The MEA spokesman said the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) does not meet “universally recognized international norms”. 29 heads of state/government begged to disagree when they decided to personally attend the forum. Nor did 130 participant countries, representing two-thirds of the UN’s membership, endorse the Indian view. Nor did the 68 countries and international organizations that have signed “belt and road” agreements with China. Nor did any participant object when, at his press conference at the end of the Forum’s deliberations, President Xi treated himself to putting icing on the cake he has baked by institutionalizing the Forum’s deliberations. He announced that there would be a second round of the Forum two years down the line – in 2019. Perhaps by then there will also be a new government in India.
Modi can comfort himself by noting that Bhutan too did not attend. But Nepal did. So did Sri Lanka. And so did Myanmar. So also Trump who, despite his reservations about China, decided at the last minute to send a top aide, Mathew Pottinger. Two other “friends” of India, Japan and Vietnam, who have serious maritime territorial disputes with China, were very much present.
So, what’s with our argument that “international norms” were being flouted by China’s BRI? Our spokesman also faulted BRI for not adhering to Modi’s Five-Fold Path of “good governance, rule of law, openness, transparency and equality”. Not one of two-thirds of the international community who attended the Forum echoed that view, and no one, not even Bhutan, explicitly endorsed our stand.
Although our spokesman rambled over a large ambit of objections, his principal gripe was with issues of “sovereignty and territorial integrity”. The Chinese responded by saying that BRI was “devoid of sovereignty issues”. To India’s insistence that these issues were involved in a project that takes in the Karakoram Pass, filched from India by Pakistan and gratuitously handed over to China, the Chinese have replied that their position on Kashmir has not changed because of CPEC (the China Pakistan Economic Corridor) or BRI. They limit themselves to restating their stand that this is an “issue left over from history” and should, therefore, be “properly addressed by the two countries through consultation and negotiation.” We, of course, neither consult nor negotiate with Pakistan. And however much we might “huff and puff” over CPEC/BRI, we are unlikely to “blow the house down”.
An interesting sideshow is Ambassador PS Raghavan’s clever suggestion in The Hindu that India’s concerns might be met by declaring that CPEC is not part of BRI. Well tried, Raghavan, but, sorry, there are no takers for that sleight of hand.
China is not only in illegal occupation of the Karakoram Pass, but it has also been, since 1950, in illegal occupation of two-thirds of Aksai Chin and areas to the south of the McMahon line. None of this has prevented India, certainly not since Rajiv Gandhi’s breakthrough visit to China in 1988, from assiduously cultivating trade relations with China to the point where China is just about our biggest trading partner and a major potential investor. Indeed, we were hoping for ten times as much Chinese investment than we got from Xi in 2014 after Modi botched things up between sharing a swing with Xi in Ahmedabad and reaching Delhi. The whole India-China relationship is bedeviled with issues of sovereignty and territorial issues. Yet, that has not stood in the way of burgeoning business ties. Will not attending the BRI forum change any of that?
The MEA spokesman furthered damned BRI for placing an “unsustainable debt burden” on participating countries. The semi-official Chinese journal, Global Times, tartly replied, “It is strange that the onlooker is more anxious than the players” and added, for good measure, that while Pakistan will be paying back $ 5 billion a year, it would have recovered more than that by way of transit fees.
Our spokesman had also sanctimoniously warned of the “adverse impact on the environment” for participating countries. Xi himself answered that saying the BRI would ensure “low carbon development” backed by a “sustainable financial safeguards system.” This may, of course, be a pipe dream but even the most skeptical participant, Germany, was principally fixated on pushing for “free tendering” so that her country too could get a big bite of the $900 billion on offer. Some of that is to come from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, of which India is a member. Are we going to play a blocking role in AIIB or that of a facilitator?
Where we seem to regard BRI as a manifestation of Chinese neo-colonialism, an instrument of “political control”, as our spokesman put it, our erstwhile “time-tested” friend, Vladimir Putin, believes BRI “corresponds to modern development trends” and is “extremely necessary and highly demanded”.
A Russian academic, Viktor Lavin, points to the “fresh dynamism” that BRI will impart to Putin’s favourite project, the Eurasian Economic Union, to match the European Union. He further emphasizes that BRI will make up for the lags in the work of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (of which India is a member). Of course, there are concerns over hegemony and defence, but are any of these overcome by refusing to join what XI triumphantly calls “the project of the century” that will “add spleandour to human civilization” and help build “a new era of harmony and trade”?
President Xi Jinping’s opening address seemed sometimes to have been ghost-written by Jawaharlal Nehru. First, he invoked the Panchsheel, the call that used to be emblazoned on the standard of our foreign policy. Then he talked of the world “pulling together like an airborne skein of long-necked geese,” and added, “The best way to meet challenges and achieve better development is through cooperation” – quintessentially Nehruvian. And at least two of his key sentences sounded as if they might have been pinched from Nehru: one from his address to the Asian Relations Conference he convened in Purana Qila, New Delhi on 23 March, 1947 even before India became independent: “so that mankind will move closer to the community of a shared future”; and, second, what he might have said at the UN: “We will not base cooperation on ideological grounds, nor will we make a political agenda or make any exclusive arrangements”.
Nehru spoke, of course, at a time when India was self-confident and self-assured. While China was still embroiled in internal civil strife, we emerged at Independence as the champions of the Asian Resurgence that was to follow the Asian Renaissance of the Freedom Movement. Hand-in-hand with China (with China preferably a few steps behind us), we were going to restore Asia to the vanguard of the advancement of human civilization. Now, seventy years on, we have been so badly overtaken by China in the economic race – their GDP is five times ours, their foreign exchange reserves are ten times ours – that we sulk like a schoolboy whose lollipop has been stolen from him. It is we who would have liked to see 29 Heads of state/government lining up to shake Modi’s hand; it is we who would have wanted 130 countries beaming at us in Vigyan Bhawan; it is we with whom we would have liked to see 68 countries signing up. But that is not to be. And so we retreat into our shell in resentment and envy.
The Chinese spokesman’s smug comment, made days before the Forum convened in Beijing, is cruelly near the mark: “There is a risk India will seem isolated by not attending”.
(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.)
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