Published:  12:22 AM, 12 February 2019

India key to China's BRI, says former Portuguese minister


Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina ruffled many feathers in Delhi when she suggested India should join China's ambitious geo-political Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).Now a top European politician has suggested the same.

In a unique book on China's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, Portugal's former minister and Sinologist Bruno Macaes has argued that India holds the key to the success of Beijing's grandiose geo-political Initiative. "This has less to do with geography than with history," Macaes writes in his insightful book "Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order" published by Penguins.

"As two rising giants , China and India will play a disproportionate role in shaping the new world political and economic order, but like every claim on the future, their role remain ambiguous . In China's case, the question is whether it will eventually measure up to the task of replacing the existing US-led world order with something new... It is a question to which India will provide its own answer."

Macaes argues that 'if China and India can align their foreign policies ... then the Belt and Road's chances of success increase proportionately. But if India decides that life within the Western Order will be better than under an alternative arrangement, the Belt and Road will struggle to meet its original ambition.'Macaes says that India's opposition to the Belt and Road is because the Chinese plan is seen by it as an economic challenge.

"The same reasons that push China into playing a greater global role explain why India may be constrained by the Belt and Road... Access to commodities and energy sources, control over significant markets and the need to organize highly competitive and cross-border value chains -- in all these cases, China has quickly moved in."

"The question, of course, is whether there will be any space left for India. How will the Indian economy be able to move up into higher-value segments of global value chains if it turns around and sees many of its fast-growing neighbors already incorporated into a China-led economic network?  An enforced return to India's period of economic autarchy haunts its future development."

Macaes argues that by coming up with two or three projects like developing the Iranian port of Chabahar, India would not be able to match the mammoth scale of the Belt and Road. "As opposed to Chabahar, the Chinese-led initiative is designed to fundamentally change global networks and move China to the centre of a new political and economic order," he argues.

For many, the Belt and Road is an opportunity for China to entrench its naval presence in the Indian Ocean, as its state-owned companies build dual-use ports where its cargo ships and military vessels can dock in -- but this is precisely what worries India which seeks centrality in its vision of the Indo-Pacific.Macaes poses a basic question on India's future. "As China and US compete over key technologies, India risks becoming the market…a territory rather than an actor."

"With its population soon to overtake China -- and boosting an expanding middle class -- India will be a coveted market for both Chinese and American companies. Can it leverage that prize into political and economic influence?"Arguing, like geo-politics guru Parag Khanna who upholds India's position as the most important swing-state in global politics now, Macaes says this perhaps explains why Indian decision-makers prefer to delay and dither rather than provide clear guidance on their role in the Great Game.

Macaes blames Chinese foreign policy as 'particularly disastrous' for inadequately addressing the India question. He says China included Calcutta as one of the main nodes in Belt and Road map of Xinhua but did not court India much."China must have thought that India would be happy with any kind of role in the Belt and Road and neglected the vital task of cajoling and flattering its neighbor.

The result has been very much the opposite -- India became the core critic of China's geopolitical plans," says Macaes, but he is quick to add: "Many in Delhi think that because the root of the problem is China's misperceptions of the issue, it can be corrected and an aggressive policy towards Beijing should be tempered by the recognition that China and India ultimately belong together."Macaes' final note of caution for India -- opposing the Belt and Road can be expensive -- even when it makes sense as a long-term economic strategy.

"Embracing it can at least open a number of exciting negotiations." Indian uncertainties, he says, is reflected in G20 meet in Buenos Aires in 2018 when Prime Minister Modi first got himself photographed with US president and the Japanese prime minister and then separately with the Chinese and Russian president -- multi-alignment born out of strategic ambiguity, he seems to argue.

This writer made a strong case for harmony between China's Belt and Road Initiative and India's Look East policy during a global conference at Lanzhou last year.Most Indian decision-makers now agree that Delhi is okay implementing the BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar) grouping which is coterminous with one of the six key routes of Belt and Road plan. But Delhi opposes BRI apparently because one of its routes - the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) - passes through Pakistan administered Kashmir, which India continues to claim. 

But with Indian now considering a dialogue with China on Afghanistan to protect its interests in that country in the backdrop of its angst over the proposed US military withdrawal, it is not unlikely Delhi may find China useful for mediating a final settlement in Kashmir. Much depends on whether China buys Bruno Macaes' pitch that India is key to the success of Belt and Road.


The writer is a former BBC Correspondent and author

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