From Strategic Ambivalence to Hedging: How Should India Respond to BRI?

India-China relations are too complex to fit into the neat binaries of ‘friend’ and ‘foe’. Instead they constitute a mosaic of cooperation, coexistence, coordination, competition and even confrontation. Such a relation has largely been defined by the geopolitical environment in Asia, but the undeniable fact remains that China forms the core of East Asia, and this Asian giant cannot be ignored by the Indian policymakers.  

India is less than enthusiastic about China’s steadily increasing presence in South Asia, which it has traditionally seen as its own area of influence. This has to be understood within the larger context of simultaneous rise of India and China and consequent manifestation of power dynamics in the Indian Ocean region. China’s overwhelming presence in the region by increasing its naval presence, securing oil and trade routes, infrastructure and port development activities are seen as its attempt to establish itself as a regional hegemon and in turn ‘encircling’ India. In this context, China’s latest ambitious project Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has the potential to reshape regional dynamics, becomes important. BRI essentially seeks to connect China with Central Asia, Europe and Indo-Pacific littoral countries and covers countries throughout the Asian continent.    

India’s basic objection to BRI stems from the fact that CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic corridor) passes through Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK), and the official Indian stand has been that connectivity cannot undermine sovereignty and territorial integrity.  Once completed, it would entail permanent Chinese presence in PoK and make it an indirect stakeholder in the Kashmir conflict with Pakistan, which India sees as strictly a bilateral issue as Pakistan tries to internationalise it, apart from giving the disputed territory a degree of legitimacy. Moreover, CPEC will provide China strategic access to Arabian Sea, direct access to Central Asia’s resources which are crucial for India’s security needs and would also enable China to wield much more influence in the Indian Ocean.

China has made inroads into Southeast Asia through foreign direct investment, aid, diplomacy and soft power. Chinese investment in the five largest Southeast Asian nations- Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines climbed to $13.5 billion in 2016, exceeding flows from Japan for the first time. (China is constructing the North-South Transport Link from Southern China to the Southeast Asian countries as a part of BRI. This is particularly threatening for India, for China’s economic muscle can easily translate into political and ideological influence which undermines India’s own Act East policy. The projects funded by China are 3 times costlier than those funded by India in South Asia, South East Asia or Africa.)

But the good news for India is that increased relations have not translated into deeper security cooperation between China and the South East Asian countries. Tensions remain high due to the South China Sea conflicts, where the smaller Southeast Asian countries are wary of Chinese domination. However, India should not be overly optimistic about this, for China has limited ambitions in South China Sea, evident from the fact that Beijing has long pursued a restrained approach and has often chosen negotiation over aggression in resolution of the dispute. In such a situation, it is not clear whether a revamped Act East policy can help India place strategic breaks on BRI initiative.

The complex South Asian picture remains incomplete without the mention of US which sees itself as a ‘resident power’ in Asia-Pacific. Since the 1990s, Japan, US and India have approached China with a combination of engagement and hedging, to varying degree. The case in point here is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) constituting India, US, Japan, Australia which despite its reassurance of not being a “democratic axis” in Asia-Pacific, was in many ways designed to balance China’s rise. Although the Quad has suffered a huge blow with the withdrawal of Australia, its spirit is carried on in bilateral relations.  The revival of the Quad was visible when in 2018 US, India, Japan, Australia met to revise their shared interest in a “free and open Indo-Pacific” against the backdrop of East Asia Summit. Indo-Japanese collaboration took the form of Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, which is a part of the larger Indo-Pacific freedom corridor put in place by these two countries. The US has also historically supported India’s opposition to CPEC, saying it passes through a ‘disputed territory’. Overall, given the US search for a balance of power in Asia, it would not be an overestimation to say that US cannot ignore India.

India is not alone in its opposition to BRI, many other major countries have expressed concerns, albeit in a softer manner. Countries like Germany, France, England, Greece have objected the project on grounds of transparency and environmental protection. The most important Chinese project in Europe, the Budapest-Belgrade high-speed railway, is being held up by European Union regulations. It is also worth noting that many of the recipient countries in Asia have poor credit, which indicates that the projects may be promising at the beginning but will be difficult to pursue.

Chinese foreign policy is in transition, and the ambitious BRI project is testament to the same. However, crucial challenges lay before the Chinese leadership in implementation of the project. Japan and United States remain non-committal to BRI, which provides a ripe opportunity for the Prime Minister Modi, who has been re-elected with a decisive mandate to strengthen bilateral ties with these countries. India has legitimate security concerns over Kashmir, which following the Pulwama attack has gained international legitimacy. India maintains that BRI is a bilateral rather than multilateral initiative, which finds resonance with major global powers. This provides India with a rare window of opportunity to hedge with countries which are expressing concerns over BRI, to in turn consolidate her position in the region. India is well-positioned to shape a normative ideological opposition to BRI on grounds of sovereignty in a world where borders are becoming relevant again. India must remember the lessons it learnt from Nehru’s misadventure with China, it must shed its strategic ambivalence and remain committed to its principled opposition to BRI while hedging with other countries taking a similar stand.

Image credit: PMINDIA

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.

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