Monday, July 24, 2017

India-China Border Stand-off

The great corridor game

By Dr Swaran Singh

Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ preoccupation is making the Chinese accelerate President Xi Jinping’s grand vision, the ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) project. The initiative was launched in 2013 and it might take a few decades, if not more, for the Chinese to complete the project. Currently, China is preparing to hold its first OBOR global summit this summer and it expects to see all world leaders lined up to become part of this post-American China-led globalisation.

Only two prominent nations are likely to be conspicuous by their absence: The US, that will soon have a president who remains wary of China; and India, that remains reticent about OBOR, especially with respect to the project’s offshoots into the Indian Ocean and South Asia. Indeed, even the unpredictable Trump might show up in Beijing following his meeting with Jack Ma, thus completely isolating India in this fast-evolving geopolitics of Eurasia.

India had sought to counter OBOR with Mousam and Sagarmala projects but these have remained a fiction as Indian foreign policy became obsessed with ‘isolating’ Pakistan. The result: Indian foreign policy establishment today finds fault with China blocking India’s efforts in naming Pakistan- based Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar a UN-designated terrorist and criticises China’s efforts to block India’s bid for a full membership to the Nuclear Supplier’s Group. Only the naive would expect China to shoulder India’s burdens!

With Beijing’s rising global stardom, India has surely lost the race with China, but New Delhi remains equally unaware of the fast-shifting sands in South Asia. As part of OBOR, China remains busy promoting (a) the Bangladesh China-India- Myanmar or BCIM Economic Corridor and (b) the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) both promising China access to the Indian Ocean, from the east and west of India. Dr Manmohan Singh had finally reconciled to India’s participation in the former but there has been no response to the same from the Modi government.

No doubt, insurgencies and political divisions in Pakistan’s restive province of Balochistan had a heavy toll on the safety and security of Chinese engineers and assets. The threat even forced China to ask Pakistan to raise a 10,000-strong force for their protection.

Even Pakistani experts widely believe that only Chinese companies will be the biggest beneficiaries from CPEC because the Pakistani leadership supports it, as always, only for their personal gains. The Chinese also understand that this $57 billion network of energy projects, roads and deep-water port linking Kashghar and Gwadar may never become commercially viable. They are already learning lessons from the Sitwe, Gwadar and Hambantota ports. But like the post- World War II United States, post-Cold War China needs its own Marshall Plan to catapult itself to the status of the next superpower.

Then, what are India’s options? It is interesting to note that while the Indian state has pulled away from the limited interest it showed in the BCIM economic corridor and keeps absolute silence on CPEC, Indian society is fast integrating with China. India’s businessmen— from Ambanis tosmall-town traders who fill flights between China and India—are all getting thoroughly entrenched in Chinese capital, equipment and consumer products. There is a bit of China in all top Indian start-ups, from e-commerce platform Snapdeal to mobile wallet giant Paytm, to cab service company Ola and travel portal MakeMyTrip and so on.
But India had agreed to BCIM without resolving borders! India has limited time and options. It cannot remain hostage to its single-minded strategy of isolating Pakistan which has had no effect on China, Russia or the US. Although CPEC has muddled through few milestones, India would be ill-advised to rely on the false comfort of the corridor being engulfed in crisis and a non-starter.

But it is the CPEC which has lately picked up momentum. Both China and Pakistan are now inviting all other stakeholders including their newfound strategic partner Russia into CPEC. If Russia, China and Pakistan hold parleys with Afghanistan in the future, it portends increasing centrality of Pakistan and further marginalisation of India. Emboldened Pakistani generals are already inviting India to join the CPEC which they say is a project “not in, but through” Pakistan and potentially the most crucial link between China’s OBOR and their Maritime Silk Road which involves as many as 65 nations.
China is fast becoming India’s Mecca for higher education, especially medicine. Indian students in China now make up the second largest group of foreign students at 16,694—with only Thailand ahead with 19,976, Russia following with 16,176 and Pakistan with 15,654. In the last two years, India has added the most number of students (3,116 students), followed by Pakistan. Over 8,000 Indian students are studying medicine in China even when the Medical Council of India does not recognise their degree from China. Students have to write a separate exam to practice medicine in India. Same is the trend for other Indian travellers to China, be it politicians, academicians, journalists or tourists.
India has had serious objections to the very nature of the China-Pakistan axis and to China investing in infrastructure in disputed territories of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. It is true that China’s own 1963 border settlement treaty with Pakistan calls Kashmir a ‘disputed’ territory. India also has genuine grievances against China for not consulting India, its largest neighbour, before launching the OBOR.

[Dr. Swaran Singh is Professor for Diplomacy and Disarmament at Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament (CIPOD), School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi). He is President of Association of ASIA Scholars, General Secretary of Indian Association of Asian & Pacific Studies, Guest Professor at Research Institute of Indian Ocean Economies, Yunnan University of Finance and Economics (China) and Advisory Board Member of Atlanta-based Communities Without Borders Inc. (United States)].

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