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Mainstream, VOL LV No 25 New Delhi June 10, 2017

There is More to it than Meets the Eye to India’s Boycott of the Recently Concluded OBOR Summit

Saturday 10 June 2017

by Aurobindo Ghose

This article was sent on May 25 but could not be used earlier due to unavoidable reasons.

It is ten days since the One Belt One Road (OBOR) Summit, called and hosted by China at Beijing from May 14 to 15, 2017, concluded. Significantly, India did not participate in OBOR. But the subject is so important for peace, development and stability or otherwise in the region and beyond that it has continued relevance and requires a fresh review and discussion. Yesterday’s front page news of the Indian Army’s punitive fire assaults on Pakistani posts and today’s news of the US’ revival of two Public-Private infrastructure projects in South and South-East Asia in which Indian firms are to play a key role, are sufficiently indicative.

As he formally inaugurated the two-day Summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping, while pledging to inject an additional $ 124 billion into the One Belt One Road initiative, assured the august gathering that the “project of the century” was not an attempt at forming “a small group (of countries) detrimental to stability”. In his opening address, Xi, without referring to India or the CPEC, said: “All countries should respect each others’ sovereignty, dignity and territorial integrity, each other’s development paths and social systems, and each other’s core interests and major concerns.” Twentynine heads of state and government including Vladimir Putin (Russia), Xi Jinping (China), Nawaz Sharif (Pakistan), Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Turkey), Ranil Wickremesinghe (Sri Lanka), Rodrigo Duterte (the Phillipines), Joko Widodo (Indonesia), and the Presidents or Prime Ministers of such important nations as Argentina, Chile, Fiji, Greece, Italy, Spain, Kenya, Malaysia and high-level delegations from Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives, Myanamar, the USA, France, Germany and the UK participated.

While the prestigious US presence at the summit was a last-minute surprise due to the persistent efforts of the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, to fructify a give-and-take trade plan, India’s non-participation was very much on the cards as China’s offer and invitation to India, nearly three years back, right after Prime Minister Modi came to power, to jointly build new silk roads in inner Asia and the Indo-Pacific littoral, were literally spurned by the Indian side. On the other hand, the US participation came after the two sides clinched a lucrative trade agreement which will boost shipments of American liquefied natural gas, beef and other products to China. In turn, Chinese banks and poultry will get access to the US market.

Voicing sovereignty concerns on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, passing through Pak-occupied Kashmir, India, though cordially invited, chose to boycott this hi-fi summit concerning its immediate neighbourhood environment, security and attractive prospects of trade, commerce and development in the region and between the participating countries.

My immediate reaction and that of most commentators on the subject was: bad foreign policy not to participate in the Beijing Summit indicating India’s total isolation in the immediate as well as wider geo-political neighbourhood. On the face of it, it was not at all clear as to why India was choosing a path wherein it was leaving China free to surround, gherao and push India into a corner geo-politically as well as economically. Sovereignty questions are paramount no doubt. However, India could have participated “without prejudice” and under protest, having leverage to influence the future course of events and relations. Like the European Union which participated but chose not to endorse the Draft Trade Agreement proposed by China, on the grounds of transparency and co-ownership, India could have also raised its concerns that connectivity projects must respect sovereignty and territorial integrity and that the financing of mega projects must not be such as to lead to the ultimate economic and political dependence of the receiving (donee nations) as has happened in the case of Mynamar and Sri Lanka vis-a-vis China (donor nation). This was a totally missed opportunity for India, was my first impression. But first impression is not always the last impression.

When I expressed my reservations on India’s non-participation in the OBOR Summit over Facebook, a stimulating discussion emerged between well-known commentators.

Dr Noor Zaheer, iconic writer, academic and activist, said: “I think the present government does not care. They are not interested in anything except fleecing their own countrymen and turning the tide towards more Hindutva as a buffer. If at all they are thinking then they would prefer isolation, to be able to do what they want to do within the country.” What Dr Noor Zaheer was meaning by “what they want to do” was amply clear to anyone who had heard or read her talk at Caligary, Canada only last year in May, on “India under Modi: Indian Struggle for Secularism, Women’s Equality and Workers Rights.”

Masroor Khan was forthright when he commented: “By not participating in Belt and Road forum India has scored a self-goal. Staying away from an event that is going to have far-reaching effects on the world economy and to leave the playing field entirely open to two major adversaries, China and Pakistan, we have failed in our foreign and economic policies. India should have participated, under protest of course. Our participation would have given us the opportunity to put our point view before other participating nations. By boycotting we aren’t going to achieve anything; on the contrary China and Pakistan will go ahead caring two hoots about our absence. In fact they’ll be happy.”

Xavier Dias, Editor and human rights activist from Jharkhand, pointed out that India cannot endanger its own interests, when he remarked: “A mistake India cannot afford. China can do without India in this project but India cannot afford to stay out. In the long run Indian economy and foreign policy will be jeopardised.”

Haroon Zuberi said something interesting on the sovereignty issue: “India, please learn from China. In 1997 to solve the Hongkong issue, China did not bring up the issue of sovereignty. India stands isolated.”

John Dayal, well-known commentator, minority and human rights representative, was sharp and focussed and undeterred from calling a spade a spade. He begun by saying: “China seems to be succeeding in its hegemonic ambitions.” Then he came up with the strategic scoop that “India will have to come up with its own comprehensive extra-regional land and sea economic and strategic plan to avoid being strangulated in the the silken cords of the Chinese masterplan. Though it cites the road through lands occupied by Pakistan, India has been caught napping by the support that Chinese Belt has received from its neighbours in South Asia, as well as the rest of Asia. India is currently painting itself in a corner.” John Dayal’s views found echo a week later in former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran’s bold and robust piece on “Looking China in the Eye” in The Indian Express, dated May 22, 2017, which argues that what India needs is an alternative narrative which contests the inevitability of Chinese hegemony.

Ravinder Goel, Professor and economic consul-tant,says: “Think that the project is essentially good but the way the Chinese Government is moving in the matter, the potential will not be realised. The Government of India, despite my strong differences with its politics and economics, is justified in having concerns about the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) which passes through the disputed territory of Kashmir. Such trans-national projects are best executed by concensus.”

Shafi Patel, consultant and commentator, is blunt and to the point: “The whole exercise is a Chinese game to pull in money and access.”

What is the conclusion that can be drawn from this discussion? A difficult question. On the one hand, India boycotted the OBOR Summit, it seems, after ample consideration because China was after India for its joint sponsorship, shortly after Modi came to power three years earlier, which India rejected right then. On the other hand, the latest news in the papers indicates that India had alternative plans. One, to act as a spoilsport by keeping the Indo-Pak border hot as the recent Indian Army’s punitive assaults on Pak posts along the J&K demonstrate. China’s dreams of brisk business via the OBOR are unlikely to be realised in an environment of frequent armed clashes along the Indo-Pak border. The other plan rests on the strategic involvement of the Indian Government and Indian capital in any major initiative by China’s major bete noire, the United States of America.

What are the possibilities? There is more to it than meets the eye about India’s non-partici-pation in last week’s Beijing OBOR Summit. That Indian capitalists did not want a public spat at the OBOR Summit, straining their new- found ties with Chinese capitalists—for example, Chinese retail giant Alibaba-Jack-Ma’s participation in PayTM and collaboration with Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance in Jio. Also, the multitude of India-China capital collaborations amounting to a total of about $ 800 million in Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) which came into India in just 17 months between April 2014 and September 2015, more than double all previous Chinese FDI to India. There are also issues why Indian capital would like the Indian Government to avoid public confrontations with Pakistan as in OBOR in view of the ongoing discussions between lndian industrialists Gautam Adani and O.P. Jindal and their Pakistani counterparts regarding future capital collaborations. Further, if you have read Robert Kaplan‘s “Monsoon”, India may align in the very near future with Trump’s America to plan and resurrect the alternative route to the old Silk Road—the Indian Ocean— as a challenge to the new Chinese owned One Belt One Road. This is fully confirmed, as I have mentioned above, by today’s front page news that the USA has revived two Public-Private infrastructure projects in South and South-East Asia to counter China’s OBOR mega project, in which India (read Indian capitalists like Ambani and Adani and the like) is to play a vital role.

In a sense, the Indian Government is listening closely to the Indian big corporates and their aspirations and fears. Their aspiration is to both collaborate and compete with Chinese industry while clearly avoiding the ignominy of business projects in Mynamar and Sri Lanka (and now the target is Pakistan), where utter dependence of domestic industry on Chinese loans, capital and technology have allowed China to almost gobble up the local industries resulting in both economic and political dependence of the host (donee) countries on China. India and Indian capital are most wary of such an eventuality, to avoid which it is even willing to compromise with American ventures and interests in both the subcontinent as well as the Indian Ocean.

Dr Aurobindo Ghose is an economist, lawyer and human rights activist. He can be contacted by
e-mail at g_aurobindo[at]yahoo.com

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