The South Asia Channel
Monsoons on the New Silk Road
China must gain India's trust on the security front in order to win Indian cooperation for its ambitious regional economic initiatives.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China this May was predicted to bring remarkable developments in the security and strategic aspect of Sino-Indian relations, while China’s grandiose “One Belt-One Road” project (OBOR, also known as the New Silk Road initiative) was expected to be on the agenda as well. The trip resulted in some notable achievements, such as the establishment of a military hotline and business deals estimated at more than $20 billion, but there were no public remarks on the OBOR initiative. Apparently, the significant shortcomings of China’s current approach towards India’s maritime aspirations and Indian concerns about the security implications of the OBOR have resulted in Modi’s reluctance to praise the project as it is presently conceived. The OBOR would project Chinese power in the Indian Ocean in ways that Indians could view as undermining their country’s security. Before India signs on, China needs to address a range of issues that get in the way of building trust with India.
The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) is a part of China’s ambitious OBOR proposal that aims to boost the connectivity of China with Africa and Europe. Beijing does not intend to carry out its ambitions alone, as it seeks to connect New Delhi’s Project Mausam and Spice Route project with its own initiative. Although participation implies substantial economic gains, India has remained silent about joining the project. Observers warn that this approach cannot be maintained for long, and that Modi “needs to take a fresh look” at the issue. India is in dire need of connectivity, but so far, any improvements in this area have been modest, and Project Mausam, in its present form, is not a viable alternative to the OBOR. Before Modi’s mid-May visit to China, observers had also predicted remarkable developments on security and strategic issues.
Given this background, the OBOR was almost certainly discussed off the record during Modi’s visit, yet the Indian Prime Minister avoided mentioning it in public.
During his visit, Modi asserted that in order to utilize the “extraordinary potential” of their cooperation, China and India have to mitigate issues that cause mutual mistrust in their relations, and listed the resolution of the 50-year-old border dispute as the first step towards addressing this goal. He defined strengthening the connectivity of Asia as a common goal of the two countries, but avoided endorsing the OBOR, did not address the topic of a possible “maritime security dialogue,” and stressed that there are projects which will be implemented exclusively by India, while others, such as the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor are joint efforts. This signals little enthusiasm for connecting the OBOR with India’s Project Mausam and Spice Route initiatives.
Apparently, China’s efforts have proven to be insufficient to convince India’s leadership about the mutual benefits of participating in China’s grand project. So far, the Chinese approach has failed to grasp four aspects that need to be considered to achieve successful Sino-Indian policy coordination.
The first aspect is the nature of China-India relations. The border dispute, intimate Sino-Pakistan ties, the “String of Pearls”— China aims to build a network of ports and bases across the Indian Ocean to enhance its naval presence in the area—and other concerns are all sources of the Sino-Indian security dilemma. This leads to a mutual mistrust that is apparent in New Delhi’s present attitude, as it is suspicious that this project is not just benevolent. Given this situation, India is in a dilemma: participating in the Maritime Silk Road carries economic benefits, but it could also mean taking part in a China-financed “hegemonic project” seeking to ensure a China-led development in the Indian Ocean area.
The second issue relates to India’s position in South Asia and the perception of its own role in the subcontinent. The Modi leadership has its own commitment towards regional connectivity. The new maritime initiatives of India, the Spice Route, Project Mausam, and the Cotton Route are all ambitious projects aimed at reviving the ancient routes of trade in the Indian Ocean. While evaluating India’s foreign policy, observers also assert that increasing “strategic influence” and becoming a more credible security provider in the Indian Ocean region is high on the Modi government’s agenda. The OBOR, with its details kept in the dark, does not fit India’s regional ambitions.
The third issue relates to geography. As Modi pointed out, the security of the two countries’ shared maritime sea routes is crucial for their economies. New Delhi, contrary to Beijing, enjoys geographical proximity with the sea lanes and the critical locations of the Indian Ocean, and a huge proportion of China’s oil imports pass by the southern coast of the subcontinent. This might give India leverage in seeking a more credible role in building a connected Indian Ocean region.
Fourth, India seems to be inclined towards the United States and Japan to tackle Chinese preponderance. As New Delhi has already used the hedging strategy successfully to hammer out a nuclear deal with the United States, it might be able to secure strategic concessions in the context of the Asian strategic quadrangle (the United States, Japan, China, and India).
In order to achieve a mutually beneficial partnership, regardless of its economic power, China has to sacrifice some of its interests to get India’s support. This calls for two major steps—mitigating traditional concerns regarding China and respecting India’s leading role in the Indian Ocean region.
Regarding the first step, Shannon Tiezzi argued before the visit that gaining India’s support for the Maritime Silk Road calls for addressing its strategic concerns. Modi’s proposal for mitigating the issues of concern in order to exploit the potential of the Sino-Indian partnership underpins this argument. While evaluating the Modi trip, Harsh V. Pant also points out that India has shown willingness to boost economic and cultural cooperation with China, but it is Beijing’s responsibility to mitigate the strategic issues.
As for the second step, regarding respecting India’s own Indian Ocean role, the details of the Maritime Silk Road are still vague and China has to offer something more concrete than promises of mutual benefits, as New Delhi is an emerging power that demands to be treated like one. Outsourcing the implementation of the maritime connectivity of the Indian Ocean to New Delhi might be a feasible way of maritime cooperation. Nevertheless, this can be only achieved after successfully addressing Indian security concerns.
As we have seen from the remarks from Modi’s visit, China so far has not been successful in connecting the maritime initiatives of the two countries. As the mutual suspicion that characterizes Sino-Indian relations stems from a longstanding security dilemma, it seems that the engagement of India cannot be achieved by only promising future economic gains. Due to New Delhi’s perception of itself as a leading power in the Indian Ocean region, its geographical advantages in the area, and its behavior in the international system, getting India to harmonize its maritime ambitions with China’s OBOR initiative might require Beijing to take the lead in mitigating the insecurities of the Sino-Indian relations, within which resolving the longstanding border dispute occupies a central position.
DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP/Getty Images
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