Belt and Road Forum: The Dilemmas of Participation

Over 40 heads of state would arrive in Beijing later this month to participate in the 2nd Belt and Road Forum. Prominent among these would be China’s closest allies i.e. Russian President Vladimir Putin; Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan; Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte; and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Several countries would be represented by high level delegation; but conspicuously absent in the gathering would be leaders from the US and India.

This iteration of the Belt and Road Forum is titled ‘Belt and Road Cooperation: Shaping a Brighter Shared Future’ and among the many purposes for hosting the event is to infuse confidence in the international community in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which in recent times has invited international scrutiny on account of transparency, accountability and particularly the issue of ‘debt trap’.

Yang Jiechi, a Member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affair is upbeat of the event, and has dispelled the notion that the BRI is a ‘geopolitical tool’ and has stated that this perception is ‘simply a misunderstanding, misrepresentation and even biased view of the BRI,” Further, many countries have ‘debunked such groundless assertions with facts and figures’ and are enjoying the benefits of the BRI.

The US State Department has announced that it would not be sending a high-level official to the Forum amid concern about the “opaque financing practices, poor governance and disregard for internationally accepted norms and standards, which undermine many of the standards and principles” that the US upholds and promotes for the ‘sustainable, inclusive development and to maintain stability and a rules-based order’. Further, the US has ‘repeatedly called on China to address these concerns’ which continue to plague the BRI.

Like the last BRI Forum in 2017, India will give it a miss this year too. New Delhi has been quite unequivocal about its strong objections to the BRI and is particularly concerned about the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which involves connectivity projects that pass or are being built in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) which is claimed by India. The Indian Ambassador in Beijing announced New Delhi’s intention to boycott the Forum and clarified that “connectivity initiatives must be pursued in a manner that respects sovereignty, equality and territorial integrity of nations”. Further, India has been consistent on this issue and conveyed its views and position to the Chinese authorities.

Beijing also attempted to woo Indian business houses, associations, and individual companies to participate in the Forum and avail of the opportunity to network with other visiting foreign and Chinese business delegations. They have chosen to shy away; apparently, they are not encouraged, and would also not like to go against the government policy on the issue.

Unlike India, Japan is not averse to the BRI and both sides have signed memorandums of understanding on 20 to 30 projects and are keen to jointly develop projects in Thailand and the China-Europe rail link. It is fair to assume that Tokyo may send a high level delegation to the 2019 BRI forum.

The Government of India policy on the BRI is very clear and merits full support given that sovereignty and national interests are at stake. Further, it has a principled stand on connectivity projects which should be ‘inclusive, sustainable, transparent, and those that respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations.” Likewise, the Japanese government’s policy of ‘Quality Infrastructure Projects’ pivots on ‘Openness, Transparency, Economic Viability and Financial Soundness of Recipient Countries’. These are significant and sufficient grounds for Indian and Japan to build infrastructure and are symbolized by the Asia Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), a flagship initiative aimed at connecting the Asia-Pacific region with Africa. It features planning and funding infrastructure and capacity building projects in East Africa.

China, India (Wuhan Consensus) and Japan (Abe-Xi meeting in May 2018) endorse ‘joint projects in third country’ model, and this has been agreed to between the leaders of these countries. A trilateral agreement on the ‘content, modalities and funding’ among these countries can potentially bring about a consensus that could be a model for such projects.

As of now, China is not keen to make any amends in its approach in promoting and developing the BRI; however, this could be a ‘work in progress’ and an issue for debate and discussion at the 2nd Belt and Road Forum sans India.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is associated with the Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.

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