With most of its economies characterized as developing, there is a massive and growing need for infrastructural development in Asia. Traditionally, the United States and Japan have been the biggest donors in developmental projects of Asia, but with China fast growing as a global leader, in recent years it has shown the political will to undertake ambitious cross-border connectivity initiatives which have altered the economic-strategic environment of India’s neighbourhood. All these projects come under the umbrella of the Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI).
What is the Belt and Road Initiative?
Often referred to as the Chinese Marshall Plan due to the enormity of its infrastructural investment in more than 70 developing countries, the multibillion-dollar BRI is an infrastructure development initiative to connect China’s less-developed border regions with countries of Asia and Europe. Previously known as One Belt, One Road (OBOR), BRI is the Chinese Communist Party’s most ambitious foreign policy initiative to build essential infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and ports in capital-importing economies of the two continents. It also provides physical territory, financial arena, and cyberspace for China to establish a market for its surplus manufacturing.
The BRI is composed of two smaller infrastructure programs- the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI). It also consists of associated finance institutions- the New Development Bank (NDB), and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Under these programs come the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM- EC), which are of immediate strategic interest to India.
The Silk Road Economic Belt is the ‘road’ component of BRI. On land, it initially included those countries which geographically aligned with the historical “Silk Road” (from hinterland China to Europe through Central Asia). It has since expanded to include other countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The second program of President Xi’s plan, the MSRI, is the ‘belt’ component of the BRI. Deviating from the historical trading route, it aims to build a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road connecting the fast-growing Oceania, Southeast Asian, and African regions to China’s southern provinces through railways and ports.
Source: Financial Times
Perspectives on BRI
President Jinping has launched this initiative at a time when China’s foreign policy has become increasingly assertive. Naturally, BRI has garnered much debate about its true intentions. Perspectives about BRI from India can thus, be broadly classified into three- optimistic, sceptic, and cautionary.
The optimists believe that since India doesn’t have the resources to compete with China, it would be prudent to “join them” and reap the economic benefits that accrue from the BRI. The economists of this group believe that this convergence would at least give India leeway to influence BRI policies that affect the country.
The sceptic perspective is mainly put forward by strategists who believe that BRI is a front for China to establish dominance in the Indian Ocean Region. They believe that these infrastructure-building activities would allow China to strategically encircle India (Road in the North and Belt in the South) and would strategically reduce India to a minor country in the region with a military disadvantage. This group suggests India be wary of BRI.
The cautionary perspective argues that India should reap the economic advantages of BRI while using other international partnerships such as Quad ( Quadrilateral Security Dialogue- a strategic dialogue between the United States, India, Japan, and Australia) to strategically hedge against the rise of China. It argues for a more nuanced and multifaceted approach to BRI.
What is India’s Current Stance on BRI?
The international community has perceived India’s stance regarding the BRI as broadly opposing, and not without good reason. Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar noted in the 2016 Raisina Dialogue that the “interactive dynamic between strategic interests and connectivity initiatives – a universal proposition – is on particular display in our continent.” He further cautioned against countries using connectivity “as an exercise in hard-wiring that influences choices,” while not specifically mentioning China. Further, India refused to participate in the two BRI Forums held in 2017 and 2019 respectively.
However, in practice, India has adopted a complex multi-layered approach to the BRI. Instead of perceiving the BRI as one project, India has taken an atomistic approach to each one of the various bilateral initiatives that form the BRI. This can be best understood by analysing major components of the BRI that have a direct bearing on India’s strategic interest in its neighbourhood.
1. India and the CPEC
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is a bilateral project part of the BRI aimed at improving Pakistan’s infrastructure by modernizing its transportation and energy systems and connecting the deep-sea Pakistani ports of Gwadar and Karachi to China’s Xinjiang province and beyond by land routes.
India has opposed CPEC for several reasons. Firstly, it passes through the Gilgit-Baltistan region, which is a disputed area between India and Pakistan. China-Pakistan collaboration in this region, without considering India’s claim over the disputed territory, has been seen by India as infringing its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Secondly, strategists fear that this cooperation will evolve into a bilateral military alliance against India, given India’s border tensions with both countries. Thirdly, there are also concerns that Pakistan’s inability to repay loans will pave the way for Chinese interference in the country’s internal affairs, particularly in light of the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota and the subsequent 99-year lease.
2. India and the MSRI
The MSRI is another major component of BRI that India has opposed. The Indian apprehension stems from the “String of Pearls” theory that the Chinese are engaging in port construction activity which can be used as military bases in the future. Sceptics argue that Chinese construction in the Indian Ocean along with the CPEC forms a strategic encirclement of India with the potential to reshape the geopolitics of the region.
3. India and BCIM Economic Corridor
The Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor is an initiative that was undertaken in the 1990s to foster connectivity and boost tourism, transportation, and trade between North-Eastern India and South-western China through Bangladesh and Myanmar. The BCIM Corridor has encouraged cooperation in an otherwise rocky Sino-Indian relationship between New Delhi and Beijing.
However, this cooperation got seriously limited when China incorporated the BCIM corridor into BRI, thereby turning this multilateral platform into a unilateral Chinese vision. Despite Prime Minister Modi’s address at Tsinghua University in 2015 depicting India’s willingness to participate in the BCIM corridor, India will likely be wary of illegal Chinese occupation and trading in North East India through this corridor, especially after the Doklam border standoff in 2017. India will mostly drag its feet over the initiative since pulling out of it completely would be a sign of hostility and hence, isn’t an option for India with an already weak East Asian policy.
4. India and AIIB
The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has often been associated as one of the financial pillars of BRI. However, India, which is the second-largest shareholder of the bank after China, has clarified that as far as it is concerned, these two are separate issues. For India, AIIB will provide a new source of financing for development projects. Thus India has prudently reaped the economic benefits of AIIB by separating it from BRI.
This analysis tells us that India has largely adopted a pragmatic approach guided by the consequences of the projects while keeping its economic and security needs in mind.
India’s Approach to BRI- As It Should Be
The Sino-Indian relationship has been on the rocks ever since the Galwan Valley incident that took place in 2020. India has since taken many commercial and military measures to counter the Chinese dominance. In this background, India is likely to be suspicious of the BRI as a geopolitical initiative. While it continues to cooperate with China on multilateral platforms to avoid conflict, India needs to protect its interests too. The only way India can counter the rise of China as the regional leader is to establish itself as a viable alternative. India needs to develop its maritime infrastructure in the Indian Ocean and its bordering countries. India’s efforts to develop the Chabahar Port in Iran and Project Mausam, a cultural project to build a narrative about India’s historical links with the Indian Ocean islands, are steps in the right direction.
India also needs to engage more with the Small Island States like the Maldives and Sri Lanka, which are key points of communication and security of sea trading routes. India needs to take charge of setting up and protecting Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) as well as tackle non-traditional maritime threats such as trafficking and piracy in collaboration with these islands. These bilateral initiatives need to be brought under an umbrella to provide a road map for regional connectivity.
India needs to acknowledge that China has an upper hand with its resources. It, therefore, should partner up with other regional powers such as Japan more proactively to provide for more multilateral avenues of cooperation such as the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) to include other smaller Asian countries too, to provide better sources of investment. India has responded well by hedging against China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific by engaging in a Quadrilateral dialogue with the USA, Australia, and Japan.
As the BRI surpasses and reforms boundaries, connecting Asia with distant locations of Europe and Africa, policymakers have to grapple with new concepts and challenges. Competition, cooperation, and other diplomatic interactions between China and India, in their neighbourhood, and on a global scale will shape Asia’s new security framework and determine the region’s economic and strategic scenario for many years to come. Thus, a deeper study is required of such initiatives.
About the Author- Stuti Biyani is a final year student majoring in Political Science. She aspires to be an Indian Foreign Service officer. She is passionate about feminist studies and geopolitics and likes to follow all sports in her free time.