India’s approach towards BRI: Need for pragmatism

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Recently, China’s consular general in Kolkata, Ma Zhanwu, while speaking at a function, proposed a bullet train connecting Kunming (in China’s Yunnan Province) with Kolkata, the capital of India’s eastern state of West Bengal. Said Ma:

With joint efforts of India and China, a high-speed rail link could be established between the two cities.

It would be pertinent to point out that the proposal for a bullet train connecting Kunming and Kolkata had been discussed earlier at the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) meet in 2015. In fact, enhancing connectivity between India and China through the Kolkata-Kunming multi-modal corridor (officially the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor, or BCIMEC), which covers a distance of 2,800 kilometres, has been under discussion for over 2 decades, through the Track II K2K (Kolkata-Kunming) dialogue. During former India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s China visit, in October 2013, sister city relations were established between Kunming and Kolkata.

In recent years, China has been pro-actively reaching out to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, and has invited her to visit on repeated occasions, though she has been unable to visit (she was all set to visit in June 2018, but her trip was cancelled at the last moment). Apart from this, a number of Chinese investors have expressed interest in investing in West Bengal and even attended the Bengal Global Business Summit 2018.

Given the increasing emphasis on connectivity with South East Asia, through India’s North East (one of the key aims of India’s ‘Act East Policy’), it was believed that the BCIMEC would tie in neatly with India’s vision for connectivity.

However, tensions between India and China – due to the Doklam standoff as well as Beijing’s insistence that BCIMEC be included in its official Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) –  have contributed to a wane in New Delhi’s interest in the project, at least for the time being. The Rohingya crisis, and more general tensions between Bangladesh and Myanmar, are also a major impediment to the project.

The China Myanmar Economic Corridor: Why New Delhi should pay close attention

While a high speed train is an ambitious project, New Delhi can not be closed to the BCIMEC and should pay close attention to the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (the Memorandum of Understanding for this project was signed on September 9, 2018). While the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) has been under discussion for some time, there have been numerous debates with regard to the economic implications for Myanmar (the Kyaukphyu Deep Sea Port project, as well as Special Economic Zones, have been contentious). The increasing debate on the issue of ‘debt trap diplomacy’ has only increased apprehensions within sections of the Myanma government (the stake of Chinese conglomerate CITIC in the deep sea port has been reduced from 85 percent to 70 percent due to domestic pressures). Myanmar has also made it clear that it would not like to depend only on Chinese investments, and the recently-signed MOU categorically states that third party investments from Japan, South Korea, and Thailand in CMEC projects are more than welcome. Interestingly, an article on CMEC in Chinese media acknowledges some of the apprehensions vis-à-vis CMEC, and also bats for closer cooperation between China and other Asian and Western countries.

The proposal for the bullet train connecting Kolkata-Kunming came days after the agreement had been signed between China and Myanmar. China would like to extend this corridor all the way to India (while speaking about rail connectivity between Kunming and Kolkata, the Chinese diplomat also spoke about an industrial cluster along the route).

How should New Delhi play it?

While New Delhi’s objections to the BRI are valid, it does need to shed blinkers. It is free not to participate in those components of the project with which it is not comfortable, but there are projects, like the BCIMEC, where it can easily find common ground with China. This will give a boost to India’s infrastructure in the eastern and northeastern part of the country, and complement it’s Act East Policy. If third countries are allowed to invest in CMEC, Indian companies should explore opportunities, as this will enhance their presence in Myanmar while also bolstering the Act East Policy.

China’s narrative in South Asia

Post the Wuhan Summit, there has been a clear change of narrative from the Chinese side. China has expressed its keenness to work jointly with India in Afghanistan – in capacity-building projects. This was unthinkable a few years ago.

China’s burgeoning economic relationship with Nepal has sent alarm signals in New Delhi. China’s decision to give Nepal access to its ports (Tianjin, Shenzhen, Lianyungang and Zhanjiang) raised the hackles in New Delhi. Pragmatists realize that New Delhi can not dictate Nepal’s ties with China, and the fact is that Kathmandu would like to benefit economically from its ties with both China and India.

Interestingly, China has been urging Nepal to strengthen economic ties with India. During his visit to Beijing, Nepal’s Prime Minister, K.P. Oli, made an unequivocal pitch for strong ties between Kathmandu and New Delhi (as well as Kathmandu and Beijing). He stated that the economic progress of both India and China was an opportunity for Nepal, and stated that Nepal wanted to emerge as a bridge between both countries, and would not like to get embedded in zero sum geopolitical games. Nepal’s former Prime Minister, Prachanda, during his visit to India, also referred to the need for close ties with both India and China.

India should also keep in mind a few other points

While many in New Delhi are pointing to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad’s stand against Chinese projects, it is important to keep in mind that while the Malaysian PM has scrapped a few projects, he has continued to reiterate the relevance of the China-Malaysia relationship (there is need for nuance). Second, it is one thing to point out the shortcomings of the BRI project, but India needs to prove its own track record in big ticket connectivity projects (New Delhi has been extremely slow when it comes to the implementation of connectivity projects within the neighbourhood). Third, there are areas where India is already working with China, so rigidity and paranoia do not make much sense. If even Japan is willing to participate in certain projects of BRI, there is absolutely no reason why India should not at least be open to elements of the project. It is also important to look at connectivity from an economic dimension and not a narrow security prism as large sections of India’s strategic community do. Finally, New Delhi can not put all its eggs in the American basket. While India’s strategic relationship with the US has witnessed an improvement, and Washington has repeatedly spoken about the need for greater connectivity within the ‘Indo-Pacific’, the US is not likely to invest significantly in economic connectivity projects. India thus can not be totally dismissive of Beijing-led connectivity initiatives.

While New Delhi needs to exhibit pragmatism, Beijing on its part needs to address the concerns of India, and other countries, with regard to the BRI.

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