Modi's Approach To China Has Done Us Proud
The Narendra Modi government's decision to not send an envoy to China's big Belt and Road Forum (abbreviated, incredibly, BARF) has been the cause of much wailing and gnashing of teeth in New Delhi. Given the fact that India is practically the only large economy to not be represented there - and that dozens and dozens of countries have sent representatives, many the heads of their governments - it has come across to some people as the Modi government deliberately choosing to isolate India. It has been criticised thus as stubborn opposition to an initiative that has seized the world's imagination.
Well, if Modi has isolated India on this issue, so be it. He and his foreign policy establishment deserve praise for taking a bold stand of dissent on grounds that are both principled and realist.
The government's thinking on this issue is unusually clear and well-articulated. The Ministry of External Affairs released a statement that "connectivity initiatives must follow principles of financial responsibility to avoid projects that would create unsustainable debt burden for communities; balanced ecological and environmental protection and preservation standards; transparent assessment of project costs; and skill and technology transfer to help long term running and maintenance of the assets created by local communities." It is worth noting that India's legitimate objections to the path of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC - one of the sub-initiatives of One Belt One Road or OBOR - also got a mention, but were clearly rhetorically subordinate to the larger, principled objection about the sustainability issues involved.
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While India is the only large economy to not send a representative to BARF, it is not as if it has received universal acclaim among those who have gone. The Guardian reported that the European Union has abstained from some of the resolutions the Chinese expected them to sign up to, citing environmental reasons. Nor has the United States sent a senior official. So even the talk of "isolation" is not entirely true. Not every large country is willing to sign up to Beijing's vision of a Middle Kingdom-centric global economy, but India is the only major country willing to take a clear and visible stand on the subject, and of that we can be proud.
Let's be clear: this does not mean that Indian companies may not take advantage of OBOR connectivity, wherever it does get built. This is a free country and a (relatively) free economy, and nobody will stop an Indian manufacturer from using railway lines somewhere else in the world paid for by China, if it helps their business. The private sector is not the government. It is for the government, however, to take the long strategic view on what OBOR connectivity will mean for the world, our neighbourhood, and our own position in the global economy - and they have correctly decided that it will not, on balance, be beneficial. Nor is this about distrusting China in particular. India is more than willing to cooperate with China on infrastructure finance - witness its decision to sign up to the AIIB and BRICS Bank - and on the many issues being taken up in the BRICS and other forums. This is, presumably, because it does not believe that those forums inherently violate the principles that it believes OBOR, as currently structured, would fail to uphold.
This is, frankly, the first time that I have felt that the Modi government has taken a stand that the preceding government would have balked at doing. In almost all cases, the Modi government foreign policy has been an extension of Manmohan Singh's policies - which is entirely to its credit. Consistency in such matters is the sign of a mature nation. But one of the errors that the Singh government consistently made was to be extra-careful of Beijing's sensitivities. It failed, in essence, to reap any reward for that attitude: Beijing's foreign policy continued to be made with no thought of India's "core interests". Consider, for example, climate change, where India signed up to the Chinese agenda at the big conference of parties in Copenhagen during UPA-II, only to find that Beijing went behind its back to sign a bilateral pact with Washington on climate change a few years later. No doubt UPA-II would also have learnt in time not to do so - but that does not take away any credit from the Modi government for not being over-solicitous of Beijing's sensitivities.
By taking the lead in questioning the basic rationale underlying OBOR, Modi has done us proud. We should now ask, however: what next? A principled stand on a conference is valuable in and of itself, but it needs to be followed up.
There are some obvious next moves. First, New Delhi must recognise that it is essentially, by objecting to OBOR, standing up for liberal policies and economics within various other countries. Thus India must now view itself as a leader of a market-driven, liberal democratic bloc that wishes to create an alternative view of the global economy to China's more authoritarian, state-driven view. The latter is increasingly dominant, especially as Trump's America turns its back on the world. We must stand up for market access, free movement of capital goods and people, and liberal political principles everywhere. This is both principled and in our real interests.
And second, we must work with the Japanese - our biggest partners in this regard - to create connectivity belts that are not centred on China and which serve our mutual strategic interests as well as not disrupting local countries and economies the way OBOR might. Our cooperation with Japan - and Indonesia, Singapore and Australia - must be taken to the next level.
Modi promised foreign policy leadership. For the first time, he is beginning to deliver. He must keep going.
(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation