In mid May this year, Beijing formally unveiled its plans for a $1.3 trillion Belt and Road Initiative, that was previously referred to as the new Silk Route and then the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. Its flagship project will be the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a $46 billion investment that will connect Kashgar in Xinxiang to Gwadar in Pakistan on the Arabian sea and also prop up the failing Pakistani economy. But that apart, for India, it is the formalisation of the Chinese presence in northern parts of the territory of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), as the CPEC will pass through Pakistan occupied Kashmir, that is most annoying. Thus, as an objection, Indian representatives were not in attendance at Beijing’s recent big coming out party for OBOR, that was attended by over 28 heads of state and 60 top officials from all those countries that are part of OBOR, a wide network of road, rail and sea routes that connects the Eurasian and African land mass to China, in which Beijing has decided to pour in about $150 million annually over the next decade. For China, it is both a geo-economic initiative for surplus Chinese products to be pushed into the markets in Europe and Africa, as also a geo-strategic initiative, like the CPEC, that could eventually make Pakistan a Chinese vassal. The deep strategic ties between China and Pakistan have for decades, been a matter of concern to India. Beijing’s focus has been to position Pakistan as a counterweight to a rising India, an India that could challenge Beijing’s hegemonic agenda, concerns about which have also been expressed by some Southeast Asian countries as well as Russia.
With Pakistan now squarely in China’s camp, a respected Pakistani newspaper, The Dawn, had questioned the CPEC arrangements, as it “envisages a deep and broad-based penetration of most sectors of Pakistan’s economy as well as its society by Chinese enterprises and culture. Its scope has no precedent in Pakistan’s history in terms of how far it opens up the domestic economy to participation by foreign enterprises.” Such an observation hasn’t been publicly raised earlier in Pakistan, because China’s territorial encroachments have been slow and steady from the time Pakistan ceded the Shaksgam Valley (north of the Siachen glacier) to the Chinese in 1963. In fact, even India’s objections to China’s presence in J&K have been few, despite the fact that the Chinese occupy Aksai Chin, which is a part of east Ladakh. Apparently, there is a view in New Delhi that India is willing to accept China’s presence there as long as the Chinese are willing to let India’s habited areas, especially in Arunachal Pradesh be with India. But unlike India, the strong Chinese opposition to the visit of the Dalai Lama to Tawang was a reality check for those hoping that China would let things pass.
More annoying for Delhi has been two other Chinese diplomatic affronts over the past year, despite booming trade ties between the two countries with twothirds of the Sino-India annual trade of $70 billion being in China’s favour. For one, Beijing openly blocked India’s move to add Masood Azhar, the leader of the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad terror group and the perpetrator of attacks on India, to the United Nations proscribed terrorist list, and the other was Beijing’s veto to India’s desire to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), by insisting that Pakistan too must get it, even though the bulk of the countries that make up the NSG see Pakistan as a threat to their anti-proliferation efforts.
The reason is not hard to see, as Pakistan’s entry into the NSG would legitimise Pakistan’s nuclear programme that observers say is ‘Çhina’s nuclear programme in Pakistan’. Moreover, over the past decade, China has become Pakistan’s most trusted arms supplier, with weapons that are formidable in nature, whether it is the Chinese- Pakistani FC-1 planes, ZDK-03 AWACS planes, Zulfiqar class frigates or a twolayered land-based surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems HQ-7 and HQ-16, and much more. All these could potentially only be used by Pakistan against India.
China has in fact been steadily limiting India’s strategic options, by presenting India with a two front option along its land borders, i.e, of a presenting China-Pak combined front if India were to militarily retaliate against another major Pak sponsored terror attack; although China had failed to live up to Pakistan’s expectations during the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak wars, as Pakistan’s plans went horribly wrong. Even then, India must be prepared for a such a scenario-a two front air land campaignbut for which our forces are inadequately equipped, going by the then air vice chief and current IAF chief, Air Marshal Dhanoa’s remarks that “our numbers are not adequate to fully execute an air campaign in a two-front scenario”. The reasons lie between India’s tediously long defence procurement process, the impossible desire to suddenly ‘make in India’ and earlier bizarre view that if the Sino-Indian border areas are developed, then Chinese troops could quickly roll into the Assam plains. Fortunately, this thinking has now been abandoned.
But it is China’s growing reach in the Indian Ocean region, by establishing naval bases around India (as part of its ‘string of pearls’ strategy) that has caused alarm in recent years. And the OBOR would only help the Chinese to further cement their agenda of ensuring that the Indian Ocean isn’t India’s ocean anymore. This Beijing plans to do by building ports that double up as military bases (like Djibouti and Gwadar) for its ships and submarines, both for force projection and to guard its vulnerable maritime supply routes from the Gulf region via the Straits of Malacca to eastern China. Currently though, the Indian navy can still make matters difficult for China, in the event of a confrontation. But that edge may not be there forever, with the Chinese working with alarming efficiency to a plan.
The immediate answer is for India’s establishment to accept the fact that as China economy goes from strength to strength, so will its belligerent attitude. Beijing has never been apologetic about its muscle flexing or its land grab tactics, like it is doing in the South China Sea. In fact it is very good at using history selectively to buttress its territorial claims. India must therefore be under no illusions. China is and will remain India’s most serious long term challenge, and it will continue to prop up Pakistan to keep Delhi distracted. And China has no intention to settle its borders India, other than perhaps by the use of military force, when it catches India unawares. The answer therefore lies in India not only arming its forces—by speeding up purchases for the IAF and the Strike Corps planned for Sikkim—to prevent another Himalayan blunder, but also enhancing bi-lateral defence ties with countries like Vietnam and Japan. They have both been unhesitant to look the Chinese in the eye, unlike our pussy footing diplomats, who claim that by keeping the Himalayan front free of military engagements, they’ve achieved the impossible! Passivity is a trait the Chinese do not respect. Moreover, with the US under President Trump increasingly keen to look inward, India has to make the most of its few trusted partners in Asia.
So was their merit in India’s decision to pull out of OBOR? Yes, indeed! Apart from the fact that India wanted to convey its strong objections to Beijing’s territorial encroachment in north J&K (that is legally a part of India), all is not well with OBOR and how the Chinese are going about their business. Beijing’s projects in Central Asia (that Russia regards as its backyard), Sri Lanka and in Malaysia have run into opposition, and though much of it is funded by Chinese banks, the high interest rates on projects have become difficult for countries to pay. Moreover, once inside, Chinese companies care little for the sensitivities of the locals. Therefore, as a counter, India has decided to pitch itself with Japan, which is flush with funds and unwilling to join the OBOR network. Both countries are now looking to invest in Iran’s port town of Chabahar, as a counter to Gwadar, apart from access to Afghanistan, as a counter to Pakistan. That apart, Japanese funding for upgrading India’s own infrastructure within India and initiatives with India’s immediate neighbours like Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Nepal (even though the Nepalese are increasingly orbiting towards China) is on offer without the stringent conditions that China imposes. Most importantly, New Delhi has always obsessively guarded its strategic autonomy, and that would be lost once you are in Beijing’s embrace. In fact, it is this factor more than any other that has prevented Delhi from settling down for good in Washington’s camp.
Maroof Raza is a consulting editor with TIMES NOW, and a commentator on National Security. His website is https:/ /www.maroofraza.com This article first appeared in Open Magazine.