India is often depicted as an elephant in Chinese state media articles and cartoons.
On Sunday, that elephant seemed to have leapt out of the pages and entered the venue of the Belt and Road Forum (BRF), China’s grand show of economic might and growing strategic heft, and became a heavy presence that no one wanted to talk about, but everyone was aware of.
India, the fastest growing developing economy with a 300 million and growing middle class, cheap labour, proficiency in English and young population, was easily the most notable absentee at the BRF on Sunday.
Major western powers did not send heads of states either, but were represented by high-level delegations.
The US, South Korea and Japan – not known for happy ties with China – too sent delegations; even a reclusive North Korean government dispatched two representatives though they remained suitably unobtrusive on the first day of the two-day forum.
India took a decision not to deploy even its China-based diplomats for the forum because of its concerns and objections over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passing through Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (PoK).
China, it was learnt, was aware that India’s concerns with CPEC had made it difficult for its top leaders to attend the forum. But Beijing had expected that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would send some level of representation to the forum.
For example, though India was invited by China to send a contingent of troops to participate at the World War II commemoration parade in September 2015 in Beijing, it declined the invitation but sent Minister of State for External affairs VK Singh to attend the military parade.
China probably expected a response on similar lines. But that didn’t happen.
A senior politician from the South Asian neighbourhood with ancient ties with India but increasingly close relations with China took two steps back and threw his hands up when asked about India’s absence.
“It’s India’s concern,” he said with an awkward smile.
Few other diplomats who didn’t wish to be named said it was India’s decision not to attend the forum and that they had no comment to offer.
There would have been few mentions of India at the academic and discussion sessions that followed the inauguration of the BRF by President Xi Jinping.
At a session on cooperation between think tanks in countries under the BRI, former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd made a rare mention of India.
He said China, India, Russia and the US should come together to develop a long-term security architecture.
The policy document on the BRI, titled “Building the Belt and Road: Concept, Practice and China’s Contribution” also had to inevitably mention India as it talked about the BCIM-EC (Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar Economic-Corridor).
Among the handful of Indians present at the forum on Sunday besides Beijing-based Indian journalists was Sudheendra Kulkarni, chairperson of the Mumbai-based Observer Research Foundation.
He criticised India’s decision not to participate at the forum.
“Whosoever has advised the PM, has given a very, very bad advice,” he said.
“India has isolated itself by not participating at any level in the BRF. India has concerns and reservations and these are legitimate ones. And it could have expressed many of the things it has put out in the official statement by coming here and making its point on the forum as some of the participants made in the morning in an oblique way of course,” he said.
“But by staying away, India has isolated itself because today at the BRF, practically the entire world is here. Including the US and Japan which have serious reservations of China,” he said.
It now remains to be seen how China, usually depicted as a giant but gentle panda in state media cartoons, reacts to India’s decision.