China’s ambitious One Belt One Road (OBOR) project to link countries of Asia through the construction of infrastructural facilities like roads, railways and ports all with an appropriate hinterland, is meant to break down geographical, economic, political and ideological barriers and give full expression to globalization, the ethos of the 21st. Century.
But India, which is one of the two biggest countries in Asia, next only to China in population and waking up from centuries of slumber to take its rightful place in the economy of the region and the world, has truculently chosen not to be part of China’s path-breaking scheme.
And the pity is that New Delhi’s decision to stay out is based on a petty issue, that of sovereignty over an area to which it has had no access in the last 69 years – Gilgit Baltistan – in Pakistan-held Kashmir. India is objecting to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which cuts across Gilgit-Baltistan. By rejecting participation in OBOR just because of this, India is throwing the baby with the bath water.
And in the process, India stands isolated in the world. India boycotted China’s grand summit on the OBOR in Beijing this month, even as 29 countries, including several heads of government, and Western financial institutions like the IMF participated and lauded the scheme. Each one of them felt that there is something to gain from Beijing’s initiative, disregarding the warning of the Doubting Thomases and the prophets of doom, which was under the spell of the latter.
Even the US and Japan, which have serious political and strategic issues with China, and which are trying to set India against China, sent high officials, as they looked at the economic potential of the projects and not just its “hidden” political content.
Thus, while the world is uniting, India is alienating and isolating itself wantonly.
While, the dominant nationalist forces in India, unleashed by the ascent of Narendra Modi to power, are seeing the OBOR as an insult to India and a potential threat to its security and dominance in the South Asian region, a much smaller number of Indian thinkers are alarmed at New Delhi’s short sightedness and tunnel vision on this issue. Arrant and blind nationalism seem to have corrupted the Indian psyche preventing it from approaching issues with an open and rational mind.
But there is hope that the virus will be neutralized once India feels the pinch of isolation. That may take time, perhaps even a decade or more. But in the meanwhile, the Indian economy will have suffered grievously.
Those who want India to look at the OBOR differently, point out that independent India has faced similar dilemmas before and has sometimes taken a pragmatic and rational view to take decisions which have been to the benefit of the country.
The first is that virtual abandonment of “non-alignment” to take help from the US and Israel in rebuilding the Indian military and intelligence apparatuses in the aftermath of the crushing defeat which China inflicted on India in the 1962 border war. In the second instance, India sought US help to oust the Pakistani army from Kargil in Kashmir in 1999, abandoning the policy of not involving third parties to intervene in India-Pakistan issues over Kashmir. In the 1980s, when China and Pakistan completed the Karakoram highway passing through Gilgit-Baltistan, there was not a whimper in India.
And most importantly, despite the long-standing boundary dispute between them, India and China successfully negotiated a border tranquility agreement in 1993, which holds to this day, despite political disputes over terrorism, membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and the OBOR.
In all these instances, pragmatism has worked. But for pragmatism to determine policy, India must have a leadership which can think beyond the narrow confines of nationalism, jingoism and electoral politics and shape policies which are in India’s long-term interest.
Border Tranquility Pact
An ideal example of a pragmatic approach, which has yielded the desired results, is the conclusion of the India-China Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement in September 1993. The agreement has held to this day even though India-China relation have been rocked by various issues since then.
After the 1962 war, in which 1,388 Indian soldiers were killed and India got closer to the US as a result of it, India-China relations worsened. India was smarting under the defeat and China was being condescending if not disdainful towards India. But with the advent of Rajiv Gandhi as Indian Prime Minister in the mid-1980s, India set its sights on resolving domestic and international disputes so that it is able to carry out economic reforms aimed at faster growth.
In 1988, Rajiv visited China to solve the boundary dispute and give a boost to bilateral trade. But Rajiv was rebuffed by the Chinese leadership because it could not be seen by the Chinese public as being weak at a time when there was internal discontent (which ultimately resulted in the Tiananmen massacre in 1989). China insisted that while it is ready to negotiate the boundary in Aksai Chin in the Western (Kashmir) sector, it has to get Arunachal Pradesh in the Eastern sector because it considers Arunachal Pradesh to be “Southern Tibet” and therefore part of the Tibet Autonomous Region of China.
But Rajiv told the Chinese that no Indian government can part with territory which is an acknowledged part of India and is not officially disputed. He said India would only consider adjustments of the boundary line. The McMahon Line in the East is not clear and rational in some places, and the line in the Aksai Chin region in the West is stated even in the Indian constitution as “undefined”. Therefore, there could be talks over these.
The talks were inconclusive, but Rajiv did not lose heart. However, he could not pursue the matter as his government was defeated in the 1989 elections. And post-Rajiv India was rocked by political instability and an economic crisis. To overcome these, Prime Minister P.V.Narasimha Rao stepped up the economic reform program in 1991, and wanted to mend fences with China to secure peace on the border.
But the Chinese government was determined not to give in on the border issue because it feared that giving in will show it to be weak in the eyes of the Chinese people who were hoping that they would have “glasnost” as in the USSR. The USSR had collapsed in 1991, increasing insecurity in the Chinese Establishment.
However, the Chinese revived their earlier proposal in which a distinction was made between “boundary” and “border” – boundary being a settled line and border being an unsettled but existing Line of Actual Control (LAC). The Chinese said that they could discuss adjustments in the border and ensure de facto peace on the border but would leave the boundary to be settled later. They also took forward Rajiv’s idea that economic cooperation should be furthered irrespective of the boundary dispute. India was willing to consider this as it had a similar Line of Control (LOC) Agreement with Pakistan in Kashmir. The Peace and Tranquility Agreement was signed on September 7, 1993.
Prime Minister Rao had the challenging task of convincing the Indian opposition on this but he swung it by assiduously cultivating opposition leader A.B.Vajpayee and involving him in decision making. A man with a similar vision, Vajpayee supported the move, with the result, peace prevails on the border till date; China is India’s single largest trade partner; Chinese FDI in India amounts to US$ 5 billion with 500 Chinese companies are doing roaring business in India.
Like Rajiv, Rao and Vajpayee, Prime Minister Narendra Modi should not allow India to be held hostage to one issue but look at the broader picture and see the OBOR not as an old threat, but as a new opportunity.
(The featured image at the top shows the Indian post on the India-China border in Arunachal Pradesh)