Imagine this: You have a home. Your neighbour on the left snatches your room by force. Then, the neighbour on the right, a chum of the neighbour on the left, paints the walls of the illegally occupied room. And to celebrate his wonderful feat, the neighbour on the right decks up his own home with flowers and festoons and throws a gala. Then, with a mischievous smile, the neighbour on the right invites you to join the fun.
Would you attend?
China is doing something as audacious as this by inviting India to the Belt and Road Forum (Barf) summit in Beijing on 14-15 May.
With two days to go for the event, India hasn’t confirmed it will attend—despite China’s insistence that it should—India is unlikely to attend, unless it chooses to send an official representative at the last minute, as a token.
The Indian opposition to the summit is understandable.
Last year, China had the temerity to kick off a series of projects in Pakistan, as well as Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, as part of the US $ 57 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (Cpec). This corridor is part of China’s One Belt One Road (Obor) initiative, a pet global infrastructure dream of president Xi Jinping that takes in its sweep Asia, Africa and Europe. China has called the Barf summit to discuss raise a toast to Obor.
Pardon me for the flurry of bewildering names and acronyms. Blame the Chinese penchant for arcane terms designed to inspire awe, except that the unsavoury meaning of the word barf perhaps did not occur to Beijing’s Mandarin-English translators.
China is miffed that India, an important country in the region, should be sulking about attending a summit called to talk about something as grandiose as Obor.
Leaders of 29 countries, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and officials many other nations are travelling to Beijing to discuss Obor, and China hopes that more than 50 agreements will be signed on transportation, energy and communications projects.
Along with India, Japan is staying away from Barf while the US is likely to send a delegation after initial hesitation.
Obor can be confusing. It’s neither an organisation nor a single project. It seeks to “connect” Asia with Europe and even Africa, on the way, with a network of roads, ports, railways and other infrastructure projects.
It’s a concept that Xi Jinping came up with in late 2013, a year after he took over, and he first called it “a silk road economic belt.” He spoke of the revival of the Silk Road, the ancient network of routes that traders in Asia and Europe had taken some two thousand years ago. Obor’s new connectivity includes both land and sea routes: ‘Belt’ is maritime, while the ‘road’ is overland.
A Reuters report quotes Chinese officials as saying that between 2014 and 2016, its businesses signed projects worth $ 304.9 billion in belt and road countries.
The Economist says by financing around US $150 billion of infrastructure spending a year in countries to China’s south and west, Xi hopes to create “new markets for Chinese firms and new spheres of influence for his government”.
China insists that Obor is the only way to speed up the world’s slowing economies. But analysts see it as China’s economic tool aimed at spreading its influence across continents and stretching its military capabilities beyond its own borders and maritime boundaries.
Xi aims to establish a Eurasian trade identity, and keeping the US out. Obor has become so integral to his foreign policy that any Chinese raising as much as an eyebrow against it runs the risk of being tossed into the nearest jail.
On 6 May, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley told the media in Tokyo where he was on a visit: “… I have no hesitation in saying we have some serious reservations about it (Obor), because of sovereignty issues.” These “issues” were too well-known to the world for Jaitley to elaborate.
The chief issue for India, of course, is Cpec, the Pakistan arm of Obor. India should not only boycott the Beijing show because of it but must continue to raise serious objections to Obor.
With a network of roads, highways, railways, power and other infrastructure projects, Cpec extends from Kashgar in China’s Xinxiang to the Gwadar port in Balochistan. Pakistan gets improved infrastructure but for China, it means killing many birds with one stone.
Cpec helps Chinese exports reach Europe and Africa faster. And it also means multiple military spin-offs. On land, Cpec will provide China with more than enough excuses to have a large presence in sensitive areas not far from the Indian border. And easy access to a port of Arabian Sea brings a bonanza of strategic benefits to the Chinese navy.
While those in Kashmir who want to be part of Pakistan welcome it, those who want an independent Kashmir detest it. They find that Pakistan and China are conspiring to shatter their dream of independence.
Besides, there is significant opposition to Cpec in Gilgit-Baltistan, once part of the Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir.
Says Shabir Choudhry, the Kashmir-born director of London-based Institute of Kashmir Affairs inan article: “There are reports that land is acquired illegally and without paying any compensation to the local people for the Cpec projects; and this is adding to the resentment of the suffering people. Sad thing is, if people complain or protest against this injustice, they are accused of being anti-Pakistan and agents of India. Some unfortunate people are facing sedition charges.”
And those fighting for the independence of Balochistan are upset that Cpec gives Pakistan a ruse to increase its armed presence, even if it’s meant to protect the new projects.
The Cpec infrastructure projects are not coming cheap to Pakistan. Most of the Chinese money pouring into Pakistan is coming as high-interest loans.
Says Pakistan’s leading daily Dawn in a recent editorial: “There is a fear lurking in the shadows of Cpec that a time will soon come when the Chinese will start dictating terms and priorities rather than negotiating them. As an increasing number of Chinese enterprises acquire stakes in Pakistan’s economy, and as the government takes out more and more loans from Chinese state-owned banks for balance of payments support, the space to negotiate and protect our own interests diminishes.”
Such fears also exist in other small countries where Obor projects are either underway or are being proposed. But leaders of many cash-starved small nations are signing up either to improve their infrastructure or to win over people with development.
PriceWaterhouseCoopers says: “There are many challenges for China and the other countries involved, just some of which are rough terrain, persistent regional conflicts, thriving corruption and skepticism amongst various countries towards China and its intentions. The sheer amount and variation of challenges will make the realisation of the belt and roads initiative a very complex endeavour.”
For India, it’s a question of sovereignty, and having hostile Chinese presence on all sides instead of just one.