Here’s why India hasn’t joined the multi-billion dollar ‘21st century Silk Road’ regional connectivity project


  • China’s regional forum for its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) - dubbed the “21st Century Silk Road” kicks off today with a glaring exclusion.
  • India has decided not to participate in the forum for the multi-billion dollar regional connectivity, investment and infrastructure initiative, which is being attended by representatives from around 150 countries as well as officials from the UN and IMF.
  • After skipping the forum in May 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided against endorsing the programme in June 2018, citing the threats to “sovereignty and territorial integrity” of participating nations.
China’s regional forum for its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) - dubbed the “21st Century Silk Road” kicks off today with a glaring exclusion.

India has decided not to participate in the forum for the multi-billion dollar regional connectivity, investment and infrastructure initiative, which is being attended by representatives from around 150 countries as well as officials from the UN and IMF.

The move has precedence. After skipping the forum in May 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided against endorsing the programme in June 2018, citing the threats to “sovereignty and territorial integrity” of participating nations.

Prior to the decision, China had expressly stated that it wouldn’t “hold any grudges” if India didn’t attend the forum.

However, the absence of India, which was an important country on the historical Silk Road, will be a blow to China.

The aim of the BRI is to establish a network of trade routes and Chinese-led investment partnerships through Southeast Asia, the Middle East and parts of Europe and Africa.

At first glance, the reason for India’s decision seems obvious. In March, China blocked a UN Security Council resolution to designate Masood Azhar - the mastermind behind the February 14th Pulwama attacks - a terrorist.

More importantly, a part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is a component of BRI, passes through Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir - a region that is the subject of a territorial dispute with India.

However, it is also opposed to the BRI for other reasons. These largely pertain to the expansion of China’s military presence across Southeast Asia as well as the practice of trapping participating countries with unmanageable levels of debt for infrastructure projects.

China is extending large sums of credit to governments of smaller countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Maldives for development projects. A stark example is the case of Sri Lanka, which surrendered a 99-year lease on its $1.3 billion Hambantota port to China in December 2017 after failing to meet its debt payments.

In March last year, the former US Secretary of State didn’t mince any words with regards to his administration’s view of China’s overtures to smaller nations, saying that the country “encourages dependency using opaque contracts, predatory loan practices, and corrupt deals that mire nations in debt and undercut their sovereignty”.

In August last year, Malaysia’s new prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, scrapped $22 billion of Chinese infrastructure projects, pointing out their lack of feasibility and the need to reduce the country’s debt burden.

In fact, nearly 70% of the respondents in a survey conducted across Southeast Asia earlier this month by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a Singapore-based think tank, said that their governments should be careful when it came to negotiating BRI projects with China.

In addition, around half the respondents felt that China intended to turn the region into “its sphere of influence”.

As a result, a major goal of this week’s forum will be the “rebranding” of the initiative. The Chinese government will emphasise the transparency of and market-based approach to participating projects and seek to clear misunderstandings, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said at a press conference.


SEE ALSO:

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is stoking fear across Southeast Asia

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