India was barely mentioned during a two-day government-sponsored seminar on the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) plan, China’s latest attempt to project worldwide President Xi Jinping’s ambitious mission to link the country to Africa and beyond for trade through the Indian Ocean.
If Chinese scholars spoke about India on the sidelines of the high-profile event, it was to make the point that New Delhi’s reluctance to join this ambitious shipping lane would cost India.
“India should be more positive about regional engagement,” Han Feng, deputy director with Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China’s top think-tank, told HT on the sidelines.
“India’s national policy of ‘Act East’ is quite relevant for the Chinese new strategy because we are looking for engagement in the region. Policy coordination in the region among governments: you have strategic planning and so have we. So, we can have some common area for cooperation,” Han added.
China is apparently keen India join the project, expressing its wish to the Indian government early 2014 within months of Xi mentioning it first during a speech to the Indonesian Parliament in October 2013.
Scores of Chinese scholars and experts talked about the project at the event in mostly glowing terms, saying it would be a “win-win situation” for the involved countries economically, for their stability and for the over-all growth in infrastructure development.
However, almost no Chinese scholar talked about India’s expected role if it joins the MSR.
Also, the general trend of papers read out by Chinese scholars indicated that Beijing was more interested in roping in India’s neighbours like Sri Lanka and Maldives – among many others in Asia and Africa -- to come on board – a fact that has made India wary.
The envisaged sea route passes through the Indian Ocean, a large chunk of which New Delhi considers within its sphere of influence.
“It is best for India to be part of the MSR as it could be tailored to build ports and related infrastructure including free economic zones...China can provide good manufacturing skills and experience in construction,” Zhang Junkuo, vice-minister of the Development Research Centre of the State Council or China’s Cabinet, said.
The route follows a medieval sea course through which ships from southwest Chinese ports, like Quanzhou that has remains of Tamil temples, went far and wide with silk, tea and jade.
On its part, New Delhi has been circumspect about Xi’s grand sea faring plan, especially because details are not forthcoming.
During her recent visit to Beijing, foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, said, “India’s participation in the MSR will be synergy-based. We cannot give a blanket commitment”.
So, if China is peeved that India hasn’t come on board Xi’ maritime ship of the future, it is showing.
Srikanth Kondapalli, chairman, Centre for East Asian Studies in JNU, said in his presentation that India’s response to MSR has been “measured” for a variety of reasons.
“While India had endorsed the mutually beneficial aspects of the Silk Road initiative, it is weighing the long-term geo-strategic impact of such initiatives,” Kondapalli said.