Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Xi’an had fuelled hopes on the Chinese side that India was finally warming up to the ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) initiative. Studious silence on this matter is albeit a reminder that New Delhi’s reservations remain steadfast viz-a-viz OBOR. In this context, how insecurities can be managed and a better economic environment can be created in the region emerges as a burning question.


What is OBOR?


The OBOR project has been at the very top of Chinese President Xi’s diplomatic agenda in 2015.  This ambitious plan aims to develop a network of transport and industrial corridors through road, rail and sea to connect China with Africa and Europe, integrating continental and maritime Asia in the process. The initiative has been celebrated as the grandest vision any nation has come up with in present times. It involves building roads, ports, airports, railway lines, industrial parks, power grids, etc. in as many as 67 countries on three continents and covering a population of about 4.4 billion. It is being peddled forward as a massive development initiative by China at the continental and maritime fronts.  The Silk Road Economic Belt seeks to open up China’s western and inland provinces such as Xinjiang which are comparatively underdeveloped. Through the Maritime Silk Road, China is encouraging littoral countries to improve customs co-ordination, expand e-commerce and develop the necessary institutions to sync with its rich coastline. Notably, strategists point out that the OBOR is aimed by China at countering its containment by “Western countries” (read the US), ensuring safe navigation of its maritime routes, improving its relations with relevant countries and maintaining its security. Most importantly, it is an assertion of Chinese presence in the Indo-Pacific region and shows willingness to undertake more international responsibilities.


How does OBOR challenge India’s interests?


Chinese enthusiasm regarding OBOR has inarguably raised hackles in New Delhi’s security establishment. One of the reasons for suspicion about Beijing’s plan is the projection of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as its flagship project. The CPEC will connect Kashgar in China’s restive province of Xinjiang with the Gwadar port in the Baluchistan province of Pakistan. It will pass through the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Gilgit-Baltistan regions, casting doubt on Beijing’s intentions. Adding to that, Chinese investment in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan for the construction of roads and ports in these countries neighbouring India has been considered as China’s encirclement policy. The “String of Pearls” theory connoting such an objective has been in vogue for the last few years. In this respect, there in unease in India about China utilising the opportunity to promote its foreign policy objectives in the former’s neighbourhood and heralding a greater leadership role for itself in the regional and world order.


The Chinese side has stated that OBOR is a “win-win” situation for all. Beijing is looking for endorsement of OBOR initiatives and is ready to “accommodate India’s concerns”. Indian projects ‘Mausam’ and ‘Spice Route’ have often been touted as our response to OBOR. Mausam aims to re-connect and further establish communications among countries of the Indian Ocean Region, enhancing understanding of cultural values and concerns. Meanwhile, the Spice Route project focuses on an India-centred linkup of historic sea routes in Indian Ocean, Central Asia, Europe and Africa. In its current shape, however, none of these offer any strategic challenge to OBOR.     


It cannot be ignored that India has an enormous development demand and a huge market that needs massive infrastructure investment. But Indian attempts to be part of the global economy have remained sluggish. Albeit late, it is now waking up to be part of regional trading arrangements such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership of Asia and the Pacific (RCEP) that seeks to bind countries like Australia, China, India, Japan and South Korea together. India has also become an early prospective founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) which demonstrates its desire to be involved in the geo-economic transformation in Asia and the Indo-Pacific. This leads to the possibility of India benefitting from OBOR as well.


 What can India gain from OBOR?


It is a propitious moment for India to emerge as an important player in the emerging Asia-centric international order and it is important that it takes advantage of the opportunities available. The initiative opens doors to increase connectivity, modernise border management, build new ports and develop better coordination with countries on infrastructure projects abroad. The current administration has become more active on India’s neighbourhood, especially its Indian Ocean front.  Modi’s visit to four Indian Ocean nations – Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri Lanka and Maldives during this year was intended to boost New Delhi’s engagements with these countries and constrain the strategic space for China in the region. The present government seems to be more open to expand economic and commercial ties with China even while taking a more firm position on the security front. India wants better connectivity with Afghanistan and Central Asia and also Myanmar and rest of South East Asia and beyond. These are strife ridden areas and several infrastructure projects undertaken by India have been stalled. Being part of the OBOR is likely to help India in taking the regional connectivity forward. If OBOR does generate substantial socio-economic benefits of infrastructure and connectivity, India will gain from a stable neighbourhood and a prosperous Asia.


It is but natural that the interests of India and China will increasingly intersect in the coming years. The question remains how both the countries deal with such a situation. The answer lies in New Delhi taking a more active role in the initiative. There must be a pressing demand from the Indian side to co-design OBOR, especially in its neighbourhood. In essence, the spin-offs of the OBOR implementation can be better managed with India on board rather than outside.  


Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are personal.