India will likely skip the two-day Belt and Road Forum (BRF) summit, a signature project of President Xi Jinping beginning in Beijing on Sunday, due to New Delhi’s concerns over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that passes through a disputed area in Kashmir.
There was no formal statement from the external affairs ministry but sources said India won’t attend the meet following a series on tussles between the two big Asian economies over matters related to sovereignty.
Twenty nine countries are expected to be represented by either their heads of state or government at the BRF, President Xi’s ambitious initiative to connect Asia to Europe and Africa with a massive network of rail, road and maritime links.
The infrastructure project, couched in China’s soft power projections, would help China get road routes that are necessary for both its energy needs and selling goods in Asian, European and African markets.
The China-Pakistan economic corridor, a showpiece project of the initiative, passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). India has been protesting China’s economic activities in PoK but skipping the high-profile meet amounts to making a very strong disapproval.
India is concerned that the 3,000 km long project connecting Pakistan’s deep-water port Gwadar and China’s Xinjiang stem from the fact the facility in Pakistan, which was taken over by the Chinese, could become a future naval base that will enable Beijing to increase its sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean region.
Beijing has been nonchalant about the CPEC impinging on India’s sovereignty as it passes through the Gilgit-Baltistan region which India claims as its own. In recent days, China has tried to assuage India’s feelings by asserting that the commercial corridor will not have any impact on its stand that the Kashmir issue should be settled by New Delhi and Islamabad through dialogue.
Over the past year, New Delhi and Beijing have locked horns over India’s entry into the NSG club, a proposed UN ban on Jaish-e-Muhammad leader Masood Azhar and the Dalai Lama’s Arunachal Pradesh visit.
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi had said on April 17 that India would have a representative at the BRF.
“Although Indian leader is not here, India will have a representative,” Wang had told journalists.
While India is yet to formally announce that it won’t attend the meet, the US in a u-turn on Friday decided to send a delegation to the BRF after initially saying it wouldn’t attend.
Matthew Pottinger, a top adviser to the Trump administration and National Security Council senior director for East Asia will lead the US delegation. And Beijing will be undoubtedly pleased with this.
Playing down India’s absence at the meeting, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a press conference on Friday that Indian scholars would be attending the meeting.
Japan will be sending a delegation led by a vice-minister.
The May 14-15 summit, which is expected to strengthen Xi’s power base as he gets set to begin his second five-year tenure later this year, will be attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A number of other countries, including South Korea, France, Germany and UK, have deputed either ministerial or official delegations.
Considering CPEC’s importance in the plan -- it is the only project at present with prospects of delivering early results -- Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is expected to take centrestage to highlight its significance as a “game changer” for his country.
The Pakistani delegation will have five federal ministers and four chief ministers.
China has already committed $46 billion Chinese investments for various energy and infrastructure related projects in Pakistan.
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe will be attending the meeting after hosting his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi at home.
From Nepal, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Krishna Bahadur Mahara will lead the delegation. Bangladesh and the Maldives will also have official representations.