Behind the Scene

Aurobindo Ghose

It is ten days since the One Belt One Road (OBOR) Summit called and hosted by China at Beijing from May 14 to 15, 2017, concluded. Significantly, India did not participate in OBOR. But the subject is so important for peace, development and stability or otherwise in the region and beyond, that it has continued relevance and requires a fresh review and discussion. Yesterday’s front page news of Indian army’s punitive fire assaults on Pakistan posts and today’s news of US revival of two Public-Private infrastructure projects in South and South-East Asia in which Indian firms are to play a key role, are sufficiently indicative.

As he formally inaugurated the two-day Summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping, while pledging to inject an additional $124 billion into the ‘One Belt One Road Initiative’, assured the august gathering that the “project of the century” was not an attempt at forming “a small group of countries detrimental to stability”. In his opening address, Xi, without referring to India or CPEC, said, “All countries should respect each other’s sovereignty, dignity and territorial integrity, each other’s development paths and social systems, and each other’s core interests and major concerns.” 29 heads of state and govt including Vladimir Putin (Russia), Xi Jinping (China), Nawaz Sharif (Pakistan), Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Turkey), Ranil Wickremesinghe (Sri Lanka), Rodrigo Duterte (Phillipines), Joko Widodo (Indonesia), and the Presidents or Prime Ministers of such important nations as Argentina, Chile, Fiji, Greece, Italy, Spain, Kenya, Malaysia and high - level delegations from Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives, Myanamar, USA, France, Germany and UK participated.

While the prestigious US presence at the summit was a last-minute surprise due to the persistent efforts of the Chinese President Xi Jinping to fructify a give-and-take trade plan, India’s non-participation was very much on the cards as China’s offer and invitation to India, nearly three years back, right after Prime Minister Modi came to power, to jointly build new silk roads in inner Asia and the Indo-Pacific littoral, were literally spurned by the Indian side. On the other hand, the US participation came after the two sides clinched a lucrative trade agreement which will boost shipments of American liquefied natural gas, beef and other products to China. In turn, Chinese banks and poultry will get access to the US market.

Voicing sovereignty concerns on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passing through Pak-occupied Kashmir (PoK) India though cordially invited, chose to boycott this hi-fi Summit concerning its immediate neighbourhood environment, security and attractive prospects of trade, commerce and development in the region and between the participating countries.

Well, it is a bad foreign policy of not to participate in the Beijing Summit indicating India’s total isolation in the immediate as well as wider geo-political neighbourhood. On the face of it, it was not at all clear as to why India was choosing a path wherein it was leaving China free to surround, gherao and push India into a corner geo-politically as well as economically. Sovereignty questions are paramount no doubt. However, India could have participated “without prejudice” and under protest, having leverage to influence future course of events and relations. Like the European Union which participated but chose not to endorse the Draft Trade Agreement proposed by China, on the grounds of transparency and co-ownership, India could have also raised its concerns that connectivity projects must respect sovereignty and territorial integrity and that the financing of mega projects must not be such as to lead to the ultimate economic and political dependence of the receiving (donee nations ) as has happened in the case of Mynamar and Sri Lanka vis-a-vis  China (donor nation). This was a totally missed opportunity for India.

Dr Noor Zaheer, iconic writer, academic and activist said, “I think the present govt, does not care. They are not interested in anything except fleecing their own countrymen and turning the tide towards more Hindutva as a buffer. If at all they are thinking then they would prefer isolation, to be able to do what they want to do within the country.

Masroor Khan was forthright when he commented: “By not participating in Belt and Road forum India has scored a self goal. Staying away from an event that is going to have far reaching effects on the world economy and to leave the playing field entirely open to 2 major adversaries China and Pakistan we have failed in our foreign and economic policies. India should have participated, under protest of course’’.

Xavier Dias, Editor and human rights activist from Jharkhand, pointed out that India cannot endanger its own interests, when he remarked: “A mistake India cannot afford. China can do without India in this project but India cannot afford to stay out. In the long run Indian economy and foreign policy will be jeopardised.”

Ravinder Goel, Professor and economic consultant, says : “Think that the project is essentially good but the way  Chinese government is moving in the matter, the potential will not be realised. Government of India, despite my strong differences with its politics and economics, is justified in having concerns about CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) which passes to disputed territory of Kashmir. Such transnational projects are best executed by consensus.”

Shafi Patel, consultant and commentator, is blunt and to the point: “The whole exercise is a Chinese game to pull in money and access.”

What is the conclusion that can be drawn from this discussion? Difficult question. On the one hand, India boycotted the OBOR Summit, it seems after ample consideration because China was after India for its joint sponsorship , shortly after Modi came to power three years earlier, which India rejected right then. On the other hand, the latest news in the paper indicate that India had alternative plans. One to act as a spoilsport by keeping the Indo-Pak border hot as the recent Indian Army’s punitive assaults on Pak posts along the J&K border demonstrate. China’s dreams of brisk business via the OBOR are unlikely to be realised in an environment of frequent armed clashes along the Indo-Pak border. The other plan rests on the strategic involvement of the Indian Government and Indian capital in any major initiative by China’s major beta - noire, the United States of America.

What are the possibilities? There is more to it than meets the eye about India’s non- participation in  Beijing OBOR Summit. That Indian capitalists did not want a public spat at the OBOR Summit, straining their new found ties with Chinese capitalists – for example, Chinese retail giant Alibaba-Jack-Ma’s participation in PayTm and collaboration with Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance in Jio. Also, the multitude of Indo-China capital collaborations amounting to a total of about $800 million in Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) which came into India in just 17 months between April 2014 and September 2015, more than double all previous Chinese FDI to India. There are also issues why Indian capital would like the Indian Govt, to avoid public confrontations with Pakistan  as in OBOR in view of ongoing discussions between Indian industrialists Gautam Adani and O P Jindal and their Pakistani counterparts regarding future capital collaborations. Further, if you have read Robert Kaplan’s “Monsoon”, India may align in the very near future with Trump’s America to plan and resurrect the alternative route to the old Silk Road - the Indian Ocean – as a challenge to the new Chinese owned One Belt One Road.

Corporates and their aspirations and fears. Their aspiration is to both collaborate and compete with Chinese industry while clearly avoiding the ignominy of business projects in Myanmar and Sri Lanka (and now the target is Pakistan), where utter dependence of domestic industry on Chinese loans, capital and technology have allowed China to almost gobble up the local industries resulting in both economic and political dependence of the host (donee) countries on China. India and Indian capital are most wary of such an eventuality, to avoid which it is even willing to compromise with American ventures and interests in both the sub-continent as well as the Indian Ocean. 

 Aurobindo Ghose

Vol. 49, No.50, Jun 18 - 24, 2017