As the glitter of the recent One Belt, One Road (OBOR) spectacle in Beijing wears off, some stark, yet concealed, assertions about the project seem to be tumbling out, as the Dawn has reported. This is relevant to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The world viewed the multi-layered Belt and Road projects as a stimulus for China’s domestic economy as much as a quest for President Xi’s “China dream”, indeed a rise to pre-eminence. India on its part has protested against OBOR’s lack of transparency, questionable economics, negative impact on communities, and for arrogantly ignoring India’s core concern of sovereignty while planning projects across the Gilgit-Baltistan. However sensitive President Xi is about “one China”, he appears to be remarkably insensitive towards “one India”.
Now is the time for India to give an impetus to its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. All around India, China shares land borders with five SAARC countries, looks over the Chicken’s Neck at a sixth, and has a long border with Myanmar. China has for long wanted to fill the South Asian space that nature has gifted to India. Viewing Nepal and Pakistan to be critically important for its security and territorial integrity in Xinjiang and Tibet, it has been propping up Pakistan financially and strategically, to make things difficult for India. By hyphenating India with Pakistan, Beijing is anxious to ensure that India never becomes equal to China in the global system. In Nepal, often referred to as “the yam between two boulders”, China has often tried to intrude into its affairs, political and developmental.
A trans-continental rail connectivity is China’s unique stratagem of statecraft. It is constructing a railway network around India’s “neck”. Be it road or rail links along and inside Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan, its connectivity initiatives are geared towards India’s encirclement. To that can be added its ‘String of Pearls’ strategy which envisages a port in southern Sri Lanka’s Hambantota, the Kyaukpyu deep sea port on Myanmar’s Arakan coast, the Gwadar port in Balochistan. It has pledged support for constructing a deep-water port in Chittagong.
China is trying to attract India’s ring of neighbours. India is perceived more like a poor Lazarus. Having galloped at an average annual growth rate at around 10 per cent since 1991, China today boasts a $10.3 trillion GDP (India: $2 trillion), its exports in 2015 at $2.2 trillion (India: $310 billion), and imports at $1.6 trillion (India: $450 billion). The world’s largest exporting country, having overtaken Germany, it has built a war chest worth $3.2 trillion of foreign exchange (India: $366 billion). True, inscrutable China speaks little; India is voluble. They speak in one voice; we in a babel of tongues. We procrastinate till next year and beyond; they act today. India is seen as chugging along, metaphorically, with a bullock-cart mentality; China has zipped ahead like a Formula One racing car. The tortoisehare fable is no longer valid. That India has no deep pockets is understandable; what is inexcusable is its bureaucratic sloth and inertia. The whole machine here moves slovenly; it doesn’t deliver on promises made at the highest levels.
Consider how India habitually drags its feet on connectivity projects for the North-east with the mainland via Bangladesh and Myanmar. Bangladesh is critically important for regional connectivity for Nepal, Bhutan and India, as well as for linking South Asia and South-east Asia by road and rail. Take the missing rail link between Agartala on the Indian side and the Akhaura rail-head in Bangladesh, a mere 15 km stretch. During her state visit to India in January 2010, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had signed an agreement on its construction. But it was only on 31 July last year that Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu, joined by his Bangladesh counterpart Mohammed Mazibul Hoque, laid the foundation for this stretch in Agartala. After the World Bank pulled out of the $3b Padma Bridge four years ago, India could have stepped in not least because Bangladesh had indicated its keen interest. China stepped in with an offer to complete the bridge on BOT terms, extending the supplier’s credit of $2billion.
Myanmar is the only ASEAN country which shares a land border with India. For long, India has spoken in terms of improving road and rail connections and the building of a new port on Myanmar’s Arakan coast, but its slothful style of functioning has discouraged neighbours. The Kaladan multimodal transit transport project has since 2008 had to contend with unacceptable time and cost overruns. This combination of road and riverine transport projects would give the landlocked North-east access to the Indian Ocean and save a distance of about 625 km from the circuitous route through Assam and Siliguri corridor.
India had once eloquently acclaimed a grand strategy project off the Persian Gulf, 75 km from Gwadar. Chabahar port in southeastern Iran was first considered during former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami’s visit to New Delhi in January 2003. It provides linkage via an Iranianbuilt road to the western Afghan border connected to the ZaranjDelaram road that India has built in Afghanistan. As the Chabahar Free Zone CEO Abdolrahim Kordi has lamented: “It is all on paper and nothing on the ground”.Questions have been raised as to why India has dithered over a mere 18 km rail link for Biratnagar in Nepal, a 15 km line for Bhairahwa, and reconstruction of JaynagarBijalpura line, and the 18 km Hashimara-Phueontsholing line in Bhutan. Instead of whining at China’s initiative to extend its rail network to Kathmandu, India could well deliberate with Nepal, which ten years ago had recommended a 174 km rail line to be built, connecting Birgunj with Kathmandu at an estimated cost of NRs 2,965 crore.
Besides such projects with bilateral economic and social implications, India needs to work for the fruition of important projects for regional/subregional integration such as the motor vehicle agreement, involving Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal; address the infrastructural deficiency in its east and North-east for the BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar) corridor; the 1,360 km India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway.
India would need to generate confidence for the willing participation of countries, avoiding pitfalls that bedevil the countries that stand to benefit from the OBOR project. The $ 7b cost of the China-Laos railway exceeds half of Laos’s GDP. Pakistan is estimated to annually repay $ 5b from 2022. Recall the political and social discontent in Central Asian countries where loans of $10b for Kazakhstan, $4b for Turkmenistan, and $10b for SCO members had enjoined upon the debtors provisions like “buy China” and “employ Chinese”. A debt to equity swap affords a questionable option to China owning the strategic assets. Sri Lanka has witnessed protests over the port at Hambantota, in which China had invested. With the ongoing “Yunnanisation” of northern Myanmar, its forests in north and east chopped down, jade mines of the Kachin Hills denuded, China is termed “a plundering behemoth”. In 2011 Myanmar suspended work on a Chinesefinanced dam at Myitsone. There have been protests in GilgitBaltistan and Balochistan against “Chinese imperialism”.
Geographically, India commands the centre-stage in South Asia, with 51 per cent of the region’s surface area, 71 per cent of the population, and 40 per cent of GDP. Most of its neighbours share borders not only with it, also in most cases with one more country in the region. They perforce depend on India for region-wide connectivity. Not as a big brother but an elder brother, it devolves on India to carry forward the process of improving connectivity in the region with understanding, vigour and speed.