Earlier this month, China hosted its first heads of government/state-level event under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI Forum represents the culmination of over three years of intense Chinese diplomatic activity, trying to sell what is likely to be Chinese President Xi Jinping's most significant foreign policy legacy. For this reason alone, there should be no doubt that the Chinese initiative is strategic in nature - not just in economic or military terms, but also in terms of setting regional and global political agendas.
China's insistence that BRI is merely an infrastructure development project and an activity providing global goods cannot be taken at face value. The Indian government has been acutely aware of this reality and has responded accordingly by turning down China's invitation to attend the forum in Beijing.
The MEA spokesperson's statement on May 13 highlighted issues of transparency, environmental protection, economic feasibility and technology transfer associated with the BRI. That India was right to do this is evident from the experiences some of its South Asian neighbours have had. Among the earliest and most enthusiastic supporters of the BRI, both Sri Lanka and Pakistan have begun to see problems cropping up.
The other issue is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) - portrayed as a 'flagship project' of the BRI - passing through Pak-occupied Kashmir and China's evident lack of concern about this violation of Indian sovereignty. Surprising, since China is extremely touchy about its sovereignty, including its expansive claims regarding the South China Sea.
At What Cost?
An argument could be made that India should have attended the BRI Forum in some capacity. Mere attendance need not mean acquiescence. Attendance would have been an opportunity to inject a dose of reality and caution into the proceedings of the BRI Forum. India's candid talking could have given greater confidence to smaller countries to declare their own misgivings at an important forum and at an early stage. Often these countries do not have the luxury of turning down Chinese largesse on the grounds of potential negative effects at a later date. India could have been a role model and a shoulder to lean on.
India's absence was, perhaps, too hard-line a position. While a clear signal to Beijing has gone out about India's views on BRI, if New Delhi persists in an 'opposition for opposition's sake' approach without following up on the MEA statement, it will be a mistake.
While attention today in the India-China economic relationship is focused on the massive trade deficit with China, this, in fact, should be a lesser concern compared to the scale and requirements of India's planned economic transformation. Such initiatives as the Make in India drive and the Skill India training programme as well as the rejuvenation of its physical infrastructure capacities are all of a scale that will require active Chinese participation, even if they are not the only players.
Indeed, the BRI is the framework under which all of China's big state-owned enterprises - those with not just the big bucks but also the expertise to design and execute large-scale infrastructure projects - operate abroad. Thus, the Indian hostility to BRI, in addition to the general Chinese perception of India as a difficult place to do business, could have implications. India's need to generate employment and promote economic activity is such that multiple sectors need to move forward simultaneously with as many different investors in operation. And the Chinese are among the few that can bring such a whole-of-the-economy capacity to India.