Insights into Editorial: India’s Participation in CPEC: The Ifs and Buts
Despite India’s reservations on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor project, china and Pakistan are going ahead with the project. India’s reservations on the project have so far gone unheeded. Intermeshed as the CPEC is with the principle of territorial sovereignty, the project is emerging as a key focal point of India’s strategic priorities. Lately, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) has begun to figure prominently in India’s policy repositioning. Also, India’s stance on CPEC has graduated from one of calculated silence to that of diplomatic resistance.
What is this project all about?
The 3,000-km corridor linking China’s far-western region to Pakistan’s south-western Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) is massive project of road, rail, energy schemes, pipelines and investment parks.
- The corridor is also expected to serve as a terminal for China to pump oil procurement from Persian Gulf. It is also being seen as a project to strengthen China’s connectivity with neighbouring countries and an initiative set to aid strategic framework for pragmatic cooperation between the nations.
- The corridor would transform Pakistan into a regional hub and give China a shorter and cheaper route for trade with much of Asia, West Asia and Africa.
- The corridor — expected to be ready in three years and provide about 10,400 MWs of electricity — gives China direct access to the Indian Ocean and beyond.
- The corridor will pass through Pakistan’s poor Baluchistan province, where a long-running separatist insurgency that the army has vowed to crush will raise questions about the feasibility of the plan.
Why India should support CPEC?
Advocates propose that India should explore the possibility of CPEC being expanded with one of its branches including the Indian states of Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir. There is also a reflection of this view in Pakistan, where prominent commentators have observed that the “trade utopia” via CPEC would remain unfulfilled if India were not integrated in the project.
It is also said that if the corridor opens up a major new global trade route, not just Pakistan and China, but also India which is quite strategically located on the corridor, may see positive spillover effects from burgeoning trade with West Asia or Africa.
- Many experts are not in favour of India supporting CPEC. This is so because any Indian participation would inextricably be linked to the country’s legitimate claims on PoK.
- CPEC rests on a Chinese plan to secure and shorten its supply lines through Gwadar with an enhanced presence in the Indian Ocean. Hence, it is widely believed that upon CPEC’s fruition, an extensive Chinese presence will undermine India’s influence in the Indian Ocean.
- It is also being contended that if CPEC were to successfully transform the Pakistan economy that could be a “red rag” for India which will remain at the receiving end of a wealthier and stronger Pakistan.
- Besides, India shares a great deal of trust deficit with China and Pakistan and has a history of conflict with both. As a result, even though suggestions to re-approach the project pragmatically have been made, no advocate has overruled the principle strands of contention that continue to mar India’s equations with China and Pakistan.
India: obstructionist, outlier?
China’s proclamations about developing a string of connectivity and infrastructure projects in India’s vicinity has stirred political and popular perceptions in countries in the proximate neighbourhood. China’s increasing footprints in the South Asian region is often portrayed as India losing its strategic hold.
- India’s caution on the BCIM corridor, inordinate delay in moving ahead with the Chabahar Port and reservations on CPEC are being increasingly cited by detractors to present the country as an unaccommodating, reluctant, regional player. Such misrepresentations have cost India dearly. Despite being the largest economy in the South Asian region, the country has suffered a considerable dent in its image due to a perceptible rise in hostile perceptions amongst nations in its contiguity.
- Therefore, India must closely watch the geopolitical shifts in and around the subcontinent where China has begun to feature in national calculations. India’s ambitions on expanding multilateral engagement is unequivocally contingent upon the China factor. Whether it is RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) or connecting the CPEC to the International North South Transport Corridor in the longer term, India cannot afford to appear as sitting in “isolation.”
- India needs to generate viable options to secure its interests while not compromising upon genuine strategic/territorial concerns. It must show resolve in terms of fulfilling the regional commitments that it makes. It must further strengthen existing leverages derived from a diverse geography, demographic size and growth indicators to project itself as an indispensable player in regional development.
Notwithstanding the Government of India’s reservations, the scale of public interest in CPEC is soaring. The still-evolving debate on CPEC within India is broadly split between exponents and resisters. While a constituency propagates that India must embrace the Chinese connectivity drive, the other holds the idea of India’s participation as completely unacceptable because of territorial and strategic interests. Even as policy makers appear to be struggling to evolve a robust position centred on territorial sovereignty, there is a surge in opinion urging the government to be moderate and “magnanimous” in adopting “a more flexible approach” while considering its options.
India must not lose an opportunity to communicate its concerns to the international community. It also needs to muster efforts to ensure that its territorial position is not diluted further in order to avoid past situations such as Tibet and Aksai Chin. That CPEC assets in PoK are not used militarily against India during war is a further source of concern for the security establishment and whether India should seek China’s assurance on the same forms an element of thinking in this category.
Only by respecting the sovereignty of countries involved, can regional connectivity corridors fulfil their promise and avoid differences and discord. China is a country which is very sensitive on matters concerning its sovereignty. So it is expected that they would have some understanding of other people’s sensitivity about their sovereignty. Meanwhile, India must uphold its specific reservations on the project and draft a strategy to revert suitably in case CPEC is offered formally through official channels. Till things crystallise further, India must wait, watch, weigh and exercise options at hand, and allow the confusion to prevail some more as the ambitious project, shrouded in layers of uncertainty, rolls out.