OBOR connectivity shunned

ALL historic opportunities come with an element of risk. It is, therefore, quite appropriate to ask hard questions about the financing and affordability of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and to which country will accrue the majority of gains in the years and decades ahead.

At the same time, it is necessary to acknowledge that CPEC is only one plank, an important one no doubt, of the vast One Belt, One Road project that Chinese President Xi Jinping has made the centrepiece of his rule — a developmental and an infrastructure-building spree on a scale that the world has not seen since the end of the Second World War.

While the US, architect of the current global economic and political order, has fretted that OBOR amounts to China’s first attempt to redraw the global order, there is an undeniable opportunity at the heart of the venture.

If engaged with sensibly and pragmatically, OBOR could help all of China’s trading partners and regional neighbours, big and small, realise collective gains. That makes India’s decision to boycott the OBOR summit all the more puzzling. Even the US and Japan sent delegations to the summit in Beijing.

The Indian foreign ministry’s official reasons for declining to participate are contradictory. Citing India’s own Act East, Neighbourhood First and Go West policies, the ministry spokesperson has claimed that connectivity is at the heart of Indian foreign policy.

But the spokesperson has rejected that very connectivity through OBOR on the pretext of debt traps and financial responsibility — a bizarre form of diplomacy where India appears to believe that it is better placed to interpret the national interest of third countries and the sovereign decisions they are making than those countries themselves.

Even the objection to CPEC because of the claim that the Gilgit-Baltistan region is integral to the Kashmir issue is self-defeating; CPEC is only a part of OBOR, which has already drawn in virtually all of India’s neighbours.

It is as if India believes that by ignoring OBOR, it can thwart its vast effects on the region. In reality, even the most cautious cooperative approach by India could yield significant benefits for both India and the region.

From a Pakistan-centric approach too, the Indian approach makes little sense. As the relationship between China and India itself has shown, trade and economic cooperation can reduce political tensions and create enough incentives for long-term disputes to not turn into open conflict. If OBOR succeeds even to a small extent, it could draw the wider region into a virtuous cycle of trade and prosperity that could cause the spectre of conflict among the region’s three major military powers to recede.

Perhaps India sees itself as a global power to rival China eventually, but that does not mean it should spurn sensible opportunities in the interim. India should reconsider its stance on OBOR.

Published in Dawn, May 17th, 2017