On 1 November, India once again refused to endorse China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) at the 21st meeting of the Council of Heads of Government of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
The Joint Communique issued at the end of the virtual meeting steered by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang didn’t quite say it, but if you read through it, and come to the clause “reaffirming support” for Beijing’s favourite project—the BRI—India’s name is missing. Only six of the eight nations of the organisation are listed, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikstan and Uzbekistan .
The rest of the communique is unexceptional and talked of the issues like promoting multilateralism, better global economic governance and so on. Importantly it mentioned the support of the organisation for “the Republic of India’s chairmanship in the organisation in 2022-23.” Though billed as a council of the heads of government and chaired by the Chinese premier, countries like India and Pakistan, had their foreign ministers representing them.
India's Foreign Minister S Jaishankar's Stand on BRI
According to reports, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar told the forum earlier that “connectivity projects should respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of member states and respect international law.” This was in keeping with India’s standing critique of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) scheme and this reference was to the fact that a key leg of the BRI aimed at connecting Gwadar port in Pakistan with Xinjiang passes through what India says is Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK).
Incidentally, Jaishankar as foreign secretary was the person who shaped not only India’s response to the BRI, but that of other western countries as well. In March 2016, speaking of the BRI at the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi, he said “The key issue is whether we will build our connectivity through consultative processes or more unilateral decisions. … we cannot be impervious to the reality that others may see connectivity as an exercise in hard-wiring that influences choices.”
This was in keeping with India’s standing critique of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) scheme.
In response to the Indian criticism earlier, China did signal that it is willing to discuss the issues and possibly even rename CPEC to assuage Indian concerns.
Pakistan continues to be a favoured destination for China.
India has sought the organisation’s support to get full transit rights through Pakistan to Afghanistan and Central Asia.
India's Concerns Regarding China's CPEC/BRI Projects
New Delhi had specific concerns relating to the CPEC, primarily that it passes through territory legally Indian, but occupied by Pakistan. In the late 1960s, the Chinese began to build the first transportation corridor—the Karakoram Highway (KKH) which ran from Kasghar through the Khunjerab Pass to Abbottabad in Pakistan. This was completed in 1979 and had been open to the public since 1986.
However, CPEC of 2015 signalled a broad-based Chinese commitment to Pakistani economy as well as its security with implications for India. CPEC and its focal port of Gwadar in Balochistan were also seen by Beijing as gateways to the Middle East and the Indian Ocean. The Persian Gulf had become an important focus of the BRI, as had ties with Saudi Arabia, UAE and Iran.
Since 2008, the Chinese have been deploying a flotilla of ships to fight piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the western Indian Ocean. Piracy has long receded, but the Chinese task forces keep coming and currently, the 42nd task force is operating in the region. In addition, China has also constructed a military support base in Djibouti.
How India's Objections Have Been Received By China and the World
By 2017, India had sharpened its critique of the BRI and rejected an invitation to the first BRI Forum in Beijing. In a statement issued hours before the forum was scheduled to open, the MEA issued a comprehensive statement on its objections which were threefold.
First, that the corridor included projects in territory belonging to India. Second that it could push smaller nations on the road to a debt crisis and be ecologically destructive and disruptive to local communities. And third, that China’s agenda was unclear, implying that this was more about extending Beijing’s political influence than in creating public goods.
In response to the Indian criticism, China did signal that it was willing to discuss the issues and possibly even rename CPEC to assuage Indian concerns. Wang Yi indicated that China was willing to work in the language of its 1963 agreement with Pakistan, that all agreements relating to Kashmir would be subject to re-negotiation after the “settlement of the Kashmir dispute.”
But from 2018 onwards when the Trump Administration took US policy towards China from engagement to competition/confrontation, the Indian critique of BRI gained wider acceptance. Though, most of its neighbours, including Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bangladesh had signed up to the project.
India Will Continue To Put Its Interest First As China Pakistan Stay Close
BRI investments actually peaked in 2018 and have come down since. This was in part a response to the critique by countries that China’s lending was creating problems and it needed to maintain international lending norms. Further, the combination of COVID, economic slowdown and zero-COVID policies have taken their toll. As it is, Chinese policy is now emphasising domestic consumption and growth over its international commitments.
But Pakistan continues to be a favoured destination. According to reports, China told visiting Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on 2 November that they would expand and accelerate CPEC. Recall that the Sharif government is planning to dissolve the Pakistan CPEC authority which is being blamed for the slowdown in CPEC work during Imran Khan’s Prime Ministership.
During Sharif’s visit, the Chinese have committed an additional assistance package of 500 million yuan for flood relief. According to a report, the two sides had worked out their differences over the Mainline 1 scheme (the upgradation of the Peshawar- Karachi railway line) and the Chinese financing for the USD 10 billion project is on track.
As far as the SCO is concerned, India has sought the organisation’s support to get full transit rights through Pakistan to Afghanistan and Central Asia. This was emphasised by Prime Minister Modi at the summit of the SCO Council of Heads of State meeting in September in Samarkand.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)