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Is China’s Belt and Road Initiative Strategic? Perhaps Not.

  • Abhijnan Rej
  • Sep, 2020
  • 110
  • India-China Relations

Beijing’s BRI experience with Modi’s India shows a lack of feel for shifting sands

Writing for the British think tank Chatham House, Lee Jones and Shahar Hameiri challenge a proposition that has become commonplace: China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is primarily a geostrategic instrument consciously designed to ensnare target countries into unsustainable levels of debt, and thereafter using that leverage to generate political influence. Jones and Hameiri contend that the BRI is far from being a grand strategic plan. “China’s development financing system is too fragmented and poorly coordinated to pursue detailed strategic objectives,” they write, basing their conclusions on detailed case studies of Chinese investments in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. When it comes to serious debt problems arising out of Chinese projects in both countries, Jones and Hameiri blame local elites as well as Western financial institutions.

Without litigating their conclusions one way or the other, the Chatham House report does raise an interesting question: To what extent have China’s BRI plans been the result of careful forethought and sensitivity to changing political realities in target countries?

India’s stance on the BRI might provide some answers.

From an Indian perspective, one of the most mystifying aspect of the BRI has been Beijing’s insistence that Kolkata is a node in the Maritime Silk Route, both before and - more strikingly after - India’s vocal rejection of the initiative. By way of refusing to participate in the inaugural Belt and Road Forum in 2017, the Indian foreign ministry issued an unusually blunt statement criticizing it. Despite this, an April 2019 map of the BRI included two other Indian ports in the run-up to the second edition of the forum, which India again boycotted. Strangely enough, that map - which was later removed - also included territory both countries dispute, as well as Chinese claims, as part of India.

This suggests lack of a coherent plan or, simply, confusion. None of that bodes well for an initiative that many have imputed with grand strategic value.

Or, it could be a case of wishful thinking based on China’s misreading of the changing contours of India’s foreign policy under Narendra Modi, partly driven by its own actions.

Since the beginning of India’s economic liberalization in the early 1990s, the country’s foreign policy has situated its role in India’s domestic economic transformation project. From this flowed a belief in the power of economic interdependence to manage disputes, and balance competitive impulses with cooperation.

When the Hindu-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) first came to power, it portrayed Pakistan and China as the reasons behind India’s decision to test nuclear weapons in 1998. It also fought a limited war with Pakistan the year after. And yet, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government also sought to bring about a lasting solution to the Kashmir dispute through talks, both with Pakistan as well as local separatists. To understand how extraordinarily conciliatory this approach really was, keep in mind that India and Pakistan almost went to war again while Vajpayee was in power, following a failed attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001.

The center-left secularist coalition that came to power after Vajpayee adopted a familiar trajectory. It pursued vigorous back channel negotiations with then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf around Kashmir. But strikingly, not only did it not respond militarily to the 2008 Mumbai attacks, afraid that any escalation could derail India’s economic prospects, but months after the attack, in July 2009 the Manmohan Singh government made generously concessionary remarks toward Pakistan through a joint statement in Egypt.

To be sure, the Singh government was far from naive. In its calculations, peace would simultaneously free India from being hyphenated with Pakistan in the eyes of the international community, as well as allow it to pursue economic power unperturbed. The latter would, in turn, assure India’s place in the world as a great power - this was the foundational assumption that shaped Singh’s neoliberal grand strategy. This strategy also presumed that cultivating economic interdependence with China would help push the larger strategic rivalry between the two countries to the back burner. Around that time and reflecting the mood in New Delhi, a prominent Indian analyst talked about the need to think “big enough to overcome borders” in order to bring about greater connectivity between Tibet and India.

When the BJP returned to power in 2014, beginning with inviting the Pakistani prime minister to Modi’s swearing-in ceremony (along with other regional leaders) in 2014 to an impromptu late-2015 visit to Pakistan, it looked...

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