In politics, wrote the great American writer Will Durant, the longest distance between two points is a straight line. The same is also true about geo-economics and geo-politics. But, unfortunately, India’s foreign policy czars are unaware of diplomacy’s non-Euclidean truths. New Delhi’s resistance to China’s prestigious One Belt, One Road (OBOR) hints at lack of subtlety and tons of obtuseness in the foreign office.
India’s major objection to OBOR pertains to its $50 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), as the corridor passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). On the face of it, the objection is not without grounds, for PoK is a part of India. Closer scrutiny presents an entirely different story.
The way in which the Indian government has reacted to the recently held the Belt and Road Forum—by skipping it—is indicative of pompous stolidity rather than imaginative thinking. Typically, the Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement, “We are of firm belief that connectivity initiatives must be based on universally recognized international norms, good governance, rule of law, openness, transparency and equality… Connectivity projects must be pursued in a manner that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Further, the statement said, “Guided by our principled position in the matter, we have been urging China to engage in a meaningful dialogue on its connectivity initiative, ‘One Belt, One Road’ which was later renamed as ‘Belt and Road Initiative’. We are awaiting a positive response from the Chinese side.”
This is an essay in pomposity, relating to little in the real world. For China cares two hoots about such abstractions as international norms, rule of law, openness, and transparency. Remember how it disregarded the decision of an arbitration tribunal under the auspices of the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea? The tribunal, in July 2016, had backed the Philippines’ case, saying China had violated its rights in South China Sea.
To comprehend the situation properly and respond rationally requires a keen understanding of the Chinese psyche. That China harbors imperial ambitions is well known. What is rarely recognized, however, is a phantasmal imperial hangover. It is phantasmal because in the last few centuries China was not an empire; in fact, it was a victim of imperial powers, not just of European but also, and more painfully, of Japanese imperialism.
The situation brings to my mind the fictitious character of James Bond. Her Majesty’s secret agent can be regarded as the embodiment of Great Britain’s imperial hangover, gallantly saving the world several times, thus carrying out its imperial duty where none is needed, for there is no British empire in reality. But then Bond is not real. Beijing’s imperial hangover is also fictional, as there was no empire to be reminisced nostalgically—it’s like waking up in the morning with a huge hangover but without having got drunk the previous evening. But the difference is that China’s hangover, though fictional, has real consequences for itself and the world.
OBOR is one of the consequences, and the wide world realizes it. But there is another way of looking at OBOR: it can give China’s imperial hangover a better, constructive outlet.
One way of dealing with it is keep doing what we have been doing since 1947: mouthing platitudes, believing in them, and then losing way in the maze of realpolitik. This is the easy way: OBOR disrespects our territorial integrity, so it is bad and we oppose it. Period. The Narendra Modi government has chosen the easy path.
Smart politicians adapt themselves to the changing conditions. Candidate Donald Trump called China a “currency manipulator.” But President Trump stated said last month that “they’re not currency manipulators.” He even sent an American representative to the recent OBOR meet. Our political masters, however, stick to the oft-trodden path, its treacherous quagmires notwithstanding.
The road not taken, which could have made all the difference, was joining OBOR after registering protest over CPEC. It would have brought the following benefits to India:
First, we could have reaped the fruits of infrastructural development (if there are any) without investing much in it. For, whatever negative one may say about the Chinese, it is indubitable that they guys do a good job when it comes making roads, airports, ports, etc.
Second, since Beijing was very keen on India joining OBOR, we could have resolved the age-old border dispute with it on reasonable terms. Besides, we could also have persuaded them to go tough on Pak-inspired terror; we could even have coaxed China to relent on Hafiz Sayeed.
Third, by joining OBOR India could have campaigned, in association with other countries, for favorable terms for the non-Chinese. This would also have helped exacerbating the anti-China feelings everywhere, including Pakistan where there are already protests against CPEC.
And, finally and most importantly, OBOR has the potential of bursting the Chinese bubble. It is a debt-induced bubble which is impossible to continue forever. The country’s debt is 300 per cent of GDP, against India’s 68.5 per cent. China is fast moving towards collapse; OBOR can expedite it. For this very reason, India should have joined OBOR.
But India’s foreign policy mandarins, habituated to linear thinking and fearful of anything imaginative, are incapable of visualizing such gains. So, India stands isolated today; and it is not splendid isolation.