The Indian government’s decision to boycott the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has resulted in much debate, with most commentators either castigating or praising the official position. The government’s decision is based on two key concerns —
On grounds of national sovereignty and territorial integrity, particularly because BRI’s flagship project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), passes through the illegally occupied Gilgit-Baltistan region and Pakistani-held Kashmir.
The fact that the BRI initiative is not transparent and its supposed economic benefits could not possibly be balanced and equitable.
The government can be lauded for not blindingly giving in to Chinese rhetoric about inclusive growth and also for providing a reality check to the countries that have lined up for soft Chinese loans. The government understands that the project is really about Chinese peace, prosperity, well-being and global leadership, at the expense of India. That is why CPEC is its flagship project. By increasing connectivity through disputed areas and throughout Pakistan, China is killing many birds with one stone, including neutralising India’s Cold Start doctrine.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is god-sent to India
However, both the government and its critiques have failed to acknowledge that the CPEC is actually god sent to an increasingly besieged India for two reasons —
Firstly, because it allows India to turn the argument into one where Indian participation is contingent upon China taking steps to embrace democracy, pluralism, human rights, rule of law and abiding by established international rules. This way, not only the absence of democracy in China and the plight of Tibetans can be highlighted but also the hypocrisy of those who disregard such matters in the hope of gaining business. Moreover, this clears the way for an alternative principled connectivity-based path that India can champion and through which equal alliances can be established.
Secondly, and crucially, CPEC has rendered obsolete the essential demand which forms the core of the Pakistani grievance since 1948 regarding Kashmir, by what can only be labelled as the China-Pakistan Own Goal masquerading as an economic corridor. And, that is the demand of a plebiscite — something which Pakistanis have always harped on, internationally, ever since an inexperienced Nehru administration committed the folly of taking the Kashmir dispute to the United Nations on 1 January 1948.
China-Pakistan Economic Corridor ensures unfairness and partiality
For a plebiscite to be held in Kashmir, essential preconditions are a must and include fairness and impartiality. Clearly, the Pakistani establishment has never been fair and impartial in Kashmir, and with China entering the fray as its dominant economic partner, even those who are only indoctrinated in Pakistani ideology will have to dig deep to justify that fairness and impartiality are the hallmarks of the Pakistan-China relationship.
Naturally, it is then valid to ask how CPEC ensures that a plebiscite is rendered impossible in Kashmir. Simply because, to protect Chinese economic interests, Pakistan will have to increase the number of security personnel in Gilgit-Baltistan, as well as in the part of Kashmir which they are occupying illegally. And, to ensure that Pakistan is looking after their interests, the Chinese will have to send in more troops too. As such, the UN Security Council Resolution 47 will not only be further violated by Pakistan but also a meddling third-party — China, which is engaged in unconscionable conduct by undertaking business in illegally occupied land. This then pretty much ensures that the precondition of holding a plebiscite in Kashmir can never be put into effect.
It’s all about Kashmir
With a plebiscite no longer an option, there is basically one reality — Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir will never be returned to India. And, the only political solution is to turn the Line of Control into a permanent border. Could it be then that this is what both Pakistan and China really want and the strategy in the form of CPEC is to eventually make India realize that the military option is permanently off the table. And, then India can start negotiating on Kashmir? If it were that simple, the political solution would already be in place. Rather, CPEC is another strategy in the battle for Kashmir. It will place Pakistan in a position of permanent dependence on China. And, with that established, the rogue state can make more disruptions in Indian Kashmir. In light of this, the CPEC is about changing the terms of the Kashmir dispute — India will now potentially be fighting Chinese and Pakistani interests permanently.
But, rather than boxing it in through Chinese and Pakistani design, the CPEC has provided India the opening she was looking for — that Kashmir is in danger because of CPEC; that Pakistan is not pro-Kashmir; and India more than Pakistan stands for Kashmiri rights as only she can safeguard generations from being swallowed up by debt owed to China.
Through CPEC, it is clear yet again that China lacks international diplomacy finesse, for she keeps on overplaying her hand in international relations in an effort to cement national pride — the South China Sea dispute, and now the strategy to constrain India.
The way forward
It must be stressed that creating trouble in parts of CPEC by utilising the Balochi’s will be a zero sum outcome. Rather, India needs to fix its own house in Kashmir through a series of measures, including articulating properly the detrimental consequences of CPEC on Kashmir, taking steps to connect and integrate Kashmir with the rest of India, creating jobs and empowering the Kashmiri people. However, most importantly, India actually needs to live up to its claim of being a secular country. If people are free and safe, then they simply won’t look to Pakistan and China for support and one does not have to be an economist to know that that is a prerequisite for Indian prosperity.