China has been careful not to completely dismiss Indian concerns over the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) and has offered to rename the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as also construct ‘an alternative corridor through Jammu & Kashmir, the Nathu La pass, or Nepal’ to dispel Indian concerns. It has also argued that both countries are already working together on the 2,800 kilometers long BCIM Economic Corridor (Kolkata to Kunming via Bangladesh and Myanmar) which is an important segment of the BRI. Further, India is an important member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the second largest shareholder after China.
These arguments and proposal have not cut ice among India’s foreign and defence policy establishment, and New Delhi has so far remained silent to these overtures. It is the stated policy of the Government of India to ‘not participate’ in the BRI amid concerns that the CPEC, a segment of the BRI, passes through the Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) region claimed by India.
China has now mooted another proposal to woo India to join the BRI by jointly developing infrastructure in a third country. This model has been labeled as ‘China-India Plus one’ or ‘China-India Plus X’ and has its genesis in Rawanda in Africa where President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Modi visited the country on the same day and signed a number of independent agreements with the host country. The Chinese were quick to note that the leaders of the two countries had reached a consensus to realize mutual benefit by jointly promoting regional and world peace and stability.
It is useful to mention that the Chinese proposal is similar to the China-Japan initiative to promote cooperation which includes jointly working to extend the Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTS) in Thailand which is seen by the Chinese as a symbol of Japanese participation in the BRI. Elsewhere too, US, Australia and Japan have established partnership to ‘mobilise investment in infrastructure, such as energy, transportation, tourism, and technology that will help stabilize economies, enhance connectivity, and provide lasting benefits’ in the Indo-Pacific region. President Trump has even authorized $60 billion in loans, loan guarantees and insurance to companies willing to do business in developing nations through the United States International Development Finance Corporation.
A variety of regional and sub-regional economic grouping are mushrooming in Asia and given the geography these have attracted new labels such as River Basin Economy for the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC), an initiative by six countries – India and five ASEAN countries, namely, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam established in 2001 to facilitate closer contacts among the people inhabiting these two major river basins.
More recently, Mountain Economy has been included in the glossary of connectivity initiatives and has been included in the focus areas of the BIMSTEC since five of the seven countries - Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, and Nepal - lie in the Himalayan region. It is their hope that Mountain Economy will “transform their economies through better connections to the Bay of Bengal and to regional and global markets beyond.
In similar vein Plateau Economy involving China (Tibet), India, Nepal and Bhutan which can be modeled under the landlocked developing countries/regions is not a farfetched suggestion. In this context, China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi suggestion that “We should build a three-dimensional connectivity network across the Himalayas…As a long-term vision, this great channel will create conditions and provide convenience for the trilateral economic corridor of China, Nepal, and India, which is likely to be built in the future. The shared goal of the three countries should be to work together to achieve common development and common prosperity.” This proposal resonates with Prime Minister Modi’s vision wherein he has stated that “Better connectivity leads to enhanced India-Nepal friendship. That is why topmost priority is being given to boosting connectivity,” but did not endorse the idea of India-Nepal-China consortium to build infrastructure in Nepal.
However, New Delhi has consistently maintained 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 the sovereignty and territorial integrity”. Similarly, the US, Japan and Australia initiative to build infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific pivots on the understanding that “good investments stem from transparency, open competition, sustainability, adhering to robust global standards, employing the local workforce, and avoiding unsustainable debt burdens.”
Some of the key guiding principles of the above initiatives are ‘transparency’ ‘sustainability, ‘rule of law’, ‘unsustainable debt burdens’ and ‘respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity’ and these have been the bane of the BRI and have plagued the Initiative.
Further, competition has been the feature of the bilateral relationship between India and China which has further sharpened due to provocative Chinese behaviors over the 2017 Doklam standoff. Further, frequent forays by the Chinese navy into the Indian Ocean preclude a positive understanding on the BRI in New Delhi.
Nevertheless, New Delhi may explore the ‘China-India Plus one’ model under the SCO or in Africa. The Indian transport minister Nitin Gadkari is positive about such a model of cooperation under the SCO and observed that India regards “SCO platform as a possible breakthrough in the construction of world-class roads and interconnections, which, in turn, form the basis of our countries' industrial development,”
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is former Director National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi and is associated with the Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.