Thoughts on India’s approach to China’s 1B1R initiative

How can India respond to a Chinese project that is aimed at creating a geo-strategic realm for itself?

By Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

Last week saw two articles in Indian media on the challenges and opportunities for India posed by China’s One Belt One Road (1B1R) project. This post looks at the arguments made in the two reports and puts down thoughts on India’s response to 1B1R.

To understand what 1B1R is, look no further than this succinct The Wire article by Shyam Saran. Suffice to quote this section in the piece that points to the strategic angle of the project:

China sees the twin-dimensional initiative as a long-term project to secure its geo-strategic realm, which has both a continental and a maritime dimension. It is not just an economic initiative. It has obvious political and security implications. In any case, China’s strategists do not draw lines separating economic and security objectives. Each dimension reinforces the other, even though the economic dimension may sometimes mask the security imperative.

1B1R then, is likely to remain the anchor around which China’s global outreach will be shaped. How should it be seen from an Indian National Interest perspective? Two pieces that appeared in the Indian newspapers last week offer a few leads while responding to this critical question.

One Belt One Road Plan. Source: China Daily Europe

One Belt One Road Plan. Source: China Daily Europe

The first piece in The Hindu while conceding that “Chinese political expansion and economic ambitions, packaged as 1B1R are two sides of the same coin” argues:

India needs to match ambition with commensurate augmentation of its capacities that allows it to be a net security provider in the Indian Ocean region. This will require New Delhi to not only overcome its chronic inability to take speedy decisions with respect to defence partnerships and procurement, but will also necessitate a sustained period of predictable economic growth; OBOR can assist in the latter.

Besides resuscitating economic engagement with the world, there are other advantages of being a part of groups such as 1B1R. A thumb rule helps: in the amoral setting of geopolitics, it benefits an entity to be a member of many clubs, rather than being outside them. It is easier to be a part of the clubs and use them to build one’s own capacities, rather than spend inordinate efforts on opposing such formations. Hence, this author strongly supports India’s presence at other clubs like BRICS, AIIB and SCO as well. Applying this thumb rule to 1B1R, India is better off being a part of it, particularly because the capabilities for India to float a competing vision altogether, possibly in partnership with the Japanese PQI just don’t exist.

Even if India decides to be a part of 1B1R, two critical questions raised by the authors remain unanswered: Can India seek reworking of the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) by Beijing in return for its active participation? Furthermore, for the stability of the South Asian arm of OBOR, can Beijing be motivated to become a meaningful interlocutor prompting rational behaviour from Islamabad?

On the first question, India finds it unacceptable that the China Pakistan Economic Corridor passes through Pakistan occupied Kashmir. However, as the second editorial on 1B1R in Mint rightly points, New Delhi might now find it too late to extract Chinese concessions on CPEC in return for support on 1B1R. Moreover, India’s opposition or otherwise to CPEC will have little impact on the project itself. A more realist approach would be for India to de-hyphenate the CPEC leg from the overall 1B1R initiative.

On the second question, it is highly unlikely that China will restrain Pakistani actions against India in any meaningful way. In fact, China is most comfortable keeping the India—Pakistan conflict on the boil: on one hand, the conflict keeps India focused on its western border. On the other, the conflict allows gaining Pakistani friendship at minimal costs.

Overall, India can look at 1B1R from the dual lens of competition and complementation: In the Indian sub-continent, visualise 1B1R as an aggressive competitor: use it as an excuse to accelerate India’s own projects of connecting markets in India’s own neighbourhood. Outside the Indian sub-continent, look at complementing 1B1R. For instance, in East Africa, India can work with China under the aegis of 1B1R to expand its own reach.

Pranay Kotasthane is a Research Fellow at The Takshashila Institution. He is on twitter @pranaykotas

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