To present BRI to the global community, and to demonstrate large-scale international participation in it, Chinese President Xi Jinping will be hosting a two-day Belt and Road Forum (BRF) in Beijing next week from May 14-15. The Chinese capital has been spruced up to welcome nearly 30 heads of state and government, besides representatives of over 100 countries.
However, one country will draw pointed attention because of its absence. Unless Prime Minister Narendra Modi changes his mind, there will be no official Indian participation in BRF. (I will be an unofficial Indian representative in the Forum.)
If India chooses to stay away from BRI, it would be a highly short-sighted and self-defeating decision. BRI's enormous benefits for India are self-evident. One, if India shows imagination and ambition, it has an opportunity to participate, on an equal footing with China, in infrastructure and economic connectivity projects to integrate South Asia, which is today one of the least integrated regions in the world. Two, beyond South Asia, India and Indian businesses would have opportunities to participate in BRI projects in Asia, Africa and Europe. Three, India's "Act East" policy would get a big boost if India joined BRI. For example, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor has the potential to act as a strong catalyst for the socio-economic development of eastern and north-eastern India (which is relatively under-developed), besides opening up India to countries in South-East Asia and to regions in southern China.
Four, India has already joined the China-promoted Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a new multilateral financial institution which will fund several mega-projects under BRI. Indeed, India is the second largest shareholder in AIIB. Therefore, India's participation in AIIB, and non-participation in BRI (which is where the real opportunities and benefits lie) is incongruent, to say the least.
Lastly, India should know that every single neighbour of ours in SAARC, and also in the extended neighbourhood of South-East Asia, West Asia and Central Asia, has joined BRI. Therefore, strangely, India seems to have chosen an option of self-isolation.
True, India has some legitimate concerns over BRI. The most important of them pertains to the 3,000-km-long China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and links Kashgar in China to the Gwadar port in Pakistan. China - indeed, China along with Pakistan - ought to have held proper consultations with India before unveiling CPEC. Issues of territorial sovereignty cannot be trifled with in this manner. China certainly would not take it lightly if its own sovereign claims were similarly disregarded by others.
Apparently, China, which is keen on India joining BRI, is willing to make amends on this matter. In the first-ever comprehensive exposition of BRI to Indian audiences at a conference organized by the Observer Research Foundation Mumbai last month, Liu Jinsong, China's deputy chief of mission in its embassy in India, said, "If this (CPEC passing through a part of PoK) is the only reason that affects Indian friends' willingness to join the Belt and Road Initiative, this concern could be addressed." This is a significant statement. It indicates China's willingness to have serious consultations with India on CPEC if New Delhi shows willingness to join BRI.
A survey of Indian opinions on BRI shows that some people are opposing BRI on the grounds that it poses a threat to India's national security. Without going into the merits or demerits of this argument, one can pose two counter-questions: Would not our national security be enhanced if India became economically stronger? And would India become economically stronger by going solo or by strengthening the bonds of economic cooperation, both in Asia and beyond?
Differences and problems are bound to crop up when many countries come together to cooperate in common projects. Not only India, but even countries that have already joined BRI have some differences with China (the Philippines being a good example). Existence of differences does not, and should not, mean the end of the road for cooperation between India and China. Throughout history, dialogue, based on mutual trust and mutual respect, has built roads of understanding, clearing away the thicket of disagreements and suspicions. When potential benefits far outweigh real or imagined problems, the case for cooperation becomes compelling.
Therefore, India must not lose sight of the Big Picture while deciding on BRI. Moreover, India should know that something as ambitious and expansive as BRI cannot be exclusively driven by China alone. By its very nature, it has to become more multilateral, participative and democratic as it evolves. While China must address India's concerns over CPEC, India too would do well to holistically see which option would serve its national interests better - by joining BRI or by staying away and thereby depriving itself of the benefits and opportunities BRI brings.
I strongly think that India, China and Pakistan should explore bold and innovative solutions that guarantee win-win gains for our three countries and for many others in South Asia and beyond. Here are three specific ideas.
One, just as China and Pakistan have come together to launch CPEC (in which China is investing over 50 billion USD, India and China should unveil ICEC (India-China Economic Corridor), linking western China to northern and western India. Simultaneously, India and Pakistan should plan IPEC (India-Pakistan Economic Corridor). These three corridors should be suitably interconnected. In other words, CPEC should be extended to India.
Meeting of minds between India and Pakistan is, of course, crucial for this interconnection to happen. However, this will become a lot easier if the minds of India and China meet on BRI. This also shows how China could potentially play a helpful role in India-Pakistan normalization, including in finding an amicable solution to the Kashmir issue.
The other benefit of India-Pakistan normalization is that it would remove the obstacles in the path of implementation of two major energy cooperation projects: the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India TAPI) gas pipeline, both of which are critical for India's energy security in the future.
Two, India and China should begin expeditious implementation of BCIM in cooperation with Bangladesh and Myanmar. Simultaneously, other regional cooperation initiatives such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), which brings together Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal, should be promoted speedily. India and China should also cooperate under BRI in ways that provide India greater access to ASEAN countries. All these initiatives will put substance into India's "Act East" policy, the crucial point here being that India and China should cooperate with, and not confront, each other in this region.
Three, in another bold and visionary move, BCIM and CPEC (as extended to India) should be connected through a corridor running all the way through north India, and linked to India's north-south transport corridor. Furthermore, it should be linked to Afghanistan and Iran. This will constitute comprehensive infrastructural and economic integration of South Asia, and integration of South Asia with South-East Asia on the one hand, and with West Asia and Central Asia on the other.
A very senior Chinese politician who has dealt with India extensively (I cannot name him because of the condition of confidentiality of our conversation) said to me in Beijing, "The Belt and Road Initiative provides an opportunity for India and China to enlarge the pie of common interests and common benefits. When the pie of common interests and common benefits becomes bigger, our differences will naturally become smaller."
Prime Minister Modi would do well to heed these words and join the Belt and Road Initiative. Joining BRI does not mean declaring that India has no more differences with China. But it does mean India and China have embarked on a road that will reduce their differences and promise a better future for both.
(The writer was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Comments are welcome at email@example.com)
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