Is China’s Belt and Road Initiative Strategic? Perhaps Not.

Lee Jones and Shahar Hameiri challenge a proposition that has become commonplace: China’s belt and road progress is primarily a geostrategic instrument consciously designed to ensnare target countries into unsustainable levels of debt, and thereafter using that leverage to generate political influence. Jones and Hameiri contend that the BRI is far from being a grand strategic plan. “China’s development financing system is too fragmented and poorly coordinated to pursue detailed strategic objectives,” they write, basing their conclusions on detailed case studies of Chinese investments in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. When it comes to serious debt problems arising out of Chinese projects in both countries, Jones and Hameiri blame local elites as well as Western financial institutions.

Without litigating their conclusions one way or the other, the Chatham House report does raise an interesting question: To what extent have China’s BRI plans been the result of careful forethought and sensitivity to changing political realities in target countries?

India’s stance on the BRI might provide some answers.

From an Indian perspective, one of the most mystifying aspect of the BRI has been Beijing’s insistence that Kolkata is a node in the Maritime Silk Route, both before and – more strikingly after – India’s vocal rejection of the initiative. By way of refusing to participate in the inaugural Belt and Road Forum in 2017, the Indian foreign ministry issued an unusually blunt statement criticizing it. Despite this, an April 2019 map of the BRI included two other Indian ports in the run-up to the second edition of the forum, which India again boycotted. Strangely enough, that map — which was later removed — also included territory both countries dispute, as well as Chinese claims, as part of India.

Since the beginning of India’s economic liberalization in the early 1990s, the country’s foreign policy has situated its role in India’s domestic economic transformation project. From this flowed a belief in the power of economic interdependence to manage disputes, and balance competitive impulses with cooperation.

When the Hindu-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) first came to power, it portrayed Pakistan and China as the reasons behind India’s decision to test nuclear weapons in 1998. It also fought a limited war with Pakistan the year after. And yet, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government also sought to bring about a lasting solution to the Kashmir dispute through talks, both with Pakistan as well as local separatists. To understand how extraordinarily conciliatory this approach really was, keep in mind that India and Pakistan almost went to war again while Vajpayee was in power, following a failed attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001.ADVERTISEMENT

The center-left secularist coalition that came to power after Vajpayee adopted a familiar trajectory. It pursued vigorous back channel negotiations with then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf around Kashmir. But strikingly, not only did it not respond militarily to the 2008 Mumbai attacks, afraid that any escalation could derail India’s economic prospects, but months after the attack, in July 2009 the Manmohan Singh government made generously concessionary remarks toward Pakistan through a joint statement in Egypt.

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