The Indian media is fully backing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s anti-China line, publishing a barrage of essays bashing Beijing’s economic thrust across Eurasia, the One Belt One Road plan. The principle driving force of the media campaign is the traditional China-India rivalry, and its collective pitch is that OBOR is aimed at promoting an imperial Chinese dominance in East Asia, South Asia, and elsewhere.
Of course, East Asia is China’s old stomping ground and, as a rising power, it is natural that Beijing would expand its sphere of influence. A more rational response for India in East Asia is to try and outbid China diplomatically and economically by creating small alliances of its own and by offering economic assistance through its own longstanding Look East strategy.
Look East, however, has a problem: While it has long looked good on paper, the strategy has never been followed consistently or vigorously by successive Indian prime ministers. Pursuing mega-strategies has never been India’s wont, and in any case the country until recently has lacked the deep funds needed to throw money at Southeast Asian countries who have been sympathetic to India’s aspirations and who would have been happy recipients of its economic assistance.
Under Modi things changed. He brought to office a strong desire to couch China-India ties as essentially competitive. But India’s political culture is not so quick to absorb changes of that magnitude. Indian bureaucracies are full of personnel who are deeply mired in the Nehruvian notion of vacuous moralism, which was deeply committed to non-alignment and never paid much attention to the Great Power politics of the 1950s and 1960s. This created a lot of hoopla during the Cold War years, but that hoopla no longer finds an audience, even within Third World countries in the 21st century.
While emphasizing the competitive nature of Indo-Chinese strategic ties, Modi also has made sure that his country continues to take advantage of China’s own interests in cultivating its economic ties with India. This is a nuanced policy from the side of both Beijing and New Delhi. As much as Sino-Indian strategic competition remained hot for the past several decades, neither New Delhi nor Beijing wanted to jeopardize their bilateral economic trade. Consequently, bilateral trade "surged from under $3 billion in 2000 to nearly $52 billion in 2008)…. Even conservative estimates suggest that, by 2020, China-India trade could surpass last year’s US-China total of $409.2 billion and more than half of total projected US-China trade in 2020."
As China continues to travel toward its goal of becoming the second superpower, it sees India as a challenger that should not be ignored for at least two reasons. First, India has managed to develop close strategic ties with the United States through the purchase of military weapons, the planning of joint military exercises, and the transfer of technology. India also aspires to become a member of the Nuclear Supply Group, after which it would likely become a serious competitor of China in the area of nuclear weapons development. That is one reason why China continues to veto India’s entry into that group, even while it leaves all doors of mutual economic cooperation wide open.
China’s greatest success in gaining the upper hand over India is in its multifaceted strategic ties with Pakistan. The emergence of a nuclear Pakistan, in which China’s transfer of nuclear knowledge and blueprints of actual nuclear weapons designs played a major role, tied down India’s own nuclear preparedness on two different fronts: China and Pakistan.
What bothers India the most is the fact that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has not only given Pakistan the promise of emergence as a major economic actor, but that the corridor passes through the disputed territory of Kashmir on the Pakistan border. It is reported that China tried to appease India by offering to change the name of the corridor through Pakistan; however, it dropped that suggestion after Pakistan protested. India’s major objection to the inclusion of the disputed territory was one explicit reason why it decided to boycott the OBOR summit.
India’s neighbors are sold on President Xi’s sales pitch for OBOR, which he called the “project of the century,” and these states are poised to join it. Since poverty is the dominant issue throughout South Asia, China’s promise that this program will tackle poverty makes a lot of sense to India’s neighbors. India says that promise is mere hype. But as Western-oriented globalization continues to hurt their economies through high unemployment and rising inflation, most poverty-stricken countries of the Third World have started to envision OBOR as a source of economic assistance and financial relief.
Another Indian criticism depicts OBOR as imperialistic in nature. As one of the main leaders of the non-aligned movement of the Cold War years, India still presumes itself to be a rightful actor to question China’s motives regarding its role as the rising economic power of the 21st Century. However, as another rising economic power of Asia, and an actor that emulates China’s policies of seeking alliances and offering economic assistance to several countries, India is open to like criticism from Beijing. And China never fails to remind the world that, as a former victim of imperialistic policies and occupation by the West and Japan, it has remained firmly opposed to such policies.
The global hubs of economic activities -- places such as New York, London, and Berlin -- are likely to have new additions including Beijing and Shanghai. India, meanwhile, has not been able to find an equally promising way to counter OBOR. So, it is left with flimsy excuses (flimsy in the sense that they find no global supportive audience) like criticizing that strategy because it involves the disputed territory of Kashmir that is under Pakistani administration.
In all likelihood, through OBOR, the Chinese view of the hierarchy of nations and the pecking order of nation-states is likely to change. Despite all of the criticisms of its potential complications and its chances for failure, and India’s related suspicion of China’s ulterior motives, OBOR carries with it the enormous economic power of China and an equally powerful resolve by its leadership to make it a success. Even the United States and Japan realize that and are likely to remain involved in it without joining it, for now. India might be well-advised to revise its own refusal to join.
Given this reality, the best option for India is to join OBOR and to add a new dimension to its competition with China, rather than to find inane reasons to criticize it and to boycott the initiative.
Ehsan Ahrari is specialist in Great Power relations and the strategic affairs of the world of Islam. He has taught at America’s premier senior military educational institutions. His latest book, The Islamic Challenge and the United States: Global Security in an Age of Uncertainty, was published by McGill-Queens University Press in February 2017. He is also the author of The Great Powers Versus the Hegemon (McMillan, 2011). The views expressed are the author's own.