New Delhi, July 10 (Hindustan Times/newin.asia): The Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj told the country’s envoys in South Asian countries at a meeting here on July 3, that instead of competing with China on expensive infrastructural projects, India must closely watch all the activities of the Chinese and advice and educate friends in the neighborhood about how a certain kind of engagement with Beijing can have negative consequences for them,such as a debt trap.
The meeting held on the sidelines of an Indian envoys conference. It was meant to be brainstorming session in which the envoys were asked to speak frankly.
After listening to the envoys, Swaraj said: “ India must continue to closely watch all Chinese activities. It must push ahead, with full vigor, its own work, and advise and educate friends in the neighborhood about how a certain kind of economic engagement with Beijing can have negative consequences for them.”
This refers broadly to the phenomena of big investments in economically unviable projects with Chinese loans, which then gives Beijing both an economic and strategic foothold and “traps” the country.
An official, who was familiar with the development, said the envoys it was a “constructive in-house engagement to understand evolving geopolitics. Therefore , to interpret this as policy would be wrong.”
However ,it appears that India will adopt a broad, three-pronged approach to deal with China’s increasing engagement in the South Asian and Indian Ocean neighborhood: track Beijing’s activities carefully, pursue its own projects and commitments, and educate and advise neighbors on the consequences of engaging with China.
The meeting was attended by Minister of State MJ Akbar, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, India’s ambassador to China Gautam Bambawale, and the country’s envoys to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation countries — Ajay Bisaria in Pakistan, Vinay Kumar in Afghanistan, Manjeev Singh Puri in Nepal, Harsh Vardhan Shringla in Bangladesh, Taranjit Singh Sandhu in Sri Lanka, Akhilesh Mishra in the Maldives and Jaideep Sarkar in Bhutan.
Indian High Commissioner to Mauritius Abhay Thakur and Ambassador to Myanmar Vikram Misri were also present.
Swaraj gave the inaugural address and PM Narendra Modi delivered the final keynote speech at the meeting.
According to officials, the ambassadors briefed the external affairs minister on Beijing’s footprint in the countries they serve.
Scene In Individual Countries
In Bangladesh, while the Chinese have made huge economic commitments, many in Dhaka were wary of the ‘debt trap’ Sri Lanka found itself in; in Sri Lanka, while the government remained politically friendly to India, its economic ties with China had continued apace.
In Pakistan, China’s economic and political dominance had only grown; in Afghanistan, China could not be a strategic partner but its economic and development footprint was minimal and there was room for engagement; in Nepal, while Beijing’s involvement had grown, PM K P Oli’s recent visit to China had not broken new ground and was a reiteration of past agreements.
In the Maldives, the presentation focused on how there was a conscious attempt by the regime in Male to erase the Indian footprint altogether and China had gained tremendous leverage with investments, already made or in progress, in an airport, a bridge, islands, and a port.
“It is important to understand that China is now explicit about its global and regional ambitions, and within that, its periphery is of high priority,” said Ashok Kantha, former ambassador to China and director of the Institute of Chinese Studies.
He said the neighboring countries can increasingly see the pitfalls of going ahead with projects which may not be economically viable, without due diligence. They can see the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) is not the free largesse it was supposed to be. Sri Lanka is a cautionary tale.
BRI is a Chinese initiative to expand its influence abroad by financing infrastructure projects including railways, roads and power projects, thereby opening up potentially lucrative business opportunities for Chinese companies.
(The featured image at the top shows India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj)