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India, China relations not hinged on one issue, possible to cooperate outside BRI

Bilateral ties aren’t a “single” issue relation – both countries realise that. For one, the Chinese government’s reaction to India skipping the summit has been broadly balanced, and India too has made it clear it is not against the BRI – except the route the CPEC takes.

world Updated: May 19, 2017 20:57 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis
Chinese President Xi Jinping with leaders attending the Belt and Road Forum at Yanqi Lake, on the outskirt of Beijing, on Monday.
Chinese President Xi Jinping with leaders attending the Belt and Road Forum at Yanqi Lake, on the outskirt of Beijing, on Monday.(AP File)

Indian and Chinese officials have the tricky task of getting bilateral ties back on track in the coming months after New Delhi’s high-profile boycott of a two-day summit on Beijing’s new foreign policy thrust, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Detractors says the BRI, hinged on the twin wheels of economics and connectivity, has plenty of problems ahead but China is steaming ahead with $124 billions pledged for it.

The Indian boycott of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing during May 14-15 wouldn’t have come as a shock to China. But it added to the count of problems in bilateral ties, riddled as they are with wide holes of mistrust born of old and new disputes, including one over the 3488-km unsettled border.

India had repeatedly expressed its “sovereignty” concerns over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passing through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).

The protests didn’t convince Chinese diplomats, who drowned out India’s concerns with the repeated chorus: “CPEC is an economic project and has no impact on China’s stand on Kashmir.”

The boycott could seem like a snub not only to China but against its “hexin” or core, President Xi Jinping, the most powerful general secretary of the Communist Party of China in decades, who first talked about the BRI in Kazakhstan and Indonesia in late 2013.

But bilateral ties aren’t a “single” issue relation – both countries realise that.

For one, the Chinese government’s reaction to India skipping the summit has been broadly balanced – even though foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying wanted her Indian counterpart Gopal Bagley to explain what he meant by “meaningful dialogue” on the BRI.

India too has made it clear it is not against the BRI – except the route the CPEC takes – but wants the plans to follow the principle of transparency, for one.

India’s former envoy to China AK Kantha had told the Chinese media about New Delhi’s views on the BRI back in 2015.

“We are very closely following these important initiatives and are aware that the Chinese government has attached high importance to them. However, some of the details have not been spelled out. At the same time, we understand that they are an important aspect of China’s connectivity agenda and neighbourhood strategy,” he had said. 

“India also has its own plans of developing connectivity with countries of the region including China. Our approach is that wherever we have mutual interests and synergies we must work together. Thus, we are working together on the Bangladesh, China India Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).”

Incidentally, it was in February 2014 that then state councilor Yang Jiechi invited India to join the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road during the 17th round of border talks with former national security advisor Shivshankar Menon in New Delhi.

The Maritime Silk Road is one half of President Xi’s BRI, the other component being the Silk Road Economic Belt.

It will be difficult for China to ignore India’s economic weight in terms of its huge market and ideally, with or without the BRI, Sino-India economic ties could be strengthened.

Chinese experts think it wasn’t a good idea for India to skip the Belt and Road Forum but this will not lead to a crisis.

“For India, it wasn’t good diplomacy,” said Lin Mingwang from the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.

Hu Shisheng, south Asia expert at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said: “It is just a small hiccup. I personally think China doesn’t need to talk about this boycott too much. I have a strong sense that India and China will meet somewhere, matching each other’s regional and sub-regional agendas. After all, major powers have more obligations to cooperate and coordinate for the sake of the people.”

Hu also said Xi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi should have more dialogue.

“Both leaders would then better understand that they both have ambitions to bring their countries into the global powers club. Mutual support should be one part of their strategic partnership but, of course, based on acceptable international norms,” Hu said.

The first of those meetings could happen at the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit at Astana in Kazakhstan next month, when India and Pakistan are set to become members.

A series of ministerial-level meetings for the BRICS Summit at Xiamen in China in September also start next month, and Indian ministers and bureaucrats are expected to attend. Those meetings will provide opportunities for both sides to interact and share views on a range of topics.

It will benefit both countries to create momentum in economic cooperation outside the BRI framework and not bunch all bilateral trade and economic collaborations within the initiative.