On the eve of China's biggest foreign policy manoeuvre in years, India came out in open opposition against Beijing's One Belt, One Road forum, reminding it that no country could accept a project that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity. “No country can accept this,“ the ministry of external affairs said ahead of the Beijing OBOR meet.
India has strong objections to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and attending the meet will be as good as accepting the Pakistani and Chinese positions on Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir being “northern Pakistan“. In a strongly-worded statement on the eve of the event, which will see participation of more than 60 countries and 30 heads of state, India escalated its opposition to OBOR, suggesting the project was little more than a colonial enterprise, leaving debt and broken communities in its wake. India's statement comes as a splash of cold water to Xi Jinping's biggest foreign policy outreach, and puts paid to any prospect of bilateral ties improving during the rest of Modi's tenure. The MEA said, “We are of the firm belief that connectivity initiatives must be based on universally recognised norms, good governance, rule of law, openness, transparency and equality . The initiatives must follow principles of financial responsibility to avoid projects that will create unsustainable debt burden for communities.The projects must be pursued in a way that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity.“ Structural mis-alignments of OBOR have been detailed by observers. Sri Lanka is a big example, where an unviable Hambantota port project has left Colombo reeling under an $8 billion debt burden. Pakistan may be headed in the same direction; Laos is trying to renegotiate a railway project, Myanmar has asked for its own renegotiation; a Belgrade-Budapest railway line to be built by China is under investigation by the EU.
Chinese infrastructure projects in foreign countries are typically executed by the state-owned enterprises, while financing programmes that initially appear attractive sour quickly .
India's savage takedown of OBOR comes even as the US, one of the last holdouts, confirmed its attendance at the forum in the form of Matt Pottinger, a director in the White House. Japan, India's other strategic partner, is sending Toshihiro Nikai, head of ruling LDP and ex-prime minister Yukio Hatoyama. Confirming that India had received an invitation to participate in the 6 separate forums that China was organising as part of the Belt and Road Forum, the MEA said, “We have been urging China to engage in a meaningful dialogue. We are awaiting a positive response from the Chinese side.“ Officials said India had for the past few years repeatedly asked China for consultations on OBOR without any success.
India's statement puts paid to any prospect of bilateral ties improving during the rest of Modi's tenure as it trashes Xi Jinping's biggest foreign policy outreach. Xi has given this summit top billing, almost as a coming out party for himself as the world's latest globalisation guru at a time when the western world appears to be in retreat.
Under the ` Act East' policy, the MEA spokesperson said, “We are pursuing the Trilateral Highway project; under our `Neighbourhood First' policy we are developing multimodal linkages with Myanmar and Bangladesh; under our `Go West' strategy , we are engaged with Iran on Chabahar Port and with Iran and other partners in Central Asia on International North South Transport Corridor. BBIN initiative is aimed at enhancing logistics efficiencies in the South Asian region.“
The Cabinet also gave nod to India's accession to the UNled TIR Convention in March, which will give Indian traders access to “fast, easy , reliable and hassle free international system for movement of goods by road or multimodal means across territories.“
India will stand out with its resolute opposition to China's OBOR by being the significant absentee at the now famous Belt and Road forum which opens in Beijing on Sunday. Despite the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi's public assertion and virtual threats by its diplomats to "isolate" India, the Modi government has refused to budge, with only a handful of scholars attending the forum.
If India had actually agreed to be present, India believes it would have weakened its own case on sovereignty on Gilgit-Baltistan and PoK, because it would be tantamount to accepting the Chinese and Pakistani position of PoK/Gilgit-Baltistan being "northern Pakistan". More important, it would fly in the face of India's sustained protests against China-Pakistan collaboration on PoK since at least 1963.
As recently as April 2017, India lodged a strong protest when a vocational university in Suzhou signed an agreement with Gilgit-Baltistan to set up a CPEC Centre. Just weeks earlier, in March, India protested when China launched a website called yidaiyilu.gov.cn ('yidaiyilu' is OBOR in Chinese) where Gilgit-Baltistan was shown as part of Pakistan, a position that even Pakistan's constitution does not make. (The website was subsequently taken down). India also protested when the "chief minister" of Gilgit-Baltistan visited Xinjiang, or when Chinese media reported joint patrols in PoK.
The Chinese ambassador Luo Zhaohui addressing a think tank in Delhi last week said, "China and India had successful experience of de-linking sovereignty disputes with bilateral relations before. In history, we have had close cooperation along the Silk Road. Why shouldn't we support this kind of cooperation today?" The Chinese suggestion by diplomats and scholars is the same: India did not object when the Karakoram Highway was built, or when other China-Pakistan projects have happened especially in PoK. Why is India being difficult now?
India has actually been protesting diplomatically against China-Pakistan cooperation since 1961, although India has not yet made its opposition military. The first Indian demarche was served to the then vice foreign minister Geng Biao in July, 1961, where India's ambassador to China G. Parthasarathi, on his last day said sharply, "Pakistan has no borders with China .. We know about your dispatching sentinels to border areas, but if it goes beyond that, if you state that you are willing to consider negotiating borders with Pakistan, there will be sharp reaction on India's part. Under those circumstances, India cannot be blamed for the consequences that occur."
In 1969, India hotly protested Chinese assistance to Pakistan to build the Karakoram Highway in a demarche issued on June 25: "Chinese assistance to Pakistan to construct highways in the portion of Indian territory under the illegal occupation of Pakistan is a fresh step taken by the People's Republic of China to further aggravate Sino-Indian relations. The consequences of such Chinese actions, which can only serve to bring about further worsening in India-China relations, are to be borne entirely by the government of the Peoples Republic of China."
In 1983, India once again protested when the Khunjerab Pass was opened to civilian traffic, saying neither China nor Pakistan had any locus standi on this part of India. These protests continued when the Pass was opened to international tourists in 1986 and in 1993 when Pakistan and Xinjiang signed an MOU on border trade. Former foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee gave an earful to Yang Jiechi in September 2008 about Musharraf's pact with China on building road and communication in PoK, railway line across the Khunjerab Pass, as well as in 2010 when reports surfaced about China sending 11,000 troops to Gilgit-Baltistan.
After 2014, Sushma Swaraj, PM Narendra Modi and NSA Ajit Doval have all raised objections to Chinese activities in PoK, specifically asking China to respect a "one-India" policy. After 2013, India has included CPEC as central to its objections to China.
Two aspects stand out in sharp relief, first, that India has not stopped protesting, and second, that China has not paid the slightest heed to India's objections. China's approach in India's neighborhood is exactly the same as it is in the South China Sea - ignore protests and continue to change the ground reality bit by bit. India should be criticized for not taking its objections beyond diplomatic demarches. But for India to attend the Belt & Road forum would be impossible in the circumstances.