As India prepares to receive Chinese President Xi Jinping next month, New Delhi must make up its mind on Beijing’s invitation to jointly build the new silk roads in inner Asia and the Indo-Pacific littoral. Since he became president in March 2013, Xi has made the construction of silk roads a priority for China’s foreign policy. Like all Chinese initiatives, this too can be recalled easily with a simple catch-phrase: “One Belt and One Road”.
The “belt” refers to a network of overland corridors that China is developing. Over the years, Beijing has built new roads and rail links from its eastern seaboard to far-flung regions in western and southwestern regions in China. Having connected its distant frontiers to the heartland with highways, railroads and pipelines, China now wants to extend them all across the Eurasian landmass.
During his visit to Central Asia last September, Xi proposed the creation of a “Silk Road Economic Belt” that would more than emulate the historic silk road that connected China to the Mediterranean. In essence, the belt is all about economic connectivity. Xi proposed that China and its neighbours should build a transportation corridor from the Pacific to the Baltic Sea and gradually develop an overland network that connects east Asia, the Middle East and the subcontinent. Xi emphasised the importance of policy communication, trade facilitation at the borders, use of local currencies and people-to-people exchanges.
A month later, in Southeast Asia, Xi articulated the idea of a “21st century maritime silk road” that connects the Pacific and Indian Oceans, or more specifically, China’s coastline with Southeast Asia, the subcontinent, the Gulf and the east coast of Africa. Under the “One Road” proposal, China wants to build hard and soft maritime infrastructure throughout the Indo-Pacific, including new ports and special economic zones around them. Beijing is eager to assist the countries in the littoral improve customs coordination, expand e-commerce and develop the necessary institutions. Putting its money where its mouth is, China announced a fund of $500 million to promote the maritime silk road in Southeast Asia.
In a briefing to international reporters last week in Xian, the ancient capital of China from where the silk roads once headed out, Chinese officials highlighted the special importance of India, which they say is at the intersection of the overland silk roads and the maritime silk routes.
Many roads of the “belt” are inching towards India. These include the Pakistan economic corridor that connects Kashgar in Xinjiang with Karachi and Gwadar on the Arabian coast. This will run across the mighty Karakorams and through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
China is extending its Tibet railway line from Lhasa to the Indian frontiers in the south. Beijing is urging Delhi to jointly develop a trans-Himalayan economic zone of cooperation with Nepal and Bhutan. Beijing has also been talking to Delhi about the so-called BCIM corridor to link the Yunnan province in southwestern China with Myanmar, Bangladesh and eastern India. Xi had raised this issue with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when they met for the first time on the margins of the BRICS summit in Fortaleza, Brazil, last month.
It is no secret that the Indian security establishment is deeply suspicious of China’s silk road initiatives. The UPA government, which did not want to say “no” to Beijing, simply strung the Chinese along. Delhi’s strategic community has long objected to China’s road construction on land frontiers and port-building in the Indian Ocean as “strategic encirclement”. Modi, however, needs to take a fresh look.
India badly needs connectivity and, despite much rhetoric on the subject, Delhi has made little advance in recent years. Modi, then, must ask: What is wrong with India partnering China on the belt and the road? Probing further, Modi will find China is not the only option on connectivity; Japan and America are eager to collaborate with India. Upon deeper reflection Modi might see three urgent imperatives: upgrade India’s own frontier connectivity, modernise border management, build new ports and develop better coordination between the government and Indian corporate entities on taking up infrastructure projects abroad.
With a policy for achieving these objectives in place, India can cooperate and compete with China on regional connectivity. But if Modi ducks the issue, he will be paving the way for India’s marginalisation from the unfolding geo-economic transformation in Asia and the Indo-Pacific.