The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a collection of developing projects. The CPEC aims to facilitate trade along an overland route connecting Kashgar and Gwadar, through the construction of a network of highways, railway lines and pipelines. The economic significance of the project can be figured out by the fact that it was initially a $51-billion project, which made it the biggest overseas project for China. The importance of the project increased after the announcement that Beijing intended to pump more money into the project to finance three more road projects under the CPEC.
At first glance, the project looks simple and positive with an intention to achieve regional prosperity and increased connectivity between Pakistan and China. But, the project, and more importantly, China’s obsession with Pakistan, has many diplomatic and strategic implications for India and its other Non-Aligned neighbours. Pakistan’s involvement with superpowers like China and Russia will definitely hit the South Block. Thus, India cannot afford to keep itself aloof from recent developments impacting its neighbours.
India had deliberately tried to push Pakistan into ‘diplomatic isolation’ by boycotting the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit following the Uri attack in 2016. Eventually, the SAARC summit was called off, thereby sending a very stern and unanimous message – the message that terrorism and diplomatic talks cannot proceed hand in hand.
Though the message was expected to serve as a warning to Pakistan, India witnessed another terrorist attack in Nagrota, Kashmir. The attack left India stunned, and the town is still in the process of recovery.
Pakistan received more diplomatic blows during the a conference (Heart of Asia) concluded in Amritsar, India, in December 2016. The regional meet unanimously named terrorist groups in Pakistan and demanded action from the country. The message from the conference was a loud and clear one. Pakistan’s ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ personality had been fully unmasked. The outcome of the conference was a strong and satisfying one. Afghanistan and other member countries joined India to put more international pressure on Pakistan for its terror funding activities. Sartaz Aziz, the external affairs adviser to Nawaz Sharif, was the lone attender of the summit from Pakistan. Though Aziz termed the heat received by Pakistan on the issue of terrorism as ‘simplistic‘, the diplomatic attack had far reaching implications. Even Modi assumed that Pakistan would be quick to act decisively following the backlash by neighbouring countries.
However, things took a different turn. Just as the Nagrota attack followed the SAARC boycott, the follow-up to the Heart of Asia conference was the CPEC. Though the CPEC is very different in its nature from the Nargota terrorist attack, the common factor is their intention to ‘besiege’ India and escalate tensions. On the Indian front, the CPEC is a mischievous project which intends to corner India on economic, border security and diplomatic issues.
The nature of the CPEC is troublesome for India in many ways. Not only does it pass through Gilgit-Baltistan (which is a highly disputed territory), it is also a major blockade in the bilateral relations between India and Pakistan. China’s dogged pursuance of this project, despite Sushma Swaraj telling Chinese Premier Xi Jinping that international projects involving the Gilgit-Baltistan area are ‘unacceptable‘, is surprising and bothersome.
Another aspect of the project which poses a serious threat to India’s current diplomatic ambitions is that it has provided Pakistan an opportunity to involve itself with global players like China. Involvement with China and Russia in the Asia-Pacific region would help Pakistan release itself from the ‘pressure hole’ into which India had tried to push it through the strategy of diplomatic isolation.
Out of all the factors that irk India regarding CPEC, the most displeasing would be Russia’s overwhelming support to CPEC and its active involvement with Pakistan and China. Russia has been one of the most trusted and tested partners of India. However, for the first time in its history, India finds its key partner shifting more towards its neighbours side and speaking for them. The Russians have not only supported the CPEC but have also expressed their ambitions to stretch this project into the Eurasian Economic Unit (EEU). This active support to a project against the interests of India is a clear indication of the fact there is discord between New Delhi and Moscow.
The anomalous behaviour of Moscow can be understood by the fact there has been a ‘communication void’ between Moscow and New Delhi in recent times. Though the Foreign Secretary of India, S. Jaishankar, assures that India shares a ‘healthy and key’ relation with Russia, the devil lies in the details. Russia’s silence on Pakistan-sponsored terror at the BRICS summit in 2016 had already stunned Modi and his team. A perusal of all the activities and stands that Russia has taken in recent times clearly reveals that the Indian government has neglected Moscow, even though Russia is a major global player.
India has gone through a number of such disappointments in recent times. The most recent one was at the trilateral consultations on regional issues at Moscow regarding the increasing influence of the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan and also Pakistan, China and Russia. New Delhi was not invited for this talk. It also found no mention in discussions regarding the building of a new axis in Afghanistan to accommodate the Taliban as a tool against the IS.
All these factors and incidents are clearly an evidence of how India’s neglect of Russia has not only cost India an old and trusted friend but also put India in a virtual isolation with China, Russia and Pakistan. India now remains a bit distanced from the major powers of the region while also being dependent on smaller economic powers like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. While the US is the only powerhouse that can rescue India from this isolation, even the US is finding this difficult nowadays.
Though India got an informal invite from the Chinese Ministry for External Affairs (MEA) spokesperson to join the CPEC and shun its enmity with Islamabad, India’s foreign policy renders this impossible. No G20 Summit is acceptable to India. Though India firmly supports regional prosperity through regional cooperation, it would be against India’s interests to affiliate itself in a project in which two other nations decide (among themselves) to dominate a region.
With all efforts to isolate Pakistan failing and Pakistan still denying its role in terrorism, India has suffered significant setbacks in asserting itself in the Asia-Pacific region. It will be interesting yet tough for India to move ahead with the developments in the region while detaching itself with Pakistan.
The primary question that needs to be asked is whether the CPEC has already become a cause of concern for India? Hasn’t India failed to execute the strategy of diplomatically isolating Pakistan while also maintaining the support of other key players in the region?
This post was first published here. It has been published on YKA by the author’s permission.