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  • India's Response to China's Belt and Road Initiative:A Policy in Motion
  • Harsh V. Pant (bio) and Ritika Passi (bio)

A sense of aloofness and wariness, perhaps even deflection, initially characterized India's official response to China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). But as BRI has progressed to the point where New Delhi can no longer afford to ignore it, public comments have underscored several reservations and contentions. The first such pronouncement was made by the Indian foreign secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in 2015:

Where we are concerned, this is a national Chinese initiative. The Chinese devised it, created a blueprint. It wasn't an international initiative they discussed with the world, with countries that are interested or affected by it.…A national initiative is devised with national interests, it is not incumbent on others to buy it. Where we stand is that if this is something on which they want a larger buy-in, then they need to have larger discussions, and those haven't happened.1

The unilateral ideation and announcement of BRI, as well as Beijing's subsequent bilateral follow-up with regional states, reinforced suspicions of China's geopolitical designs. Indian critics fear that China may use its economic power to increase its geopolitical leverage, and in doing so intensify existing security concerns for India. As Jaishankar commented more substantively in March 2016 at the inauguration of India's official foreign policy conference, the Raisina Dialogue:

The interactive dynamic between strategic interests and connectivity initiatives—a universal proposition—is on particular display in our continent….[W]e cannot be impervious to the reality that others may see connectivity as an exercise in hardwiring that influences choices. This should be discouraged, because, particularly in the absence of an agreed security architecture in Asia, it could give rise to unnecessary competitiveness. [End Page 88]

Connectivity should diffuse national rivalries, not add to regional tensions…if we seek a multipolar world, the right way to begin is to create a multipolar Asia. Nothing could foster that more than open-minded consultation on the future of connectivity.2

"Unnecessary competitiveness" and "regional tensions" hint at the growing Chinese footprint in India's neighborhood—both on land and at sea. But proof positive for the Indian government of China's unilateral pursuit of self-serving geopolitical gains is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), BRI's flagship project that connects China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region with Pakistan's Baluchistan Province. The corridor runs through the contested territory of what India calls Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Pakistan claims as the areas of Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. Indian officials have repeatedly taken up CPEC and the breach of sovereignty with their Chinese counterparts during bilateral interaction. Despite Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi's assertion that the corridor "will be sensitive to the comfort level of other parties," no satisfactory response from Beijing has been forthcoming that addresses what is clearly a red line for India.3 Therefore, after merely alluding in the context of discussions about connectivity that CPEC adds to "regional tensions," Indian officials are now making bolder statements. For instance, opening the Raisina Dialogue in January 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated, "Connectivity in itself cannot override or undermine the sovereignty of other nations." 4 Ahead of China's BRI Forum for global leaders in May 2017, Jaishankar reiterated India's concerns:

They have extended an invitation to the government to participate in the summit. We are examining the matter. The fact [is] that China Pakistan Economic Corridor is part of [BRI]. CPEC violates Indian sovereignty because it runs through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.…We were very frank with them in sharing what our concerns were and we share it in public. But the issue for us is a sovereignty issue.5 [End Page 89]

While Modi had declined to participate, the jury was still out on whether India would send a representative. One day prior to the BRI Forum, however, the Ministry of External Affairs issued an even more comprehensive complaint that not only reiterated India's stance on CPEC but also broached wider concerns of implementing connectivity projects relating to "good governance, rule of law, transparency and...