India and Pakistan have now become full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in the recently concluded SCO summit in Astana, Kazakhstan. This has serious geopolitical implications for China’s One Belt One Road Initiative (OBOR) as all the SCO members have acceded to the idea of OBOR except India. India has clearly shown its resentment on the OBOR by not participating in the OBOR summit during the month of May in Beijing, but was it the right decision?
India has genuine concerns regarding the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a very important link in the OBOR, passing through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), a disputed territory between India and Pakistan and a thorny issue since India’s independence. There are implications of the OBOR for India and there are possible geostrategic alternatives India can invoke to counter the Chinese in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region.
Chinese encirclement of India seems to be complete with the acceptance of China’s OBOR and its oceanic component, the Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI) by India’s neighbours, European countries and the United States of America. The Chinese claim that both these initiatives are benign and purely economically oriented for the benefit of Chinese trade and business in the region and the larger Eurasian continent.
On the other hand, many countries have argued that through building ports and harbours at ports littoral to the Indian Ocean in Asia and Africa, China is expanding its strategic footprint. The evidence also suggests the same as the Chinese, over the last few years, have been regularly deploying vessels of the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) from the South China Sea to the Gulf of Aden and to the Red Sea. In such a scenario, India needs to chalk out a clear cut geographical strategy to counter the Chinese presence in the region with its own initiatives.
A step in the right direction will be to push towards economic integration of the South Asian subcontinent. This can be achieved through increase in the intra-regional trade in South Asia with India being the leader. The share of intra-regional trade in South Asia stood at only 5.58 % in 2015 (Asian Development Bank) as compared to 35 and 25 per cent in East Asia and South East Asia respectively. Such an economic integration can come through improved infrastructure in the region and a free trade regime with substance and not only big ideas.
The thrust should be upon linking all the countries in the region with transport networks and improve the existing trade imbalances in the region, if India has any serious plans to thwart the increasing Chinese presence in the region. Geographically and strategically, such an approach makes absolute sense and perhaps India has the required resources to construct and build its own small transport network to facilitate trade in the region. Also, such a linkage network is in synchronization with PM Narendra Modi’s neighbourhood first policy.
Second, India should invest substantially into transport corridors in countries, especially in regional partners like Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan. India can learn from its own good work done in Afghanistan where they have been building roads, hospitals and schools. It is through this benign work that has brought India tremendous amount of goodwill in Afghanistan.
India has to take in its stride that Pakistan, the number two economy, by volume in South Asia, does not always agree to and participate in India’s initiatives in the region. In such a scenario, India needs to invest in other important actors in the region and assume economic as well as strategic leadership.
Third, India needs to realize the significance of a very strong naval force in the Indian Ocean Region. The oceanic arm of China’s OBOR, the MSRI has brought China through its constructions of various harbours and ports in the region to the Indian Ocean. An offshoot of these building activities in the IOR is increased and frequent Chinese naval presence. India’s geographic location in the Indian Ocean and its strategic value in the context of the larger regional calculations cannot be overstated.
Peninsular India overlooks the two important water masses connecting Indian Ocean, namely Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. These two water bodies in turn allow India to connect to the landmasses in the west (West Asia and Africa) and the east (Southeast Asia and Australia). India’s efforts in building a Blue Water Navy since the late 1990s have to come to fruition in the near future if it intends to counter China in the IOR. A preliminary test of the Blue Water Navy should come in the IOR.
Geopolitically, India’s acceptance of the idea of Indo-Pacific Region in collaboration with Japan and Australia offers good opportunities to negate the Chinese overtures in the region. The Chinese effort to strategically establish as the dominant actor has to be overcome through cooperation with important regional actors. On the subcontinent however, India needs to gain confidence of its immediate neighbours by investing heavily in the infrastructure projects aimed at regional integration. The larger idea should be counter China’s OBOR.
However, India missed an opportunity at Beijing, by not attending the launch of OBOR and not raising India’s concerns regarding the CPEC running through a disputed territory.