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Is China’s Belt and Road Initiative Strategic? Perhaps Not.

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Is China’s Belt and Road Initiative Strategic? Perhaps Not.

Beijing’s BRI experience with Modi’s India shows a lack of feel for shifting sands.

Is China’s Belt and Road Initiative Strategic? Perhaps Not.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres addresses the inaugural Belt and Road Initiative Forum in Beijing.

Credit: United Nations Photo/Flickr

Writing for the British think tank Chatham House, Lee Jones and Shahar Hameiri challenge a proposition that has become commonplace: China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is primarily a geostrategic instrument consciously designed to ensnare target countries into unsustainable levels of debt, and thereafter using that leverage to generate political influence. Jones and Hameiri contend that the BRI is far from being a grand strategic plan. “China’s development financing system is too fragmented and poorly coordinated to pursue detailed strategic objectives,” they write, basing their conclusions on detailed case studies of Chinese investments in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. When it comes to serious debt problems arising out of Chinese projects in both countries, Jones and Hameiri blame local elites as well as Western financial institutions.

Without litigating their conclusions one way or the other, the Chatham House report does raise an interesting question: To what extent have China’s BRI plans been the result of careful forethought and sensitivity to changing political realities in target countries?

India’s stance on the BRI might provide some answers.

From an Indian perspective, one of the most mystifying aspect of the BRI has been Beijing’s insistence that Kolkata is a node in the Maritime Silk Route, both before and – more strikingly after – India’s vocal rejection of the initiative. By way of refusing to participate in the inaugural Belt and Road Forum in 2017, the Indian foreign ministry issued an unusually blunt statement criticizing it. Despite this, an April 2019 map of the BRI included two other Indian ports in the run-up to the second edition of the forum, which India again boycotted. Strangely enough, that map — which was later removed — also included territory both countries dispute, as well as Chinese claims, as part of India.

This suggests lack of a coherent plan or, simply, confusion. None of that bodes well for an initiative that many have imputed with grand strategic value.

Or, it could be a case of wishful thinking based on China’s misreading of the changing contours of India’s foreign policy under Narendra Modi, partly driven by its own actions.

Since the beginning of India’s economic liberalization in the early 1990s, the country’s foreign policy has situated its role in India’s domestic economic transformation project. From this flowed a belief in the power of economic interdependence to manage disputes, and balance competitive impulses with cooperation.

When the Hindu-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) first came to power, it portrayed Pakistan and China as the reasons behind India’s decision to test nuclear weapons in 1998. It also fought a limited war with Pakistan the year after. And yet, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government also sought to bring about a lasting solution to the Kashmir dispute through talks, both with Pakistan as well as local separatists. To understand how extraordinarily conciliatory this approach really was, keep in mind that India and Pakistan almost went to war again while Vajpayee was in power, following a failed attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001.

The center-left secularist coalition that came to power after Vajpayee adopted a familiar trajectory. It pursued vigorous back channel negotiations with then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf around Kashmir. But strikingly, not only did it not respond militarily to the 2008 Mumbai attacks, afraid that any escalation could derail India’s economic prospects, but months after the attack, in July 2009 the Manmohan Singh government made generously concessionary remarks toward Pakistan through a joint statement in Egypt.

To be sure, the Singh government was far from naive. In its calculations, peace would simultaneously free India from being hyphenated with Pakistan in the eyes of the international community, as well as allow it to pursue economic power unperturbed. The latter would, in turn, assure India’s place in the world as a great power — this was the foundational assumption that shaped Singh’s neoliberal grand strategy. This strategy also presumed that cultivating economic interdependence with China would help push the larger strategic rivalry between the two countries to the back burner. Around that time and reflecting the mood in New Delhi, a prominent Indian analyst talked about the need to think “big enough to overcome borders” in order to bring about greater connectivity between Tibet and India.

When the BJP returned to power in 2014, beginning with inviting the Pakistani prime minister to Modi’s swearing-in ceremony (along with other regional leaders) in 2014 to an impromptu late-2015 visit to Pakistan, it looked like Modi’s approach to that country would be, at its core, similar. When it came to China, Modi also favored the old formula of delinking the border dispute and economic cooperation between the two countries. For example, he promoted a land route to China passing through Bangladesh and Myanmar, and promised a more relaxed visa regime for Chinese nationals on his first visit to China in 2015.

Around that time, Beijing started pitching the Belt and Road Initiative (then referred to as the “One Belt, One Road” project) to India. From the Chinese perspective, there were no good reasons why India would refuse. After all, India was the second-largest shareholder in the China-launched Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi had also actively courted investments from China and made four trips to that country.

What China did not account for is the reaction of a hawkish Hindu-nationalist government to repeated perceived violations of sovereignty. Its insistence that the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh is part of South Tibet has been a sticking point in the relationship for a long time. So has China’s decades-long military support for Pakistan. But the moment of reckoning for the relationship would come as President Xi Jinping started giving shape to the BRI.

In April 2015, Xi visited Pakistan and announced funding of $46 billion for energy and infrastructure projects there which — taken together — forms the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). At the heart of what became a marquee component of the BRI was a plan to link the Pakistani port of Gwadar to Xinjiang through a land route passing through Gilgit-Baltistan – territory India ceded to Pakistan after their first war in 1947.

For Modi’s BJP, Pakistan was an obviously sensitive issue; what now became clear to his government was China’s intent to legitimize Pakistan’s “occupation” of Gilgit-Baltistan through CPEC. Add to this the twists and turns that followed – including China’s refusal to let status-seeking India join the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2016 as well as its political intrusion into New Delhi’s sphere of influence — and China’s BRI plans for India were effectively dead by the time the initiative was officially launched.

Edward Luttwak has famously described China as an “autistic power,” where “decisions on foreign affairs are almost always made on the basis of highly simplified, schematic representations of unamenable complex realities …”  Its failure to rope India into the BRI illustrates the moniker. China had assumed that independent of its own actions, India will continue to inflexibly stick to a strategy of separating economics and geopolitics, and New Delhi will measure economic gains on their own terms.