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India's no-show at China's Belt Road Forum meet no surprise, but New Delhi must abandon over-cautious Beijing policy

As expected, India is not going to be represented at this year's Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRFIC) that begins on Thursday in Beijing. India had also boycotted the first BRFIC in 2017. However, the Indian foreign secretary's important two-day visit to China along with the opening of the 'Indo-Pacific' division within the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) just before the BRFIC may be seen as New Delhi's attempt to demonstrate its eagerness to amicably resolve differences on several issues without scaling down its intentions to counter China's growing geopolitical belligerence.

It is not the absence of sufficient understanding among India's policymakers about China's hostile intentions, but the lack of political will to remain consistent in pursuing a specific policy. The rules for India's grand bargain with China need to be reframed.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi made concerted attempts to "reset" ties with China ever since he assumed power in 2014. Modi's endeavours to unsettle the very foundations of India's deeply-rooted defensive posture towards China seemed to make progress in the short run as he repeatedly highlighted glaring inconsistencies in Beijing's polices towards New Delhi, but eventually they boomeranged dramatically, failing to restrain Chinese provocations.

The Modi government still persisted, even as China left no stone unturned in expanding its military footprint in India's strategic backyard as manifested in Doka La, situated on the tri-junction of Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet, in 2017. Despite China's threatening postures during the stand-off, India's swift military intervention and deft diplomatic moves smartly frustrated the PLA's Doka La misadventure. But India seemed to concede considerable strategic space to China in the unofficial Wuhan summit of 2018. In fact, the Wuhan summit could be termed as a classic example of India's lamentable tradition of agreeing to de-escalate from conflict situations without extracting sufficient geopolitical capital.

India's overtures towards China effectively reversed New Delhi's new-found assertiveness while re-instilling caution to openly challenge Beijing's overwhelming presence in South Asia. There is growing apprehension in New Delhi about Beijing's attempts to gain undue political influence in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Nepal as new ports and highways in these countries could potentially help China in any military conflict with India.

 Indias no-show at Chinas Belt Road Forum meet no surprise, but New Delhi must abandon over-cautious Beijing policy

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping. PTI

It seems that China has interpreted India's careful diplomacy since Wuhan summit as outright accommodation of its policies. As China is getting ready for another Wuhan-type summit with India this year, New Delhi needs to find a better balance. China's foreign minister Wang Yi has said that following "the Wuhan summit, we see all areas or progress between the two countries and we have bright prospect for this relationship. We are now preparing for the next summit of our leaders". Chinese president Xi Jinping is preparing to visit India for the second such summit after India's Lok Sabha election is over.

Despite India's firm refusal to take part in the BRFIC, China will continue to persuade Indian policymakers to dilute their opposition to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Wang has again asked New Delhi to shed its resistance to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is a flagship project of the BRI, because it does not undermine India's position on the Kashmir dispute. Assuring India's political leadership, Wang has argued, "One of our differences is how [we] look at the BRI. The Indian side has its concerns. We understand that and that is why we have stated clearly on many occasions that the BRI including the CPEC is only an economic initiative and it does not target any third country and has nothing to do with the sovereign and territorial disputes left from history between any two countries."

But such assurances, that may be quoted for rhetorical effect, carry little weight when it comes to assuaging India's strategic concerns. In fact, these are hollow words merely designed to hoodwink India's highest echelons of power, which has unfortunately displayed a clumsy vacillation in standing up to China.

Despite India’s Wuhan outreach, what fundamental change has occurred in the India-China dynamic? The CPEC continues to be a hindrance in improving India-China relations. One of its highways passes through Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The CPEC also aims to decrease China's reliance on the Strait of Malacca by creating an overland route connecting the Arabian Sea to China's Xinjiang province.

In more immediate terms, China's continuing attempts to block India's bid at the United Nations to declare Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar a global terrorist is supremely ironic as it conveys an ambiguous and muddled policy toward counter-terrorism. It is indeed nothing but Beijing's bid to frustrate New Delhi's own fight against Pakistan-backed terrorism.

Beijing's obstinate stance on Azhar has only framed the India-China-Pakistan triangular relationship as a zero-sum game. Beijing's decision to reward its "all-weather" ally Pakistan over the fight against terrorism exposes the carefully-crafted narrative of a return to normalcy in India-China relations. The way China continues to use of Pakistan to tie down India in South Asia has constituted a huge challenge to India's great power aspirations. Pakistan is the biggest importer of Chinese weapons systems; presently Beijing is building four advanced naval frigates for the Pakistan Navy. China's spurious territorial claim to Arunachal Pradesh is also India's recurring concern.

The setup of the 'Indo-Pacific' division in the MEA is undeniably a political statement from the Modi government. It is no secret that the Indo-Pacific region is a volatile environment where strategic alignments are being reshaped as new allegiances are being formed. New Delhi's Indo-Pacific strategy places ASEAN at the centre. Although ASEAN is not a unified entity when it comes to matters of regional security, particularly on how to counter China, ASEAN's wariness of being trapped in great power politics between Washington and Beijing is an opportunity for New Delhi to engage with willing countries such as Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia.

India's "Act East" and "Indo-Pacific" policies need to be integrated more closely. Similarly, many countries are deeply suspicious of Chinese 'debt trap diplomacy'. In the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Thailand, where opposition to China's questionable economic practices has been rising, India must actively work to create synergy with their economic development programs via a viable partnership model.

However, India's non-participation in the joint initiative launched by the US, Japan and Australia to fund infrastructure projects in the Indo-Pacific region is largely reflective of New Delhi's avoidable over-cautiousness towards China. Although India has paid more attention in enhancing its bilateral engagement with Japan via various projects, including the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) for Eastern Africa, for building quality infrastructure, addressing development challenges and increasing connectivity, it cannot avoid partnering jointly with US, Japan and Australia to counter China's predatory connectivity model under the guise of the BRI.

India does not possess enough economic resources to take on the BRI on its own. But it can, and should, continue to contribute towards spelling out the normative and political illegitimacy of the BRI.

This is critical for promoting regional connectivity as well as for geopolitical stability. India's relationship with China is complex; however any "reset" in their ties cannot remain one-way traffic from New Delhi to Beijing. India's China policy needs a more focused approach as New Delhi's diplomatic gestures are not being properly reciprocated by Beijing. Increased engagement with the Indo-Pacific region must be prioritised by cementing ties with such fellow democracies as the US, Japan and Australia.

For India's national interests, it is imperative to contribute vigorously in shaping Indo-Pacific security architecture while investing in real friendships, particularly with the US that is more supportive of New Delhi than might have been expected despite President Donald Trump’s seemingly uncooperative "America First" policy. Only this can eventually force China to play according to the rules and rectify Asia's power imbalance.

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Updated Date: Apr 24, 2019 16:19:29 IST