Boycotting OBOR is right

Srujan Chada

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is being constructed through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) bypassing repeated Indian protests, can impact the geopolitics of the region and this explains India’s opposition to the project.

Leaders from across the world gathered in Beijing from May 14-16 to hear China’s plan for global trade – One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. About 70 countries and international organisations have signed up for the mega infrastructure project, said President Xi Jinping at the close of the summit on May 15. The next meeting is scheduled in Beijing in 2019.

Xi pledged at least $113 billion in extra funding for the initiative and urged countries across the globe to join hands in the pursuit of globalisation. The plan is to create a big family of harmonious co-existence through building a huge project, mostly around transport and energy — roads, bridges, gas pipelines, ports, railways and power plants.

Boycotting OBOR is rightPlanning Big
China has never published any comprehensive list of all the OBOR-related projects or deals. The initiative is vaguely conceived and described in the first place, perhaps to make it easier for China to bundle anything it wants into it. As leading players in the initiative, about 50 Chinese state-owned companies have invested in nearly 1,700 OBOR projects since 2013.

The flagship projects include the $46-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a 3,000-km high-speed railway connecting China and Singapore and gas pipelines across central Asia, including to regions as far as New Zealand, Britain and even the Arctic. Nearly $500-billion worth of projects and M&A deals were announced in 2016 across seven infrastructure sectors, including utilities and telecoms in OBOR countries.

The project is an estimated $5-trillion infrastructure spending spree that spans 60-plus countries across Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa. The $113-billion promised by Xi in extra funding will be disbursed through three different sources – state-owned Silk Road Fund, which was officially launched in 2015 with $40 billion of initial capital, and two Chinese policy banks – China Development Bank and Export and Import Bank of China. Chinese lenders are also powering the new Silk Road plan. China is also hoping that other countries and funds will pitch in.

World View
China has announced that this project is open to everyone, but it identified 65 countries along the Belt and Road. However, only 20 of those nations sent their heads of state to the OBOR summit, and most of them are smaller Asian countries that are economically dependent on Beijing. The other countries opted to wait and watch instead of committing at the highest level since many believe the project only creates another silk route for the benefit of China.
A total of 52 nations, including the United States and North Korea, had some level of participation in the forum. This also marked a sharp shift in US strategy towards China as compared to that of Obama administration. This shift needs to be viewed from the angle of dealing with North Korea. Europe is not in favour of the move and in spite of the US’ strategic support, India backing off could be a setback to OBOR.

India’s Initiatives
India’s decision to skip OBOR or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Summit is a crucial strategic call. Since Beijing did not take Delhi into confidence when it unilaterally decided to introduce and implement projects in many of the South Asian countries, this was expected.

On the other hand, India is in the process of implementing several connectivity initiatives — both through bilateral format and sub-regional groups across the region. These include the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) Initiative and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).

These initiatives complement connectivity projects in Southeast Asia under the Modi government’s Act East Policy. Simultaneously, the Chabahar port and International North-South Transportation Corridor are expected to enhance India’s footprints in Russia, Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan and Europe.

Strong Protests
India firmly believes that connectivity initiatives must be based on universally recognised international norms, good governance, rule of law, openness, transparency and equality.
India has been issuing strong demarches to Beijing for over 50 years since 1961 at each and every stage of Chinese engagement with PoK. The first such demarche was issued by the Indian Ambassador to China a year before the 1962 Sino-Indian War. Subsequent demarches were issued in 1963, 1965, 1968, 1969, 1982, 1983 and protests were continuously registered since 2008 when China and Pakistan agreed to construct the first mega-infrastructure project through PoK.

But China has continued to pay only lip service to India’s concerns so far. The international community is well aware of India’s position. The statement from the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, explaining India’s non-participation in the OBOR meet did not mince words and stated that “connectivity projects must be pursued in a manner that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity. No country can accept a project that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Finally, India has said it straight and did it right.
(The author is a software engineer and an entrepreneur based in London)