hesitant”.
Through connectivity, China is looking at finding routes into emerging markets, India being one of the biggest. It is no surprise then that China is, for the time being, showing signs of toning down. It is even willing to set aside territorial differences to push its Belt and Road Initiative with India.
“There is no reason why we should not work together. We can settle disputes later,” said a source.
It is this message that China is likely to communicate to External Affairs Ministry Sushma Swaraj as she meets her counterpart Wang Yi in Beijing on Sunday evening.
While China is showing indications of leaving aside even the most recent 73-day standoff over Doklam, India had a very clear reason for not being part of the Belt and Road Initiative and that still stands. India had boycotted the BRI summit in May 2017. The Ministry of External Affairs released a statement a night before the much-touted conference, saying it cannot and will not be part of the summit.
India’s concerns stemmed from the fact that the flagship project under BRI, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor challenged the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India as it passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
On May 13, 2017, the Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson had said in a statement that “guided by our principled position in the matter, we have been urging China to engage in a meaningful dialogue on its connectivity initiative, ‘One Belt, One Road’ which was later renamed as ‘Belt and Road Initiative’. We are awaiting a positive response from the Chinese side. Regarding the so-called ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’, which is being projected as the flagship project of the BRI/OBOR, the international community is well aware of India’s position. No country can accept a project that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Despite India voicing its concern, CPEC remains one of the significant projects under BRI that is taking shape in reality. China has already invested over $60 billion and the Gwadar port is operational. According to sources working closely with the Chinese establishment in Beijing, despite the challenges China is facing in Pakistan like security threat from Taliban, water and electricity problems and mountainous areas to cut through, it will continue to invest there.
“These problems? So what? Our friendship will bear more fruits,” another source said.
So with this contradiction in attitude, how does China intend to convince India? One thought in China is that since both India and Pakistan have been inducted into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, China could utilise that forum to nudge the two sides to improve their bilateral relations.
Beijing believes the “geopolitical issue” can be managed in a way so as to allow Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road dream to take shape. But India has a firm stand —that outstanding issues with Pakistan, including Kashmir, will be resolved only through bilateral engagement. A third -party intervention has always been ruled out by India.
So as Sushma Swaraj and, later this month, Nirmala Sitharaman engage with their Chinese counterparts (NSA Ajit Doval has already met Politburo member Yang Jiechi), it is quite obvious that both the sides do believe that high-level exchanges will help realise the “potential of closer development partnership between India and China”, but how far these moves will help China’s ambitious Belt and Road is still not clear.