Pakistani political economist S Akbar Zaidi’s damning indictment of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) at a recent public lecture at the Calcutta Research Group (on 9 June) vindicates serious concerns many have about Beijing’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. Zaidi titled his talk ‘Has China taken over Pakistan?’ and produced details to back his claim.
In fact, there is more to the CPEC than the ‘sovereignty issue’ that apparently prompted India to oppose it and avoid participation in the OBOR conference in Beijing in May. Zaidi raised the spectre of Chinese colonisation, pointing to a wide range of issues, ranging from lack of transparency in the cost of projects to manning of surveillance networks in CPEC ‘smart cities’ to preferential treatment for Chinese capital to the use of Chinese labour for CPEC projects. Zaidi pointed to Sri Lanka, Tajikistan and many African countries as cases of “Chinese investments gone sour” where land had to be given to Chinese companies in lieu of unpaid loans.
Staying Away from OBOR Conference Didn’t Achieve Goals
Surely, India cannot join OBOR if that means Chinese control over assets it creates in other countries through funding them. Zaidi pointed to Bangladesh as one successful case of negotiating Beijing, in how Dhaka has forced Beijing to heed their environmental concerns in Chinese projects which are usually flouted. So there is a strong case to challenge Beijing’s OBOR narrative and in exposing what it seeks to conceal.
But that objective is not achieved by staying away from a conference that was attended in some strength even by the US and Japan – a move that MEA officials admit shocked their bosses. The US was represented by Matt Pottinger, a senior adviser to President Donald Trump, while Japan's delegation was led by Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party. Not to talk of all of India’s neighbours except Bhutan.
India should have attended the conference under protest on the sovereignty issue – of the proposed CPEC passing through a part of Kashmir which Pakistan controls but India claims.
And it should have taken the opportunity to raise uncomfortable issues linked to OBOR ,and forced (or exposed) Beijing on its lack of transparency on issues linked to the initiative – from financing of projects to future command-control mechanisms, to repayment issues and much more. China is keen on Indian participation and says it is prepared to walk the extra mile to get India into the OBOR. But having missed an opportunity to raise uncomfortable issues , and rueing the possible isolation it now regrets, India is now left with the option to either stay out of OBOR or join it.
It has lost the opportunity to question it in a forum that would have clearly thrown the Chinese off balance.
- Akbar Zaidi’s damning indictment of the CPEC raises serious sovereignty issues for Pakistan
Zaidi says Pakistan’s fate may be worse than Sri Lanka, Tajikistan or some African countries who have suffered from the Chinese embrace
- India should have joined the OBOR conference in Beijing to raise not just ‘sovereignty issues’ (CPEC passing through Kashmir) but also more substantive objections now articulated by Zaidi
So, What Now?
For the moment, the MEA should sit back, coolly analyse the fallout and work harder to understand the Chinese designs, taking a clue from Zaidi. Some suggestions have already surfaced that if the Chinese are setting up military bases in Pakistan, India should allow the US to set up military bases in India. Nothing could be more suicidal for India. We already have the LEMOA agreement with the US, which allows mutual use of military bases – so in a worst case scenario, deployment of US military assets is always possible. The fact that the Pentagon is floating the information about Chinese plans for bases in Pakistan may be aimed at creating a favourable climate for US military bases in India.
If India prides itself on its independence, it would do well to exercise its strategic autonomy and avoid going the Pakistani path, both in dealing with foreign powers and in handling internal polity.
If political Islam has failed Pakistan, political Hinduism will be no better for India. To undermine Pakistan and the two-nation theory it was founded on, India has to revert back aggressively to the inclusive nationalism of Subhas Chandra Bose, not go the saffron way of divisiveness that will weaken the country. And as Zaidi said at the Calcutta lecture, Pakistan’s long pandering to US interests, then allowing the Saudis to interfere in domestic issues, and finally prostrating before China makes it the least acceptable model for any country, especially India.
India needs a certain level of confidence to handle China, a certain self-belief. The Indian system, built on democracy and mixed economy, gives it a level of flexibility not available to the Chinese, who are losing sleep to harmonise the most ‘antagonistic of contradictions’ in trying to create a super-capitalist economy within the structure of a one-party state. The OBOR, though projected as a grandiose geo-economic plan, may just be an attempt to externalise China’s internal economic problems crisis. It can fail like Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” or “Cultural Revolution”. Countries of Africa and Latin America and some in Asia are already bitter with the Chinese embrace – many more will follow when they suffer loss of sovereignty to pay for unpaid loans.
Nepali editor Kanak Dixit roundly summed up the appeal of India at the end of Zaidi’s Calcutta lecture when he attacked India for ‘unleashing blockades’ but hastened to add:
My articles against the blockades are published in the Indian media, will I get that chance in China?
India remains a credible model for the developing world so long as it does not compromise on its democracy and strategic autonomy – not by becoming a US lackey if Pakistan becomes a Chinese surrogate.
(The writer is a veteran BBC journalist and an author. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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