Why India should join the BRI

M. Ramesh | Updated on: Jan 09, 2022

The BRI, which now touches 68 countries, is not without merits | Photo Credit: Kagenmi

India’s concerns over Pakistan involvement and the need for transparency from China can be strategically resolved

The Indian tradition of deifying guests is captured in the three famous words from Taittriya Upanishad: “ athithi devo bhava ”, meaning, “be the one for whom guest is God”. With such a tradition, can India let President Xi Jinping return home empty handed?

Here is a suggestion for a good gift to the visiting dignitary: an announcement that India will join a programme that is close to his heart — the Belt and Road Initiative. Truly, the BRI to India is a coin with same face on both sides. Staying away from it serves India no purpose, but joining in is pretty useful.

Why shouldn’t India join the BRI? There are only two responses to this from the Indian side. One, a part of it runs through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir; and two, most of the BRI projects lack transparency in funding. Both, obviously, are fair points.

However, there is little that India can do about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor road passing through PoK. China has only ignored India’s objections with undisguised disdain. This is perhaps more than an assertion of might — China probably needs that road, as it is an easier route from the Middle East to its western provinces of Xinjiang, Tibet, Qinghai and Gansu.

A more pragmatic way of approaching the issue is to offer China an alternative (or additional) route — say, Kandla to Kashgar. Or, just extend the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor to Kashgar. Economically, a route via India would obviously enjoy higher traffic and hence be more worthwhile. You don’t like a China road going through PoK? Sweet revenge would be to make the road empty by letting Chinese goods through India. Strategically, such a transport corridor through India would weaken Pakistan’s bargaining position with China. As it is, several CPEC projects have a cloud hanging over them, the Pakistanis having realised that CPEC is no river of milk and honey, but rather a millstone around the neck. As Pakistani journalist Adnan Aamir wrote in chinausfocus.com , the country’s rapprochement with the US is seen as a shift away from the CPEC and China, understandably, is none too happy about this. What better timing available for India to step into the BRI?

That brings us to another objection of India — the lack of transparency or even China-skewed funding. Sri Lanka’s experience in almost having lost sovereignty over the Chinese-built port of Humbantota — a ghost port today — weighing fresh on the Indian mind, the suspicion over Chinese accounts book is well-founded. But then, nobody prevents India from being a smart negotiator. Why should India beam over a Japanese-funded Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train project but reject a Chinese proposal to build a hi-speed rail between Kolkata and Kunming?

While declining China’s invitation to participate in the first BRI summit in Beijing in May 2017, India had noted that “connectivity initiatives must follow principles of financial responsibility to avoid projects that would create unsustainable debt burden for communities.” Fair enough, but what prevents India from ensuring such principles (at least) when it comes to Indian projects?

The BRI, which now touches 68 countries, is not without merits. In a recent report, the World Bank has observed that trade could grow between 2.8-9.7 per cent for these “corridor economies”. There are also some examples of highly successful projects — such as the Greek port of Piraeus and the Khorgos-Almaty road improvement project.

Thus, strategically or economically, India joining the BRI makes eminent sense. To decapitate a rival, hug him tight. Let athithi Xi return home happy.

Published on October 10, 2019
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