The two leaders are holding delegation level talks

There are compelling reasons why India needs to shed its conventional stand, inviting greater Chinese investment in the country – never mind the naysayers

by Ranjit Bhushan

While the COVID-hit world’s angst against China is manifesting itself in many ways, mainly through seeking indemnities and revenge, itching to fix responsibility for the collapse of the global economic order on the world’s newest superpower, India has chosen to play its card adroitly.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is an old China hand. He has visited Beijing more than any other Indian politician, past or present. His earliest visits date back to the period when he was the Gujarat chief minister. When the US chose not to give a visa to the then Gujarat chief minister, China had no such qualms. The Indian prime minister has, therefore, not joined the global chorus of countries big and small, baying for China’s blood. Whether any of these optics will impact the Big Dragon in the long run is strictly a matter of conjecture at this stage.

For far too long, India has seen China as an adversary with an unsettled 5000-km-long international border. It is equally true, however, as Atal Behari Vajpayee once famously said, `you cannot change geography’ - neighbours cannot be chosen. The time to co-exist with China has finally arrived and the Indian leader who can deliver the goods is currently at the helm of affairs.

India’s angst, understandably, goes back to 1962 when a militarily underprepared nation with a vacillating political leadership, convinced that China had no intentions of attacking, was more than surprised when several units of the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) reached the edge of the Brahmaputra Valley, leading to a military rout. In the subsequent decades, China’s open support for all-weather ally Pakistan has soured relations between the two Asian giants. That has, however, not come in the way of bourgeoning bilateral trade ties between the two countries, admittedly tilted in favour of China, and joint Sino-Indian military exercises, as behoves two mature powers.

There is no reason why this cooperation cannot be deepened in the economic sphere. India has repeatedly spurned China's invitation to attend the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) meeting, including one last year. The BRI is a global development strategy initiated by the Chinese government in 2013 involving infrastructure development and investments in nearly 70 countries and international organisations in Asia, Europe and Africa. The first time New Delhi boycotted this get-together was in 2017. India has been consistent in maintaining that the BRI project undermines her sovereignty in the form of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which runs through Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (PoK), thereby overriding her strategic concerns. In doing so, India is virtually the only big economic power in this region that has repeatedly spurned China’s overture to join the project, which is close to President Xi Jinping’s heart.

There are compelling reasons why India needs to shed its conventional stand, inviting greater Chinese investment in the country – never mind the naysayers. That China is a hegemonistic power that seeks to spread its influence beyond its immediate sphere of influence, is beyond any reasonable doubt. But to conclude, therefore, that the String of Pearls it has surrounded this country with, is to capture mainline Indian territory – including virtually ungovernable states like UP and Bihar – is to stretch the limits of imagination too far. India’s growth cannot be stymied except by its own follies and there is little that China or any other country can do to undermine it.

What does India gain by a deeper economic association with China, apart from raising its diplomatic stakes in dealing with an economic and military power that seeks to become a world leader in a post-COVID universe, notwithstanding the discordant noises emanating at the moment?

China’s economic capacities are formidable. Of the top 10 global banks, six to seven are Chinese. Their apps are many times more powerful than Google and Facebook; ONGC is puny in comparison to Chinese oil and gas super giants. China spends more on green energy than the rest of the world put together; her electric car revolution is way ahead of the world and Bullet Trains crisscross the country like nowhere else.

As China has over three decades sharpened its manufacturing prowess, becoming the ‘world’s factory’, it has simultaneously developed a complex mesh of internal supply chains and interoperability that makes relocation of industries out of that country very difficult, as some have suggested in the light of COVID-19. It has made the world nearly totally self-reliant on China-dominated global supply chains.

A study by a business intelligence firm shows 51,000 companies sourced direct suppliers from Wuhan alone, while “five million companies have one or more tier-two suppliers in the region,” according to US-based private security and protection company, Brink. It quoted another survey, which suggests that manufacturers may not even have an alternative. Around 57 percent of companies “are experiencing longer lead times for tier-1 China-sourced components”, a list that includes US tech giant Apple which, despite shifting some production to India and Vietnam, remains critically dependent on China. China’s role as the pre-eminent supplier of goods and components across nearly all industrial sectors — technology, automotive, electronics, pharmaceutical, equipment or consumer goods — makes a rerouting of global supply chains, as proposed by many distressed hopefuls, virtually impossible.

India Needs To Reflect Confidence, Not Paranoia

Frankly, this is India’s time to reflect confidence, not paranoia. This is the appropriate moment to banish the ghosts of 1962. Join the BRI, earlier known as the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative and allow China to construct oil and gas lines, which apart from bringing in hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese funds into Indian infrastructure, will make Pakistan redundant. Reopen the shut-down 1000-km Stillwell Road from Ledo in Assam to the Hunan province in China (built by US Servicemen during the Second World War), which would facilitate the vast movement of goods and services, apart from people to people contacts. The distance between Ledo in Tinsukhia district and Hunan is considerably shorter than the highways which connect New Delhi to Guwahati. Clearly, the gains far outstrip the losses.

For too long, India and its institutions have looked to the West for patronage and inspiration, while overlooking its Eastern neighbour for a variety of historical and geo-political reasons. It is time to shift the gaze. While it is prudent to maintain sound ties with the US several thousands of km away, it may not be a bad idea to cultivate a country that is only a few hundred km away. There is no good reason why two of the fastest-growing economies of the world cannot deepen their economic cooperation. Sure, there are long-standing border issues, but that most acknowledge, can hardly be solved in a jiffy.

Chanakya’s Arthashastra devotes eight of its 15 chapters to various aspects of war, diplomacy, foreign policy, espionage and covert operations. Needless to say, the conduct of war is seen as central to the well-being of a state. Nonetheless, the great Acharya was no war monger. “If there is equal advancement in peace or war,” he declared, “[one] should resort to peace.” What held good then, certainly holds good now.

Ranjit Bhushan is an independent journalist and former Nehru Fellow at Jamia Millia University.