The distance between Beijing and Shanghai is 1318 kms, about the same as that between Delhi and Mumbai. Take the bullet train, and you will go from China’s political capital to its commercial capital in five hours flat. The difference between the two cities is palpable. As the Chinese themselves say, Shanghai is less rigid than Beijing. It’s more open, more free-spirited, more globally oriented.
The difference could also be seen in the (metaphorical) journey of Modi government’s China policy from Beijing, where it boycotted the summit on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in May, hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping, to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s (SCO) summit less than a month later. It even issued a combative statement opposing BRI. In contrast, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was unmistakably less rigid at the SCO summit, held in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana. He had a convivial and constructive meeting with Xi. Their talks were markedly friendlier than was the case during their previous meeting in Goa on the sidelines of the BRICS summit last year.
Impact of the “Shanghai Spirit”? Whatever the cause, let’s welcome it.
In Astana, Xi contributed to the warmth by telling Modi he had watched, and greatly enjoyed, Aamir Khan-starrer Dangal, which has become a super-hit in China. On his part, Modi thanked Xi for China’s support to India becoming a full member of SCO. Many experts who regard China as India’s enemy were disappointed that the rift between our two countries became narrower in Astana.
Obviously, there was a change – not big but nevertheless a small and significant change – in Modi’s China policy in between the two summits. What was it, and what was it due to?
First, issues on which the positions of India and China are still divergent – such as India seeking membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) or India’s bid to get the UNSC to list Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar as a global terrorist – were not allowed to dominate and disturb the talks. Modi seems to have realized that although his persistence would pay, the manner of his pursuit of these issues needed to change. Both he and the Chinese president rightly underscored the need to “respect each other’s core concerns” and appropriately handle the differences. India’s core concerns should be respected by China, and China’s core concern – mainly Tibet and the Dalai Lama – has to be respected India. If this understanding solidifies, and is reflected in both words and action, narrowing of differences is indeed possible.
Specifically, the futility of using the ‘Tibet Card’, and of adopting the “Support-us-on-NSG-or-else…” approach, seems to have dawned on Modi. Xi, too, must have realised that if he takes one of the key principles of the SCO Charter seriously – namely, “to jointly counteract terrorism, separatism and extremism in all their manifestations” – then it is untenable for China to tolerate Pakistan’s compromising stance towards these evils.
Second, Modi seems to have realized that his government’s maximalist opposition to the China-initiated ambitious tri-continental connectivity plan is unsustainable. In Astana, India did not drop its main objection to BRI, which stems from the fact that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project of BRI, passes through a part of the Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. Without mentioning BRI, Modi said SCO should “enhance connectivity without impinging on others’ sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
However, Modi would have clearly seen in Astana that India was isolated on BRI. Every other full member of SCO (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Pakistan), every other observer (Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, Mongolia) and every other dialogue partner (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey) supports BRI. Moreover, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan appear keen on joining CPEC, since they too, like China, would benefit from access to Pakistan’s Gwadar port.
Given Xi’s firm resolve to turn his BRI vision into reality – he has made it his personal mission – CPEC will be implemented regardless of India’s protest. If India continues to oppose BRI, Modi will stand completely isolated when he attends the next SCO summit, due to take place in China in 2018. Will he then decide on pulling India out of SCO? Doing so would surely expose an embarrassing – also costly – lack of consistency, clarity and foresight on his part.
Already Modi has discomfited himself by his ill-conceived announcement, in September last year in the wake of the terrorist attack on the army camp in Uri, that India would “isolate Pakistan globally”. No country has obliged India so far. Ironically, far from isolating Pakistan globally, India joined Pakistan in becoming, simultaneously, full members of SCO in Astana. Indeed, Beijing and Moscow have given New Delhi and Islamabad SCO as a good platform to cooperate on many issues.
Modi’s moderation on China is also influenced by the realisation that even USA and Japan are unlikely to stay away from the BRI forum. Both President Trump and (Modi’s good friend) Prime Minister Abe had sent high-level delegations to participate in the BRI summit. Furthermore, within days of the Beijing conference, Japan, despite having serious territorial and political disputes with China, has indicated its willingness to join the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which will fund many BRI projects. (India is the second largest shareholder in AIIB). Then, on June 5, four days before the SCO summit, Abe praised BRI and extended Japan’s conditional support to it. This begets the question: Why shouldn’t India also join BRI conditionally?
What must have further sobered Modi’s strong opposition to BRI is another important development. It concerns India plans to develop the Chabahar port in Iran as a way to bypass Pakistan and have a transport corridor to Afghanistan and countries in Central Asia. This project is reportedly going nowhere because “Western manufacturers are shying away from supplying equipment for fear the United States, under Trump’s administration, may reimpose sanctions on Tehran”, thus “dealing a blow to New Delhi’s strategic ambitions in the region”. Modi will perhaps take up this issue when he meets Trump on June 26.
All these unhelpful realities suggest India needs to rethink its self-isolating opposition to BRI in general and CPEC in particular. Indeed, India has an opportunity to convert CPEC to its own advantage, provided Modi’s advisors help him think innovatively and boldly. Briefly put, India should make the following three proposals to China and Pakistan they cannot refuse:
- Alongside CPEC, there should be a China-India Economic Corridor (CIEC), which, after passing through PoK, enters the Indian side of Jammu & Kashmir and further into the rest of India. Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan), which are keen to join CPEC, will be keener still to join CIEC. India, in turn, will have land access to these countries and also to Western China. CIEC will also partially address India’s concern over its sovereignty and territorial integrity with regard to PoK.
- India should offer to join CPEC at multiple points along the Punjab and Sindh border and also seek land access to Afghanistan and Iran. Remember: the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline and TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) gas project will be immensely beneficial to the Indian economy.
- India should join hands with China in not only speedily implementing the BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar) Corridor, but also in linking it with CIEC and CPEC.
These three proposals have the potential to achieve comprehensive infrastructural and economic connectivity in a large part of Asia, South Asia in particular. Now, isn’t this the vision that Modi himself laid out in his speech at the SCO summit? “It is India’s priority,” he said, “to have connectivity with SCO countries and we support it fully.”
And isn’t this also the vision that both Modi and Xi endorsed in their talks in Astana? Listen to what Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar said in his briefing after the talks: “There was an understanding that where we have differences, it was important that differences should not become disputes, and in fact, if they were handled well, could even become opportunities.”
Modi’s figurative journey from Beijing to Shanghai clearly indicates that he would like India’s stand on BRI to be maintained at the level of “differences”, and not raised to the status of a “dispute” between New Delhi and Beijing. Now, Pradhan Mantri-ji, show vision and courage to take the next giant step: Convert BRI-related differences into opportunities.
(The writer was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He is chairman of ORF Mumbai. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org)