At a press conference over the weekend on the margins of the annual gathering of the Chinese parliament, the National People’s Congress, Foreign Minister Wang Yi put the Silk Road initiative at the very top of China’s diplomatic priorities in 2015. The initiative, which goes by the popular name “one belt, one road”, was launched by President Xi Jinping in a series of speeches at the end of 2013. Beijing has pursued it with great vigour since.
Given its enduring impact on India and its neighbourhood, responding to China’s Silk Road initiative is a major challenge for Indian foreign policy. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepares for his China visit in May, New Delhi can no longer delay the articulation of a coherent strategy to restore the subcontinent’s historic connectivity.
Xi’s “Silk Road Economic Belt” refers to China’s ambitious plans to develop overland transport and industrial corridors that will deepen China’s economic integration with neighbouring regions all across the Eurasian landmass. He identified five major objectives for the belt: expanding economic collaboration, improving rail, road and fibre-optic connectivity, promoting trade and investment, facilitating currency conversion and boosting people-to-people exchanges. The “road” is shorthand for the “Twenty-first Century Maritime Silk Road” that seeks to develop maritime connectivity between China’s industrialised eastern seaboard in the Pacific Ocean and the resource-rich Indian Ocean. It involves building new ports and industrial zones in different parts of the Indian Ocean.
The road connects with the belt through a series of corridors between new ports on the littoral and new trade routes in inner Asia. Last month, China’s central bank announced that
a $40 billion Silk Road Infrastructure Fund was operational. It is an investment venture modelled after the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation.
Eurasian Marshall Plan
Many observers have compared China’s Silk Road initiative with the Marshall Plan that America extended to Europe after World War II. The Marshall Plan helped reconstruct war-ravaged western Europe and limit the spread of communism in the old continent. It served as the economic complement to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in containing the Soviet Union.
Wang, of course, is at pains to deny the implication that China, much like America after the war, is driven by geopolitical motivations in promoting the Silk Road initiative. Wang argued that China’s Silk Road initiative is both older and younger than the Marshall Plan. It is “older because it embodies the spirit of the ancient Silk Road, which has a history of over 2,000 years and was used by the peoples of many countries for friendly exchange and commerce. We must renew that spirit and bring it up to date,” Wang said. He added that it is younger because “it is born in the era of globalisation”.
Wang insisted that the Silk Road initiative is “not a tool of geopolitics, and must not be viewed with the outdated Cold War mentality”. Wang promised that the Silk Road initiative “will be sensitive to the comfort level of other parties, ensure transparency and openness, and create synergy with the existing regional cooperation mechanisms”. Using a musical metaphor, Wang said China’s Silk Road initiative is not a “solo, but a symphony performed by all relevant countries”.
While most of India’s immediate neighbours are eager to join the Silk Road orchestra, New Delhi has chosen to stay out of the symphony for now. It has sought to delay or deflect Chinese proposals on jointly building a corridor connecting southwestern China with eastern India through Myanmar and Bangladesh. Delhi is also quite concerned about China’s plans to integrate Pakistan and Afghanistan with the belt and lock Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles into the road.
India’s anxieties arise from the error of viewing China’s Silk Road initiative through the narrow prism of geopolitics. Delhi has also been consumed by the old narrative of “China encircling India”. If Modi chooses to balance the geopolitical narrative with some economic commonsense, he might come up with a more productive approach to Beijing’s Silk Road initiative.
That India needs greater connectivity with its neighbours is not in doubt. All recent governments in Delhi have identified it as a major national objective. If China has economic compulsions of its own in putting money in regional connectivity, it makes eminent sense for Delhi to work with Beijing. Collaborating with China on Silk Roads does not mean Delhi can’t work with Tokyo and Washington in promoting other trade and transport corridors across the Indo-Pacific. Above all, China’s “one belt, one road” proposals should encourage Delhi to imagine its own version of silk roads. As he travels across the Indian Ocean this week to Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka, Modi will have the opportunity to articulate plans to revitalise India’s historic maritime connections.