Of the multiple agreements signed between the two countries during Manmohan Singh’s visit, the MoU on roads (National Highways) and road transportation has a modest objective of promoting the sharing of knowledge, experience and cooperation in transportation technology and policy, and construction and management of highways.
As China has emerged as the world leader in infrastructure development, the MoU provides a welcome opportunity to improve the weakest link in India’s development story. However, road communications not only promote trade, economic development and people-to-people linkages but also serve as axes for strategic forays between nations. To that extent the MoU when implemented in full will have strategic significance.
India’s long-running unresolved border dispute with China is well known. China has been in occupation of a major portion of Aksai Chin area and has laid claims to most of Arunachal Pradesh. Communications are vital to the defence of our border region. Considering this, cooperation on road communications and transportation would inevitably involve areas in or close to India’s disputed borders with China. Border transgressions have been an enduring feature of China’s conduct regardless of the agreements it had signed with India. Border violations have been a major source of India’s concern. Dr Manmohan Singh had also drawn attention to this aspect while addressing the members of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee’s Party School on October 24, 2013. He said: “Concerns on both sides – whether it is incidents in the border region, trans-border rivers or trade imbalances…. can become impediments to the full exploitation of the opportunities for bilateral and multilateral cooperation between India and China.”
China has a definite advantage over India in surface communication to the border areas as it has developed a large network of roads both to the border and laterally between key communication centres of the region while India has lagged behind. When India embarked upon development of road infrastructure in border areas, China had objected to it as they fall in large swathes of Indian Territory claimed by them. During the Indian Prime Minister’s visit a Border Defence Agreement (BDA) was signed with China. This has caused some concern the BDA would put restrictions on India’s border infrastructure development.
However, while answering a media question India’s Ambassador to China S Jaishankar has clarified that the BDA principle of “mutual and equal security” allows both countries “to take appropriate measures according to their own security needs,” puts no restrictions on developing border infrastructure. However, past experience has shown the existence of a large hiatus between China’s words and deeds. In view of this, the development of our border communications may continue to be subject to the vagaries of Chinese conduct, in spite of the BDA. Therefore there is every possibility of cooperation with the Chinese in road and road transportation in sensitive areas increasing our strategic vulnerability.
This MoU has a relevance to the Chinese bid to improve surface communication links with India using the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India, and Myanmar) corridor. In the joint statement issued during the visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to India in May 2013, India and China had agreed to consult each other to establish “a Joint Study Group on strengthening connectivity in the BCIM region for closer economic, trade, and people-to-people linkages” and for initiating the development of a BCIM Economic Corridor. The MoU on promoting cooperation in roads and road transportation signed now would seem to be a logical step to give form and content to activate the BCIM corridor.
There is no doubt that the BCIM corridor would enable the backward regions of both India and China to join national developmental mainstream. It would tremendously increase two-way trading opportunities of both China and India, benefitting Yunnan province of China and Northeast Indian states, apart from Burma and Bangladesh. China would gain a more convenient and direct land access avoiding Himalayan passes to reach the huge Indian market and also the under exploited markets of other South Asian countries. On the other hand, India would be able to add more vigour to the Look East Policy by gaining speedier land access to the markets of ASEAN and Southeast Asia. This could result in increasing economic opportunities for Indian youth in troubled Northeastern states, providing them incentive to give up extremism.
But there is a strategic flipside to the story. BCIM opens up a strategic axis from Chinese mainland to enter Northeast India. It cuts across chokepoints on the lines of communication to India’s disputed border areas in Arunachal Pradesh. In the past China had provided arms and military training to separatist insurgents from the North-eastern states in the corridor. While China has given up this policy, it still retains the option to do so. Even now extremist groups from Nagaland, Manipur and Assam deal with Chinese gun runners. Such clandestine activities would be made easier when the BCIM corridor is wide open. Are we strategically ready to factor these aspects while opening up the BCIM corridor? Answer to this moot question is linked to larger issue of building greater understanding and credibility between India and China.
There are a whole lot of similar security concerns on the Western sector bordering Pakistan, where China is assisting in road construction in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. If we seriously propose to cooperate with China and implement the MoU on road and road transportation cooperation for its benefits we need to be prepared to find answers to some of these strategic concerns.
(The writer, Col R Hariharan (Retd) is an Associate of the Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S), This article is published under a joint programme to assess India- China October 2013 agreements of the C3S and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi).