- India as a Challenge to China's Belt and Road Initiative
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was announced by Xi Jinping in 2013 and comprises both the land-based Silk Road Economic Belt (launched in August 2013) and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (introduced in September 2013). The initiative was showcased in a manner that was too appealing to be ignored by the countries of the Indian Ocean region. Many Indians also viewed BRI as highly promising for their country.
As a virtual "island state" constrained by landward geophysical barriers in the north, India is in dire need of developing its economic corridors and maritime transportation infrastructure. Projections indicate that by 2050, India will be the second-largest economy (in purchasing power parity terms), premised inter alia on the growth trends of merchandise trade.1 However, leading Indian economists point out that a large part of the country's export potential remains unrealized, mostly in its own neighborhood. The key reason for this loss of competitiveness is rising "trade costs," mainly for maritime transportation, which are heightened by the lack of connectivity and port infrastructure.2 Therefore, even though the Indian government never endorsed BRI, a few Indian analysts (including this author) were of the view that the Chinese initiative was pregnant with geoeconomic opportunities for India, and, premised on the ongoing India-China rivalry, it may not be prudent for New Delhi to throw the baby out with the bathwater.3 Eventually, however, the official Indian position against BRI hardened to the extent that India was the one key country in [End Page 27] the Indian Ocean region not represented at the major international Belt and Road Forum organized in Beijing in May 2017.4
This essay aims to examine some mainstream Indian perspectives on BRI and analyze its likely adverse ramifications for India. Based on these findings, the essay considers how India should (and is likely to) tailor its foreign policy and national security responses to this Chinese initiative.
Mainstream Indian Perspectives on BRI
Owing largely to the country's geographic location and disposition, India's national interests are closely intertwined with developments in the Indian Ocean region. In this context, BRI is seen in New Delhi as China's endeavor to capitalize on the desires, vulnerabilities, and insecurities of regional countries.
Sri Lanka, for instance, sought BRI to bolster investment in its port-led economic development after the 2009 end to decades of internal conflict, but later became beset by debt. In December 2017, Sri Lanka was compelled to grant China a 99-year lease and 70% stake in the deepwater port at Hambantota.5 In Maldives, China played on the political fissures and local fears of sea-level rise to involve Chinese companies in reclamation projects. Today, the country owes China $1.5 billion—about 30% of its GDP—in construction costs.6 In Malaysia, China's exorbitantly expensive Melaka Gateway port project was premised on Kuala Lumpur's geoeconomic rivalry with Singapore to host a major hub port in the Asia-Pacific.7 Pakistan, for its part, was much too willing to cede to China the transit corridor from Kashi to Gwadar in order to reduce its own strategic vulnerability vis-à-vis [End Page 28] militarily superior India and develop the Baluchistan Province. Pakistan owes China at least $10 billion in debt for the construction of Gwadar port and other projects.8 Viewed in New Delhi, China's approach runs counter to India's vision for collective and inclusive economic development of the Indian Ocean region. India believes that it cannot attain prosperity for its citizens in isolation from the regional neighborhood.
BRI is also viewed in New Delhi as China's attempt to outsource its low-end "sunset" industries to initiative partners, letting them worry about the attendant issues of environmental pollution. To redress this issue, in June 2017, in the document "Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative," China attempted to link BRI with blue economy and sustainable development concepts.9 However, repackaging does not change the product. Pakistan's coal-based power plant project in Rahim Yar Khan, proposed to be built by...