C3S Paper No. 0067/2016
Courtesy: DNA India
The following article was written after the author attended the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Media Dialogue on Connectivity held in Guangzhou last week.
It is hard to figure out why the Government of India (GoI) has steeled itself against accepting any part in China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. Sections seeking to influence policy have more than once reiterated that it is in India’s interests to work with Beijing on OBOR.
None of these policy wonks and strategic affairs experts is a China-lover or China-optimist by any definition. To the contrary, many of them are staunch supporters of the US “pivot” against China and advocates of the Washington-Delhi-Tokyo axis. Their case is that India should get on board OBOR for non-ideological, pragmatic reasons. Economic common sense, need for connectivity and access to the proposed Asia-Europe infrastructure of transport and industrial corridors and hubs for telecom, trade, travel and energy transfer dictate that India seize the promise held out by OBOR.
In fact, from a geostrategic perspective, involvement in OBOR could help India to more effectively implement its own Spice Route and Mausam projects. Far from being counter-proposals, these two can be integrated with OBOR to optimise both economic and strategic gains. On more than one occasion, Beijing has expressed its readiness to work with New Delhi — and South Asia — on Spice Route and Mausam. It has offered to reorient and adapt OBOR to make it more acceptable to New Delhi.
However, India remains unmoved, at present. Since OBOR is expected to take shape over 35 years, New Delhi cannot be said to have closed the matter for all time. And, neither China nor the other countries including Russia have given up on India being persuaded to join the initiative.
The trigger for these reflections is the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Media Dialogue on Connectivity, held in Guangzhou on May 9-10 2016. Over 200 delegates representing media, business, government and think tanks from ASEM member states had gathered to discuss media’s role in “Promoting Public Awareness and Partnership.” Pakistan, Bangladesh, Mongolia, New Zealand and Singapore had co-sponsored the Dialogue along with China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the State Council Information Office.
Although GoI keeps out of OBOR-linked activities, Indians especially from the media are regular invitees to these stakeholders’ meetings on Connectivity. Every such event is a reminder of how much India would have been in the limelight had it opted to partner China on OBOR.
In the absence of India, the most influential element of the Anglo-American axis that tends to dominate such spaces is Pakistan. Needless to say, Islamabad, as the leading South Asian presence in such forums makes the most of these opportunities to “manage” perceptions.
Had GoI participated, even at a Track 2 level, it would have held centre stage, shown the way and stolen the thunder not only in Guangzhou, but in any such ASEM session. In the absence of Official India, if Indian media delegates led some of the sessions and held the floor with their ideas, inputs and articulation, it was because of the content of their contribution.
These media representatives are, at best, informed participants with little authority or say in policy; and, that is a fact known to the organisers and the audience. Yet, their being invited to present their thoughts and suggestions underscores the importance attached to India, its role in Asia, its engagement with Europe and emerging global initiatives.
Such participation and impact in international forums is a testimony to India’s “soft power” at play, in the interests of the people and the state (not government) by non-state actors. Thus, by keeping out of an initiative like OBOR, New Delhi is losing out not only on the projected hard, tangible benefits of connectivity but also the soft, intangible gains that flow from diplomatic success in expanding spheres of influence.
[The author is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator. He was sponsored for the Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) Media Dialogue in Guangzhou by China International Publishing Group.]