India skipped China’s just ended Belt and Road summit citing concerns that the project runs through disputed Kashmir and analysts say New Delhi is deeply uneasy about the strategic implications of an initiative that would dramatically increase Beijing's presence in neighboring countries. But questions have also been raised whether New Delhi risks being isolated by staying out.
India’s criticism of a project, which Chinese president Xi Jinping has called “the project of the century,” was unequivocal. “No country can accept a project that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity,” said Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Gopal Bagley pointing out the flagship initiative of the Belt and Road project passes through Pakistani Kashmir — a territory that India claims.
China’s assertions that it does not want to get involved in the territorial dispute between the two countries has meant little to India, which believes endorsing a project spearheaded by a close ally of Pakistan would mean endorsing its arch rivals claims on the Himalayan region.
“Now by making these investments it [China] obviously has as we say put its feet on the ground and backed Pakistan,” says Jayadeva Ranade, a China specialist formerly on the government’s National Security Advisory Board.
Beijing has been keen to involve India, which straddles one of the world's busiest shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean. China's ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui, told an Indian military think tank recently that the Belt and Road initiative was good for both countries and fits into India's "Look East" policy of strengthening ties with southeast and northeast Asia.
But that did little to allay India’s mistrust of its giant neighbor, with which border disputes linger more than five decades after they fought a brief war, and with whom New Delhi’s ties have plummeted in the past year.
China says its initiative, an ambitious multibillion-dollar project to build a transport network spanning 65 countries, is a new way to boost global development.
But many in India believe that in addition to economics, the initiative is part of China’s expansionist policies designed to extend it economic, military and diplomatic clout across Asia, up to Europe, and beyond.
“If this is globalization, it is globalization 19th century style,”said an editorial in the Times of India newspaper supporting India’s “bold” decision to stay out.
India is wary of how the project could massively increase Chinese influence and presence not just in Pakistan, but in other neighboring South Asian countries. Drawn by the prospect of massive infrastructure building and huge investments that could lift their economies, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Myanmar have joined the project. Sri Lanka was represented by its Prime Minister and Nepal by its deputy prime minister at the summit. These countries have signed preliminary agreements for several infrastructure and power projects.
Calling the initiative, “a new kind of colonization,” Chintamani Mahapatra, a professor at the School of international studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, said “the OBOR [One belt, One road] project is very clearly Chinese-initiated, promoted by China with a strategic goal simply because China has a lot of money. When multiple countries are involved in a huge project like this, it should not be proposed, funded by only one country.”
Foreign Ministry spokesman Bagley also underlined the need for transparency, saying that it could drive communities into debt.
China, however, points out that over 100 countries around the world and international organizations have got involved in the initiative, which it says has gotten a “warm response” from the international community.
Indeed some analysts caution India on missing out on an ambitious initiative that aims to integrate Asia with Europe through a network of rail lines and ports and create new trade corridors.
T.N. Ninan, editorial director of the Business Standard newspaper, questioned in a column if India is the last man left standing. “Does the country risk being enclosed in a geographical cocoon if it spurns a multi-continent project for which everyone else has signed up?,” he asked.
For the time being, India’s answer is to step up on infrastructure projects it has planned in neighboring countries, although these cannot match the scale and size of Chinese investments.
But India is not shutting the door on its participation completely on a project whose contours are still to take shape.
“It is a possibility provided there is something worked out with regard to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. That is a problem unless China does something to mitigate our concerns there,” said Ranade.