The guiding principle of NAFTA that “good trade makes for good neighbours” is extremely apt as the motto for the BRI as well because common prosperity is a far more effective tool in terms of bonding. The countries that join BRI have for too long countenanced sovereignty issues, which have not allowed them to develop their potential for prosperity and development.
Increased trade and free movement of people, goods, and ideas. The initiative will, it is hoped, bring about a dramatic change in how these societies and economies have hitherto operated. The unfortunate traits that run through most of the countries in the region, like restrictive or ill-informed civil society, conservative social and political regimes, glaring disparity of wealth within the social strata, state-driven inefficient economies where private enterprise has not been allowed to bloom have impeded their evolution as developed societies.
The BRI holds out a bright promise of loosening such restrictions by encouraging free flow of ideas, wealth and people. It is an empirical truism that if such flows are unimpeded, distributional justice is achieved sooner rather than later.
Having dwelt on the possible benefits that might be expected from BRI, we need to consider the criticisms levelled at the enterprise. For the past few decades, China has actively projected its capabilities as one befitting that of a regional hegemon. It has very consciously built up its capabilities in a way that has been variously labelled as ‘expansionist and neo-imperialistic’.
Informed by a sense of its long history as a civilisational nation, China has made no bones about its ambition to be regarded as a world power. Of late, China has made overt efforts to match up to the US, as in the current global milieu, it considers that country to be its only natural competitor. Many contend that China is ‘punching above its weight’, even the US is now defining its foreign policy in a way that betrays its concern about how fast China is gaining strategic influence in global affairs.
The near obsessive desire of the Han mindset to always negotiate from a position of dominance has given Chinese foreign policy a very aggressive imprint, and there is no reason or indication to believe that it will be different in the near future. Hence, there should be no doubt that BRI is an essay towards securing Chinese strategic interests and project Chinese influence.
Wary of its experience in the initial years of its existence of being surrounded by two superpowers and still trying to maintain its own unique identity, China would do anything to foreclose the option or space for any power to threaten what it perceives as its ‘natural pre-eminent position’ in Asia and the Eastern hemisphere. Thus, the BRI is, as of now, a Chinese artifice to secure a substantial buffer around its area of influence, in strategic, economic, political and cultural terms.
BRI will ensure that a massive portion of the world’s population will be within the influence of China’s worldview, and their crucial interests would be intermeshed within the overarching canopy of its strategic pursuits. Just like the US could hitherto exercise its dominance by spreading its interests, free market ideology and political liberalism by making most countries of the world identify with it, China now seeks an ‘area of influence’ in the BRI region.
The other major reason for launching such a gargantuan infrastructure led initiative is far more immediate for Chinese interests. For almost a decade, China has led the world in the manufacturing sector, building up its industrial capabilities to a stupendous level. With the present recessionary trends in the world economy, China is now saddled with an idle stock of capital creative capacity. This is now seriously impacting its own economy, with a debt servicing burden of almost 200 per cent of its GDP.
Hence, what better way to utilise such idle captive capacity than to take up something like the BRI! In its present form, the BRI is substantially funded by China, with Chinese firms and banks taking up most of the financial and economic space. The allegations that China is effectively practising ‘debt trap’ diplomacy by creating client states, which will be hostage to the aid taken from it, are not wholly unfounded. The experience of Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Myanmar can, and are, widely cited to substantiate these charges.
India has been one of the most vociferous opponents of the BRI since the idea was first mooted. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, running across the area of occupied Kashmir, provides India with the official line for opposing the initiative, as being in violation of the international laws relating to territorial sovereignty. India has always maintained that the entire geographical expanse of Kashmir belongs to it, irrespective of the de facto position of one-third of Kashmir being under Pakistan’s occupation.
India’s opposition to the BRI also rests on concerns of Chinese encirclement of the Indian Ocean waters, China’s continued support, especially in defence matters, to Pakistan, and increasing Chinese involvement in the affairs of India’s immediate neighbours. The unsettled issues of the McMohan Line, Chine’s persistent claims on Tawang and intermittent skirmishes along a disputed border have never really allowed relations between the two countries to settle on a platform of mutual trust.
As the second largest entity in Asia and the largest functioning democracy, India has always felt a legitimate claim to preeminence in the continent, and especially in the Indian subcontinent. Till about 10 to 15 years ago, India and China were comparable economies and middle power states on the global stage. But in the last decade, China has moved forward in almost every indicator, except political freedom.
The advantage it enjoys over India in terms of technology, defence, economic and external influence, appears almost insurmountable. Even though it is a palpable phenomenon, the Indian mainstream has not been able to quite reconcile itself to the fact that we are no longer in the same league. It is mostly out of this willful cognitive dissonance of the political establishment that we are perhaps looking out through blinders as far as the BRI is concerned.
It is time India recognises that BRI is happening and will escalate further, irrespective of our opposition to it. What shape it takes, is something that India can still have a substantial say in, were it to join the initiative. Sulking in the sidelines is not an option. The choice lies between an ineffectual isolationism, with India staying out of the BRI and eventually being surrounded by a very potent sphere of Chinese influence, or as pragmatism suggests, join the BRI on terms that are realistically honourable, and try to shape the initiative to its own advantage.
As things stand, PoK will not be reverted to India’s possession. But joining the BRI would effectively give India access to the region. India also stands to gain in terms of high-end infrastructure, access to land routes to Central Asia and a chance to let our rather competent private sector join in the massive endeavour. The most compelling reason for India to join in the initiative is precisely to counter Chinese influence over the whole idea. No other country has the critical mass to do that and if India were to stay out, the BRI will inevitably be a uniquely Chinese project…of, by and for China.
It is imperative, both for India’s national interest and the time-honoured concept of ‘balance of power’, that an initiative with such massive potential influence as the BRI is not allowed to be dictated by one country. Our policy establishment should realise that there is no dishonour in heeding the dictates of the present, if we are to plan for the future. We should accept the initiative, not with cynical resignation at the behest of a powerful adversary, but rather with bold resolution, to endeavour on equal terms with a resourceful neighbour, for furthering our national interest and to actually realise the stated aims of the idea.
The writer is an IAS officer currently posted as Joint Secretary, Dept of Food Processing Industries & Horticulture, Govt of West Bengal. The views are personal and not the government’s.