NO: DELENG / 2017 / 70663
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Capt. (Dr.) Gurpreet S Khurana, Executive Director of National Maritime Foundation: India as a Challenge to China’s Belt and Road Initiative
By Sea and Coast | 28/07/2019


The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was announced by Xi Jinping in 2013 and comprises both the land-based Silk Road Economic Belt (launched in August 2013) and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (introduced in September 2013). The initiative was showcased in a manner that was too appealing to be ignored by the countries of the Indian Ocean region. Many Indians also viewed BRI as highly promising for their country.

As a virtual “island state” constrained by landward geophysical barriers in the north, India is in dire need of developing its economic corridors and maritime transportation infrastructure. Projections indicate that by 2050, India will be the second-largest economy (in purchasing power parity terms), premised inter alia on the growth trends of merchandise trade. However, leading Indian economists point out that a large part of the country’s export potential remains unrealized, mostly in its own neighborhood. The key reason for this loss of competitiveness is rising “trade costs,” mainly for maritime transportation, which are heightened by the lack of connectivity and port infrastructure. Therefore, even though the Indian government never endorsed BRI, a few Indian analysts (including this author) were of the view that the Chinese initiative was pregnant with geoeconomic opportunities for India, and, premised on the ongoing India-China rivalry, it may not be prudent for New Delhi to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Eventually, however, the official Indian position against BRI hardened to the extent that India was the one key country in the Indian Ocean region not represented at the major international Belt and Road Forum organized in Beijing in May 2017.

This essay aims to examine some mainstream Indian perspectives on BRI and analyze its likely adverse ramifications for India. Based on these findings, the essay considers how India should (and is likely to) tailor its foreign policy and national security responses to this Chinese initiative.

Mainstream Indian Perspectives on BRI

Owing largely to the country’s geographic location and disposition, India’s national interests are closely intertwined with developments in the Indian Ocean region. In this context, BRI is seen in New Delhi as China’s endeavor to capitalize on the desires, vulnerabilities, and insecurities of regional countries.

Sri Lanka, for instance, sought BRI to bolster investment in its port-led economic development after the 2009 end to decades of internal conflict, but later became beset by debt. In December 2017, Sri Lanka was compelled to grant China a 99-year lease and 70% stake in the deep water port at Hambantota.  In Maldives, China played on the political fissures and local fears of sea-level rise to involve Chinese companies in reclamation projects. Today, the country owes China $1.5 billion—about 30% of its GDP—in construction costs. In Malaysia, China’s exorbitantly expensive Melaka Gateway port project was premised on Kuala Lumpur’s geoeconomic rivalry with Singapore to host a major hub port in the Asia-Pacific. Pakistan, for its part, was much too willing to cede to China the transit corridor from Kashi to Gwadar in order to reduce its own strategic vulnerability vis-à-vis militarily superior India and develop the Baluchistan Province. Pakistan owes China at least $10 billion in debt for the construction of Gwadar port and other projects. Viewed in New Delhi, China’s approach runs counter to India’s vision for collective and inclusive economic development of the Indian Ocean region. India believes that it cannot attain prosperity for its citizens in isolation from the regional neighborhood.

BRI is also viewed in New Delhi as China’s attempt to outsource its low-end “sunset” industries to initiative partners, letting them worry about the attendant issues of environmental pollution. To redress this issue, in June 2017, in the document “Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative,” China attempted to link BRI with blue economy and sustainable development concepts. However, repackaging does not change the product. Pakistan’s coal-based power plant project in Rahim Yar Khan, proposed to be built by China as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), is a noteworthy case in point. The project was eventually shelved in January 2019 at the insistence of the new Pakistani government.10 This reinforces the Indian view that China looks at the Indian Ocean countries primarily as a source of natural resources, an ancillary for its expanding industrial complex, and an export destination for high-end manufactured goods. In the worst case, BRI represents a new avatar of economic colonization by China.

Rationale for India’s Rejection of BRI

The objections to BRI that India has formally articulated include the fact that the proposed CPEC involves joint projects in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (which is claimed by India), the lack of details regarding BRI projects, and the initiative’s unilateral character that is devoid of a consultative process. This lack of transparency carries the risk of smaller countries being sucked into a crushing debt cycle, in addition to the potential for ecological destruction and the disruption of local communities. That BRI overlooks India’s “core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity” is often stated as the key reason for the country’s rejection of the initiative. However, none of these articulations—individually or collectively—fully account for India’s wariness.

The most critical factor is China’s “Middle Kingdom” approach that is premised on an ancient notion of cultural superiority and seeks to subject the transactions among nation-states to a geopolitical hierarchy. Through such an approach, China aims to dominate its periphery through a tributary system, thereby potentially challenging India’s traditional influence in the Indian Ocean region. Yin Gang has stated, “In China’s view, India must be reminded that areas around Gwadar, Chittagong, Hambantota, and Sittwe are not within India’s traditional sphere of influence.” India views the Chinese approach as undermining the regional balance of power and therefore challenging its geopolitical and national security interests. The country does not want to become marginalized by a rival power in its own neighborhood.

It is thus important to understand the adverse security implications of BRI for India. For instance, the China-Pakistan strategic partnership already limits New Delhi’s strategic options to respond to Pakistan’s prevailing strategy of supporting cross-border terrorism against India. China’s technological assistance to help Pakistan develop sea-based tactical nuclear weapons to offset India’s conventional military superiority to Pakistan exemplifies this.

The traditional Chinese military threat to India’s national security is another important consideration. The disputed land border in the Himalayas has often led to military confrontations, with the most recent occurring in June 2017 on the Doklam Plateau and lasting for 73 days. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy’s established presence in the Indian Ocean region could add a seaward dimension to the existential continental threat posed by China. India’s naval power might no longer enjoy a favorable asymmetry in the region, and therefore India’s conventional military deterrence against China to respond to a conflict across the disputed land border would be eroded substantially. For instance, given the naval superiority that India enjoys in the Indian Ocean today and its ability to interdict Chinese strategic shipments, China may think twice before resorting to a military escalation across the land border. However, as the PLA Navy acquires the ability for sea control in the Indian Ocean against opposing naval forces to secure China’s BRI investments, India could lose the military leverage provided by its current option for horizontal escalation of an armed conflict to the sea. Even worse, India might need to prepare for the possibility of a two-front war involving China-Pakistan strategic collusion.

India’s Response to BRI

From the foregoing discussion, it is clear that India’s response to BRI is likely to be premised on the assumption that the initiative’s comprehensive success, in terms of China meeting its envisaged objectives, is not in India’s interest. India’s approach will be to seek the support of its strategic partners within and beyond the Indo-Pacific. However, even without any such support, New Delhi would likely need to do whatever may be required to prevent its influence in the Indian Ocean from being displaced by China and to prohibit China’s increasing naval footprint from blunting India’s prevailing maritime military edge in the region. New Delhi would likely adopt necessary geopolitical countermeasures across the entire spectrum ranging from geo-economics to military strategy.

At the foreign-policy level, India may seek to ramp up its relevance and influence in the Indian Ocean region, and even beyond into the eastern parts of the Indo-Pacific, as enunciated in Prime Minster Narendra Modi’s 2015 vision of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) in 2015. The vision stands for the dictum that “all boats rise with the rising tide” and, therefore, provides an optimized approach to encourage regional solidarity that contrasts positively with the “extractive” model proposed by BRI. However, the dictum that holds for China also holds for India: the package is not the product. Policymakers in New Delhi will need to flesh out SAGAR in terms of its functional strategy, which has not yet been done, and pursue its implementation.

In particular, India and its partners will need to offer the regional countries alternative models for enhancing economic connectivity in the Indo-Pacific that are more attractive than BRI. The Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) proposed by India and Japan was conceptualized with such an aim under the rubric of the contemporary Indo-Pacific concept, but it needs to be pursued more seriously by all potential partners. The AAGC is still in a nascent phase, though with enormous potential to challenge BRI. This author’s discussion with officials—who prefer anonymity—indicates that the Japanese are disappointed with the slow pace of India’s implementation of the AAGC. This is leading Tokyo to reconsider India’s partnership in the corridor. While India itself lacks infrastructure and financial and technological capacities, and therefore looks to Japan for these to fructify the AAGC, the Indian government needs to do more to quell the perception that it is not serious about the initiative.

As an instrument of the nation’s foreign policy, the Indian Navy bears a major responsibility to shape a geopolitical environment in the Indian Ocean region that is favorable to India. The recent reorientation of its operational philosophy to mission-based (forward) deployments is meant, inter alia, to address the changing operational environment brought about by BRI. This includes the need to keep watch over the maritime chokepoints that all vessels—commercial ships, warships, and submarines—must traverse for entry into the Indian Ocean. The intelligence collected by the naval deployments is fed into the Indian Maritime Operations Centre and shared with friendly countries through the Information Management and Analysis Centre.

While India has been making concerted efforts to enhance the sustained reach of its naval forces through basing arrangements with regional countries such as Mauritius and Seychelles, the prevailing geopolitical environment and local sensitivities will continue to be major impediments. The sustenance of forward-deployed naval units will need to be enhanced through alternative measures that combine sea-based logistics with the existing logistics exchange agreements with major resident powers, including the United States and France.

The Indian Navy will also need to be well-prepared to discharge its role as a mechanism for insurance in a possible conflict scenario involving China. The navy will need to be capable of fulfilling this function both independently and in conjunction with major partners, such as members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and from Europe, but without according undue visibility to the process. Such plans already exist—for both the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific—and capacity accretions are adding more options to the latter operational area. The government’s approval in 2015 of plans to build six indigenous nuclear attack submarines capable of distant power projection is notable in this regard. It is also high time for the Indian Navy to revisit its rules of engagement in India’s maritime zones. The current rules, for instance, do not take into account contingencies involving intelligence gathering by Chinese warships—particularly submarines. Notwithstanding these new developments, the navy needs to work to shape the environment so as to avoid a conflict scenario.