Proposal for merging OBOR with India’s Act East Policy [AEP
When the Chinese Ambassador spoke of the OBOR what exactly did he have in mind? Does it mean that the OBOR initiative also includes the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor [CPEC] as an inseparable component? A clear understanding of what is on offer would assist in the study of the implications of the proposal and facilitate a response from India.
On 7 September 2013, President Xi Jinping while addressing the Nazarbayev University made the proposal for a new Silk Road Economic Belt and later while addressing the Indonesian Parliament on 3 October 2013, proposed the new 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. In time both these initiatives were amalgamated and became known as the ‘OBOR’ concept. The present Chinese leadership has done well to choose this name, the Silk Road, for no matter where located in the Asian heartland, the name would always find resonance. The Chinese believe that the OBOR provides a fresh way of thinking about regional and global cooperation and that by including both bilateral and multilateral cooperation in political, economic, cultural and other fields; a new paradigm would be created. Not without reason the OBOR concept takes care of China's over- capacity in steel and cement industries, as well as the desire for utilizing accumulated capital resources to further Chinese ambitions. Its scope would not be limited to Asia only, but certainly its success does, to some extent, depend on co-operation that the Chinese receive from important countries such as India. If this initiative of the Chinese authorities comes to fruition, it would link 65 countries and 4.4 billion people.
The Indian position has been that it has never been officially consulted on the OBOR. The assumption in India is that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor [CPEC], in which the Chinese have invested US$ 46 billion, is an important component part of the OBOR. In December 2014, EAM stated in Parliament that ‘the government was aware that China’s involvement in the construction of or assistance to infrastructure projects, including hydroelectric and nuclear projects, highways, motorways, export processing zones and economic corridors in Pakistan. Government has seen reports with regard to China and Pakistan being involved in infrastructure building activities in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir [POK] including construction of CPEC. Government has conveyed its concern to China about their activities and asked them to cease such activities’. While EAM was expressing her concern, a PTI report quoted the Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, as saying that ‘India has no worry over construction of the CPEC, as an economically strong Pakistan would bring stability to the region’.
This dichotomy of approach still remains to be reconciled for it seems that it stems from strategic ambiguity. If the past is any guide then in 1965 at Tashkent, India agreed to restore the 1949 Cease Fire Line [CFL] and withdrew from areas it occupied across the CFL in the 1965 conflict. Similarly the whole ethos of the Simla Agreement in 1972 was that Pakistan would accept and at an appropriate time convert the CFL [now LC] into an international border. In 1999 as well, India maintained the sanctity of the LC, never crossed the line militarily and forced Pakistani troops to withdraw back and beyond the LC. Thus it seems that India was quite prepared to give up its claims to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir [POK], if Pakistan accepted the LC as an international border. It is not in the public domain if any such concrete offer was ever made in writing to Pakistan. On the other hand, PM Modi recently reiterated in his 15th August Independence message that POK was indeed sovereign Indian Territory. The question is which of the two strategic modules would India prefer to pursue on long term basis?
Thus if the CPEC is indeed a vital component of OBOR, then it violates Indian Territory and for India to accept OBOR is a matter of national territorial integrity. On the question of the CPEC traversing POK, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying prevaricated on the issue and stated that ‘with regard to whether the economic corridor passes through [Pak] Kashmir, as far as I have learnt a joint committee for the construction of CPEC has been established and a second meeting has been held coinciding with the visit of the Pak President. I do not know if they have talked about whether the corridor will pass through this region [Pak-Kashmir], but I can tell you that we hope the Kashmir issue can be resolved through consultations and negotiations between India and Pakistan’. Clearly the Chinese were hoping to obfuscate the issue of POK and the fact that the CPEC passed through this region. Recent Chinese press reports have also taken the same view, calling upon India and Pakistan to settle the matter amongst themselves.
Therefore if India cannot join OBOR then the Chinese Ambassador’s proposal of joining the OBOR with India’s AEP clearly becomes a non –starter. Alternatively at present, India does not have sufficient economic resources or the political heft to put in place either a competitive or an alternative connectivity networks, on a scale that can offer an alternative option to the OBOR. In such circumstances would it be plausible to prudently study those components of the OBOR that may improve India’s own connectivity to major markets and just as India has chosen to join the AIIB and the NDB, also join those components of OBOR that suit India’s needs? For example, India’s proposal to build a road cum rail link to Central Asia through the Iranian port of Chahbahar could ostensibly be linked to the Chinese built routes in the Central Asian region to obtain access to both Central Asian as well as Russian destinations. Would the Chinese be prepared for allowing limited participation by India in OBOR as opposed to full participation?
If India’s resources are indeed limited then it automatically follows that strategically these must not be spread too thin as a part of its AEP. As the Indian Ocean area is strategically extremely important for India, it may be more imperative to deploy resources to build an Indian Ocean network of ports, with connecting highways and rail routes, such as the planned Mekong-Ganga corridor and the Sittwe-Mizoram multi-modal transport corridor. Plans to develop the deep water port on Sri Lanka’s eastern coast, Trincomalee, as a major energy and transport hub are still in limbo, despite the fact that the Chinese have gone ahead and built Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and expanded the Colombo port. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are strategically located in the Bay of Bengal and opposite the Malacca Straits and yet, India continues to treat these islands as a distant outposts rather than developing them as important commercial and transportation hubs. The idea of launching a Spice Route, Cotton Route and even a Mausam project are, at present, mostly rhetorical ripostes to China’s OBOR and to the CPEC. Much more therefore needs to be done. At some point in time strategic choices would have to be made. For the present it seems that strategic ambiguity would perhaps continue.