‘Connectivity projects must be transparent and not create debt burdens’: Jaishankar

Updated on Jul 16, 2021 11:12 PM IST

Jaishankar made the remarks while addressing a regional conference hosted by Uzbekistan on fostering connectivity between Central and South Asia.

File photo: External affairs minister S Jaishankar. (HT photo)
File photo: External affairs minister S Jaishankar. (HT photo)

External affairs minister S Jaishankar on Friday said connectivity efforts must be consultative, transparent and promote economic activity instead of creating debt burdens, an indirect reference to concerns about China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Jaishankar made the remarks while addressing a regional conference hosted by Uzbekistan on fostering connectivity between Central and South Asia. While he didn’t name any country, his speech left little doubt that the concerns he was referring to largely related to the BRI, which India has steadfastly refused to join.

He also highlighted connectivity efforts undertaken by India, such as “practical steps to operationalise the Chabahar port in Iran” since 2016, and plans to include the port on the Gulf of Oman in the framework of the International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC).

“Connectivity efforts must be based on economic viability and financial responsibility. They should promote economic activity and not create debt burdens,” Jaishankar said.

“Ecological and environmental standards, as also skill and technology transfers, are musts. Connectivity must be consultative, transparent and participatory,” he said, adding that “building connectivity is an act of trust and must, at the minimum, conform to international law”.

Jaishankar further said, “Respecting sovereignty and territorial integrity are the most basic principles of international relations.”

India has for long opposed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a flagship project of the BRI, because a crucial part of it runs through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Indian officials also say that projects under BRI around the world are skewed to benefit Chinese firms and do not provide a level playing field for Indian companies.

Concerns related to BRI projects leading to debt traps have increased since Sri Lanka handed over the strategic Hambantota port and 15,000 acres around it to the Chinese side in 2017 after failing to repay huge loans advanced for the development of the facility.

Referring to India’s development of facilities at Chabahar, which has emerged as a key transport hub for shipping goods to Afghanistan, Jaishankar said the Iranian port provides a secure, viable and unhindered access to the sea for Central Asian countries.

“Its efficacy is now clearly proven. We have proposed to include the Chabahar port in the framework of INSTC. The formation of the India-Uzbekistan-Iran-Afghanistan quadrilateral working group on the joint use of Chabahar port is a welcome development,” he said.

Noting that development is closely linked to peace and security, he said, “reliable connectivity within and through Afghanistan” requires confidence in that country’s governance.

Economic growth is driven by connectivity, commerce and contacts and the contemporary challenge is that politics, vested interests and instability can be impediments to regional cooperation, he said. “The real issues are of mindsets, not of disputes. Blocking connectivity in practice while professing support in principle benefits no one,” he said.

“A one-sided view of trade rights and obligations can never work. No serious connectivity can ever be a one-way street,” he added.

Connectivity is also important for post-Covid economic recovery, but there is a widespread realisation of the need for more resilient and reliable supply chains, Jaishankar said. “All of us need more and multiple options. And this applies to the domain of connectivity most of all,” he said.

Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan, who addressed the conference after Jaishankar, contended that unsettled disputes between Pakistan and India are a major challenge to connectivity initiatives.

“The whole area opens up if Pakistan and India [settle their disputes]. Our main issue is Kashmir, if we can resolve that issue, just imagine the impact. The huge market of India on one side, China on the other side, connectivity between Central Asia [and] Pakistan, the whole area changes,” he said.

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