Picture Courtesy: Quartz India
Article No. 0097/2017
The Doklam standoff between India and China ended on 28th August 2017. Since then, there have been calls for deeper engagement between the two countries by the Chinese Ambassador to India H.E Luo Zhaohui. In an article titled “Turn the page to a new chapter” published in The Hindu on 22nd September 2017, he had expressed that India and China could negotiate a Treaty on Good-Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation and also for a Free Trade Agreement (Zhaohui 2017).
While interacting with the Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S) on the same day the article on The Hindu was published, the Ambassador suggested an initiative that could potentially alter the geopolitical landscape of South Asia. He proposed an economic corridor through Kashmir territory that is under the Indian administration. This, as he visualizes, would connect with the controversial China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that cuts across Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) (C3S 2017). A similar remark was made by him during a talk with academicians at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi last month (Kumar 2017). One has to take note that there has not been any such statement from China recorded in any official forum. There was no mention of it in The Hindu article either.
Earlier this year in May while addressing a gathering at the United Services Institute (USI) in Delhi, the Ambassador had suggested renaming CPEC. This was understood as an effort to convince India to participate in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) summit in Beijing which was scheduled later in the same month. At first, the transcript of this address at USI with the remark of renaming CPEC was posted on the Chinese Embassy website. However, the reference to altering CPEC name was soon removed from the transcript (Roche 2017). This prompts observers to doubt the motive behind such statements made by the highest representative of People’s Republic of China (PRC) to India. It also does not aid in negating the widening trust deficit between the two countries in any capacity.
CPEC and India
The CPEC is an initiative of China that connects its Xinjiang province to Pakistan’s Gwadar port which overlooks the Arabian Sea. It involves several infrastructural projects which include construction of motorways, railway network, thermal and hydropower plants, port development and telecommunication. These projects would be implemented along the CPEC route that stretches from Kashgar in the north to Gwadar in the South. China is investing close to USD 60 billion to realise these projects (Siddiqui 2017). The Pakistan army is also involved to provide security to the workers at these sites and to protect Chinese investments from extremist groups (Yamin 2016).
India has officially disapproved the CPEC ever since it was conceptualized as it directly infringes its sovereignty. This and the strategic leverage that China stands to gain out of CPEC are some of the important factors for India’s no-show at the BRI summit in May (GoI 2017). This was followed by the Doklam confrontation.
Doklam and the need for cooperation
Indo-China ties witnessed its lowest point since 1962 during the seventy-three-day standoff at Doklam – a disputed territory between China and Bhutan. The situation was de-escalated with both sides agreeing to pull back their respective troops by 15o meters (Panda: 2017). The diplomatic channels between the two countries ensured this was achieved ahead of the September BRICS summit in Xiamen which the Indian Prime Minister was attending.
As the tense situation was defused, the Chinese appeared to be interested to extend and expand the scope for cooperation between India and China. India’s geographic proximity, its demography and the market size are some of the compelling factors for China to reach out to India. Such a need for China arises despite its difference with India over several issues such as India’s membership at the Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG), India’s bid for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), banning the terrorist outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed’s chief Masood Azhar, CPEC, security in Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and border disputes.
The Ambassador also expressed China’s concerns of India not acknowledging the mega BRI. This indicates that China is aware of the importance of India for achieving some of the core economic and strategic objectives of BRI. Considering India’s position over CPEC and the objectives of China’s BRI, China needs to display a determined effort to genuinely explore the possibilities of cooperation between the two countries over these areas. This can be achieved only if China acknowledges and accommodates Indian interests before any dialogue is to be contemplated by India.
China’s proposal of an India-China economic corridor through Kashmir, connected to CPEC demands a careful study of the actual intention of the Chinese. In diplomatic exchanges, there are always some negotiables and non-negotiables. India’s sovereignty is a non-negotiable as much as it is for China. China’s proposal of India joining CPEC would signify that China will recognize India administered Kashmir as an integral part of India. It also means that China recognizes PoK as Pakistan territory which is against Indian interests.
China identifying Indian administered Kashmir as Indian territory will be strongly protested by its all-weather friend Pakistan who claim the entire of Kashmir to be their territory. Triggering Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) who are infamous for adopting asymmetric warfare as a default strategy would pose a serious security threat to CPEC and other Chinese investments in the region. Such a move by China may even prompt the ISI to encourage extremist activities in Xinjiang province, prospects of which China dreads.
Apart from differences over territorial claims, there are economic realities which China needs to take note of. India has granted the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to Pakistan which was not reciprocated by the latter (Singh 2016). Given the lack of reciprocity and the Indian stance over the issue, the proposal made by the Chinese envoy is a non-starter. Moreover, with the commissioning of Chabahar port in Iran (ANI 2017) and the renewed vigour over the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) (Chaudhury 2017), MFN and market access to Pakistan will be insignificant for India. Hence, China needs to evaluate the economic rationale for linking trade routes. Without a considerable economic dividend to be gained, mere trade connectivity as a reason cited by China for India to acknowledge BRI and to join the CPEC will be called a bluff. This will also expose the strategic intentions behind China’s push for India joining BRI and CPEC.
Hence, any proposal of this nature is unlikely to be even considered by India. If China is serious about such ideas, it first needs to take an unequivocal stance in favour of India over all the areas of differences listed above. China must also express if it will cede swathes of land in northern Kashmir to India which it illegally acquired from Pakistan in 1963 (I-wei 2017) if the Kashmir dispute is to be settled in India’s favour. China must also demilitarise the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) by ceasing to construct naval bases in the spirit of establishing IOR as a region of peace.
Such pertinent questions concerning India’s strategic interests are tough to address by China. In a land of fairy tales, it may be a tremendous move towards positive ties overcoming the burden of post-war history if both sides agree to commence negotiations on the proposal. But the true Chinese intent is to be observed in how it takes into consideration Pakistan’s interests and balances it with that of India’s. Given the determinants, it would be a fair assessment to say that China stands to gain much more by accommodating Indian interests than that of Pakistan’s. Without signalling a strong will on these lines, the ambassador’s suggestion could possibly be discounted as an attempt to fish in troubled waters.
At present, given the complexity of such an initiative, India and China must rather focus to engage deeper on established platforms where the two sides have found a common ground. These include the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), BRICS, the Paris climate agreement, Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). If there is to be any dialogue between the two sides over any contentious issues, it must be set on mutually accepted terms and conditions. China may also consider the Indian proposal for a joint declaration on counter-terrorism which was earlier declined citing that such a move by India is aimed at isolating Pakistan internationally (I-wei 2017). Currently, with interests of the involved actors placed poles apart, any discussion about India joining CPEC or BRI is unfortunately not favourable.
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(Sundeep Kumar. S, Research Officer, Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S). PhD Scholar, International Relations, University of Madras. Views expressed by the author are his own and does not reflect C3S position.)