India’s ambivalence on China can derail regional groupings… writes Subir Bhaumik
A senior diplomat recently told a seminar in Kolkata that India joins too many regional groupings, some of them overlapping, and then not doing anything worthwhile to carry forward their intended agendas. The message from this former ambassador to three countries was clear: Only when convinced it will benefit India should we join a grouping – and that with a clear roadmap and leveraging it for Indian interests.
It is like someone taking the membership of too many clubs which he or she can’t possibly visit in view of a busy work schedule. Buddies complain and money is wasted without any benefit to personal profile.
India is the leading light of SAARC. As the biggest economy and the most populous nation in South Asia, the blame for failure of regional integration has been often laid at India’s door. South Asia is perhaps the least integrated region of the world and the India-Pakistan rivalry has ensured it stays that way. Despite the symbolism of Modi’s invitations to all SAARC heads of government for his swearing-in, India does not seem to have a roadmap on how to take regional integration in South Asia forward. Symbolism is useful but only if backed by substance.
India is also the biggest economy and the most populous country in BIMSTEC, a grouping of countries around the Bay of Bengal. After long delays, BIMSTEC finally has a headquarters in Dhaka and hopefully it will turn out to be more active than the one of SAARC at Kathmandu. New Delhi seems to have gathered some enthusiasm to push forward the BIMSTEC process but some suspect – and perhaps not without reason – that the real reason for that is to energise the grouping spanning across parts of South and Southeast Asia that do not have either China or Pakistan in it.
So what happens to the BCIM that has India and China with Bangladesh and Myanmar? Beginning as the Kunming Initiative in 1999, progress in BCIM has been very slow alongside another Track-II initiative between Indian and Chinese frontier regions called K2K (Kunming-to-Kolkata). China is now keen to carry forward BCIM, specially its proposal for developing an economic corridor along the highway connecting the four countries on the route of the Feb-March 2013 BCIM car rally.
On the Indian side, the K2K process is spearheaded by Kolkata-based think tank Centre for Studies in International Relations and Development (CSIRD), which has advised New Delhi to bring some substance to the graduated engagement rather than just end with agreements to “explore possibilities”.
During Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit in May 2013, India agreed to explore possibilities of carrying forward the BCIM process. More than a year later, during President Xi Jinping’s visit, the situation was unchanged. The BCIM economic corridor figured very marginally in the bilateral agenda and found only a fleeting mention in the joint communiqué, its status unchanged from the Li-Manmohan Singh understanding. Modi not only made it clear to Xi that India would not join China’s ambitious Maritime Silk Route initiative but he effectively nixed the BCIM economic corridor proposal.
India’s lack of enthusiasm on the BCIM economic corridor, to implement which the Chinese have already finalized a slew of proposals, was responsible for China backing down the scale of its investments in India. Before Xi’s visit, Chinese diplomats had hinted that Beijing was looking to invest $100 billion, almost thrice the amount promised by Japan. During Xi’s visit, only one-fifth of that materialized – $20 billion was promised for projects mostly located in Gujarat and Maharastra. Chinese sources now say that most of the big-ticket investments were planned for the BCIM economic corridor or Indian states located around it in the east and northeast. When Modi did not warm up to the BCIM economic corridor, the Chinese did not put these proposals on the table. Most of the big ticket investments were for building infrastructure to implement the economic corridor – and if that was not happening, the money would not flow out of Beijing.
India is clearly insecure letting the Chinese invest bigtime in its eastern and northeastern states. But Modi welcomes Chinese investments with open arms to Gujarat and Maharastra. So much for his promises to use our Look East policy to develop the northeast! Delhi has to realize it cannot keep China hanging on the BCIM economic corridor proposal as both Bangladesh and Myanmar are keen to take it forward. Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina raised the issue with Modi in New York recently. If India is out of the equation, China can still develop the Yunnan-Arakan-Chittagong axis as the BCM economic corridor minus India and then link it up to Xi’s ambitious Maritime Silk Route – about which BIMSTEC countries like Sri Lanka and the Maldives are enthusiastic.
It makes no sense for India to pursue Look East through the northeast unless it is to engage China, the world’s biggest economy. It makes much more economic sense to engage the ASEAN nations by sea.