China is on the verge of completing a grand project, that, in theory, revives the Silk Road that connected East Asia to West Asia and Europe. The main aim of this initiative is to develop infrastructure and make trade easier across this trans-continental route.
Even though there are serious doubts about the other strategic implications of this route and China’s dominance over it, it is also no lie that this will reduce the costs of manufacturing and transporting goods for the member countries. But, it is likely that Chinese products will dominate the outflow of goods. Moreover, investments in infrastructure will be another source for China’s vast foreign-exchange reserves, most of which are currently in low-interest-bearing American government securities. This scepticism was made clear in the Belt and Road Forum by the Western and European nations.
However, India chose to skip the event and issued a rather powerful statement, which was contradictory to the usual language of Indian neutrality and officialdom. The report mentioned many criteria that infrastructure projects must meet, but the most significant statement was: “Connectivity projects must be pursued in a manner that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Therefore, the report implies that the Belt and Road projects do not meet the criteria. The report is obviously referring to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a route that will connect the western provinces of China to the Gwadar Port in Pakistan, thereby making it easier for these provinces to obtain oil from the deep-sea port. And this route passes right through Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK), which is majorly considered to be a disputed territory.
China’s response to these claims have been rather logical but they have stuck to their stance. The Chinese state media and government officials have asked India to join the initiative, as it will bring economic benefits to India. China has maintained a rather snobbish attitude towards India’s protests as they have not even regarded India’s concerns – and perhaps rightly so, since China believes that India is not a big part of the grander picture of regional domination they envisioned.
China also claims that India is pushing itself into a corner by not attending the forum, as 57 other countries have sent their representatives. Moreover, most countries in the region have come to an agreement and are moving closer to China. China has tried to aggrandise this project as some kind of tool to help developing countries in Asia.
In a way, this has helped them to get international approval and even the support of the US President. Hence, India’s opposition to this has antagonised it, in the eyes of the US.
Evidently, India’s issuance of a strong statement wasn’t enough for China to consider India’s interests. So, what can India do?
It may not be widely known and is definitely not as popular as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – but India has its own cross continental projects, namely the International North South Transport Corridor, which connects India, Iran, Central Asia, West Asia and Russia, while conveniently skipping Pakistan on the way. The other project is the ITI-DKD-Y corridor – a railway route that will connect Bangladesh to Turkey.
The International North South Transport Corridor has already had a dry run and it is proven to have significantly reduced the cost of transport by $2500 for every 15 tonnes of goods transported. This initiative plans to utilise the Chabahar Port in Iran. India had already signed an agreement with Iran on this. The Bandar Abbas Port is another significant port on this route. These ports play an important role in linking sea routes with freight routes. Japan is also expected to join these infrastructure projects, besides also partnering with India in infrastructure development projects in East Africa.
These projects show that India is not against international connectivity and the formation of trade routes, despite its strong opposition to the BRI. These projects may not be as big as the BRI, but they definitely serve as examples of India being a strong proponent of and seeking free trade.
Taking into account the complex political scene in India, it is unlikely that these projects will ever get the attention and support from the media and political parties to rival the BRI. But, it is clear that the BRI will be troublesome to India. If India does not join it, then it will be isolated. If it does join, it will have to agree with China.
So, the only plausible solution is to make something which can rival the BRI. The Indian government has not gone and announced a rival trans-continental route, because if it does make such a promise, it will require lots of funds which India may not be able to provide. This could be the reason why they are silently building routes, whenever they can – and that is about the only thing that India can do, right now.