The real tragedy of India's absence from China's OBOR plan
The most important benefit - jobs - for Indians through this massive infrastructural project is now not going to take place.
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Much of the hyperventilating around India’s non-participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been sound without substance, easily seen when we discuss the most important aspects: money and jobs.
Commentators seem to forget that BRI is completely disconnected from India when it comes to roads or rail. Without trade flowing through India, the most important benefit for ordinary Indians through this massive infrastructural project – jobs, jobs, jobs – was never going to happen.
The only way for that connectivity to happen would be a road that ran from Lhasa to Leh, through Srinagar, Baramulla and on to Lahore – requiring merely the solution to both the Tibetan and Kashmiri conflicts. India’s full participation in BRI is as distant a dream as the amicable resolution of these issues.
On the other hand, despite political posturing, India is – and will be – institutionally involved in BRI, most concretely through the Asian Infrastructural Investment Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank (NDB), formerly known as the BRICS Bank.
India is a founding member of the AIIB with the second highest shares (8.52 per cent) after China’s (30.34 per cent), and the president of the NDB is an Indian, KV Kamath. AIIB has already started investing in BRI, while the NDB is also poised to do so – as soon as it sorts itself out. If India really wanted to object, this is where it would matter.
The sound of silence is rather pronounced, indicating that Indian protests are merely words and posturing, not of substance.
Secondly there is the well-known Newton-Pavlovian Law of Salivation. This states that when you drop a few billion dollars for a project, a businessman will forget everything – including national interest – as they salivate over a vision of the profits. This law is beautifully illustrated by Gautam Adani, who – the Indian government states – is going to lead our response to BRI.
Curiously enough this has not led Adani to shut down the Adani Shipping China Co Ltd in Dalian, China. If anybody is willing to bet that India’s big businessmen will not invest in BRI initiative, can you please introduce them to me?
In all of this sound and fury about opportunities (that are far out of reach) and the participation by Indian government and businesses (which remain unaffected), what is ignored is the failure of our strategic alternative.
In a sense the SAARC Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) and the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) MVA were similar to BRI – creating a movement corridor that would link the countries, create jobs and enhance trade (though lower in its ambitions to build infrastructure).
The SAARC MVA foundered on the toxic India-Pakistan relationship. We can blame Pakistan’s suspicions and hostility for that failure, but the failure of the BBIN MVA was all ours.
Despite Modi choosing Bhutan as the first foreign country to visit after becoming the prime minister, the BBIN MVA showed a total disregard for Bhutan’s concerns. A tiny country, with little over 7,00,000 inhabitants, and only one road running from east to west, Bhutan has a near fanatical concern with its environment. Its Constitution mandates that at least two-thirds of the land has to be under forest cover.
The idea of its roads being opened to (possibly unrestrained) traffic from Bangladesh, India and Nepal was a nightmare. The local truck drivers, taxi associations and environmentalists rebelled.
Despite many assurances by India, pleas by the Asian Development Bank, and Bhutan’s own PM (whose party has two-thirds majority in the National Assembly), the legislature rejected the BBIN MVA.
I am told that we will continue to pursue this, and while voting, Bhutanese parliamentarians went out of their way to say that they were rejecting the initiative but were confident that the relationship was robust enough that it would not be harmed.
Nevertheless it takes a certain genius to propose an initiative so spectacularly stupid that our friendly ally – whose security we guarantee and whose roads we have built and maintained – is forced to reject it. Only Modi’s government is capable of such greatness.
This is the disaster that India would have worn around its neck at the launch of BRI. China – a country whose ruling party managed to murder by starvation 40 million of its own citizens through the Great Leap Forward – has managed to present itself as an attractive global actor with whom the world wishes to work with. India, a liberal democratic country with an open (if strained) society could not even convince three of its closest countries to do so.
This disaster, a disaster of our own making, showcasing a foreign policy marked by both enormous arrogance and incompetence, is what we should be focussing on. Everything else is just noise.