PM Modi Needs Better Advice On China, Has Scored Self-Goal

Published: May 16, 2017 13:40 IST
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs better advice on China. Look at the self-goal India has scored by boycotting the Belt and Road Forum summit, convened by the Chinese president Xi Jinping on May 14 and 15. As an unofficial Indian delegate at what was undoubtedly this year's most significant global event, I was fervently hoping to see my Prime Minister standing side by side with the Chinese statesman at the opening ceremony of the summit in Beijing. Here was an opportunity for India, and for Modi personally, to be seen as a major leader bringing India's wisdom to an initiative that Xi has audaciously, and without much exaggeration, called the "Project of the Century". Sadly, in the eyes of the over 100 countries represented at the conference, including 29 heads of state or government, India was the proverbial "elephant in the room" - conspicuous by its absence.

India did not even send a high - or low-level official representative to the summit. More bafflingly, going beyond a boycott, the Modi government issued a statement that read like outright opposition to the very concept of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). True, India has some genuine concerns about BRI. Several thoughtful Chinese experts I spoke to concede that it is natural for India to have differences. Indeed, some non-Chinese speakers at the summit expressed their own differences. Germany, for example, asked China to provide a level-playing field to foreign companies, besides commenting that China cannot be the sole centre of BRI.

It is bad diplomacy to equate bluster with strategy. What to say, when to say, how much to say and how to say it in an overall cost-benefit matrix are essential determinants of how a nation expresses its displeasure, especially in a relationship that presents big gains and risks. India's statement was untimely, un-nuanced and, quite simply, undiplomatic. Its purpose seemed to be to displease China, just as China in the recent past has acted in an extremely unfriendly manner meant to upset India.

Modi's advisors should have known that attendance at the Beijing forum did not automatically mean full endorsement of China's BRI vision, or the specific projects under it. Both USA and Japan sent their representatives to Beijing. Does it mean Washington and Tokyo have embraced BRI in toto?

Furthermore, whatever India wished to say about BRI, it could have - indeed, it should have - said in a firm but friendly way at the Beijing forum itself, just as Germany and others did. For example, in his keynote address, Xi Jinping averred that "all countries should respect each other's sovereignty, dignity and territorial integrity." Now, it is well-known that India's legitimate concern over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor stems from the fact that CPEC passes through Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. Had Modi or a ministerial colleague of his made this point at the Beijing summit, India would have been in a stronger position, and China could have been held accountable in future bilateral talks on CPEC and BRI.

The Indian government's statement was not confined to its concern over CPEC. Commenting on other aspects, it indirectly sought to paint all of BRI in a negative light. "We are of firm belief," it said, "that connectivity initiatives must be based on universally recognized international norms, good governance, rule of law, openness, transparency and equality. Connectivity initiatives must follow principles of financial responsibility to avoid projects that would create unsustainable debt burden for communities; balanced ecological and environmental protection and preservation standards; transparent assessment of project costs; and skill and technology transfer to help long term running and maintenance of the assets created by local communities."

India could have made each of these points more forcefully, at the summit itself, rather than in a manner that sounded adversarial. Can anybody in the world, including China, ignore India's voice? Not at all. But it is not as if China is completely insensitive to these concerns. One of the strongest themes in Xi Jinping's own speech, which was as sagacious as it was comprehensive, stressed on the need for a "green" globalisation, guided by the vision of "development and a way of life and work that is low-carbon, circular and sustainable." Xi also took pains to emphasise that "though originating in China, the Belt and Road Initiative belongs to the whole world...It is an open and inclusive platform and a public service jointly built by parties around the world...It will neither exclude nor target any side."

Xi's speech was remarkable for citing the foundation of multi-civilisational wisdom upon which the structure of new globalisation can be built in the 21st century. He even paid tribute to the "Ganges, Indus" and India as the birthplace of Buddhism. At a time when West-engendered globalisation is facing a severe crisis, no leader has ever presented as holistic a vision of new globalisation as Xi did in Beijing. One can say that China itself needs to do a lot more to adhere to the ideals he espoused. But isn't that true about every other nation, India included?

With the Indian government taking a rejectionist approach, jingoistic sections of the media have gone berserk over projecting the Belt and Road as China's agenda to "colonise" the world. Nothing can be more ridiculous. Are the many countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and even Latin America that have supported BRI queuing up to get colonised by China? The BJP's narrow-minded followers need to wake up to the stark and sobering reality that China today is reaching out to the minds of countries and communities around the world in  a far more ambitious and expansive manner than India is even dreaming of doing.

Now, rather than joining BRI and attempting to make it more multilateral, democratic, consultative, all-inclusive and less China-centric, India is pushing itself in an isolationist corner. Worse still, some in the ruling establishment may be thinking of a new India-led connectivity initiative or alliance to compete with BRI. If pragmatism has any place in statecraft, Modi should reject such calls for misadventure.

Indeed, by joining BRI, India has the best chance ever of normalising relations with Pakistan, and improving relations with China, in what can be a new win-win initiative for the benefit of the whole of South Asia. In my remarks at a global think tank conference on the sidelines of the BRI forum in Beijing, I made three specific suggestions. One, on the lines of the CPEC, New Delhi and Beijing should plan an India-China Economic Corridor. Two, New Delhi and Islamabad should plan an India-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which should be further extended to Afghanistan, Iran and beyond. Three, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor (along with other such initiatives) in the east should be linked to the above-mentioned three corridors in the west. Doing so will bring enormous benefits to India. It will provide modern infrastructure and economic connectivity to the entire SAARC region, which is the most populous and least integrated region in the world today. Many Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Chinese delegates I met in Beijing supported these ideas.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif himself made a pertinent point in his thoughtful speech at the Beijing summit. "Geo-economics should take precedence over geopolitics and geo-strategy," he said, adding, obviously with India in mind, that "the Belt and Road Initiative is open to both countries already participating in it, and those who are yet to participate."

For too long, successive governments in India have been parroting the seemingly patriotic but totally impractical claim that the only solution to the Kashmir issue is for Pakistan to hand over PoK to India. Similarly, ultra-nationalists in Pakistanis have been claiming that the only solution is for India to vacate its part of Kashmir. There is no chance in hell or heaven for either claim to ever come true. Even a new war, which is likely to be a catastrophic nuclear war, cannot give India and Pakistan what they want. Therefore, both sides now need to think innovatively and boldly and reject mindsets that have only produced hostility and confrontation so far.

Therefore, rather than simply, and vainly, opposing CPEC (and BRI by extension), India, along with China and Pakistan, should get into a constructive problem-solving mode. Some of the solutions to the problems we have inherited from the colonial past lie in the three countries coming together on the BRI platform.

I hope Modi shows the vision and courage to know that the Belt and Road Initiative is not a threat to India, but a historic opportunity.

(The writer was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He was India's unofficial delegate at the Belt and Road summit in Beijing. Comments are welcome at sudheenkulkarni@gmail.com)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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