by Seema Guha

In the high decibel no-holds barred election season in India, China’s second mega international meeting for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), did not get as much attention as it deserved. Facing a barrage of criticism for leading poor countries into debt trap, benefiting only Chinese companies and overall lack of transparency, China did some course correction to assuage international concerns in this second meeting.

The BRI is President Xi Jinping’s big idea, one that the rest of the world may fret and fume about, but cannot offer an alternative. The BRI is meant to project China’s growing stature in the world. China believes the time has come, (it has the resources and expertise in infrastructure) to challenge the US and its allies and give the world a vision of the Chinese way of development. In the process it will showcase China’s growing political and economic clout and give a leg up to its aim of overtaking the US as the world’s only super power in the not too distant future.

The BRI attempt to improve regional cooperation and connectivity, and transform the economies of poor Central Asian Republics, many of which have radical Islamic groups that threaten stability not just of China’s neighbourhood, but its own Muslim majority Xinjiang autonomous region. The BRI aims to strengthen infrastructure, trade, and investment links between China and some 65 other countries that account collectively for over 30 per cent of global GDP, 62 per cent of population, and 75 per cent of known energy reserves. The final aim is to link China to Asia and Europe much like the silk route of the past. China claims that since its launch in 2013, up to 150 countries have signed on to the BRI. According to reports loans for these projects to different countries have totaled over $90 billion, at the beginning of 2019. Nothing on this scale has ever been done before. Whether President Xi will succeed is yet not clear, but China is going about it with single minded determination.

India has from the beginning opted out saying that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which runs through POK, is challenging its sovereignty. Despite the informal Wuhan summit which led to a thaw in India-China relations, Delhi has so far refused to come onboard the BRI. But China hopes that one day India will change its mind. The three day meeting from April 25-27, saw a gathering of world leaders in Beijing. The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and managing director of the IMF Christine Lagarde were also in attendance. The most important new entrant was undoubtedly Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte flew to Beijing just weeks after Italy became the first G7 country to sign onto the BRI. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, along with Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa represented Europe. However leaders of US and its allies France, Germany and UK stayed away.

One of America’s allay from Asia, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong attended the Beijing mega meet. This is significant considering Singapore is a major trading hub and Asia’s booming financial centre. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, Myanmar State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi, and Beijing’s close friend, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan were all in line to cheer on Xi Jinping. Thailand and Brunei were present while Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a special envoy to Beijing.

President Xi Jinping addressed the concerns of his critics in his opening speech. “The belt and road is not an exclusive club,” he said, noting the project would not only serve the interests of China, but also enhance multilateralism. “It aims to enhance the connectivity and practical cooperation [of the participating countries] … delivering a win-win outcome and common development,” Xi said, vowing to fight against protectionism. Xi emphasised on consultation and joint action with other partners. He spoke of “open, green and clean” and stressed the importance of co operation transparency and curbing corruption on deals. X said BRI would now be more “people centric” and adopt international rules and standards in, ‘project development, operation, procurement and tendering and bidding of the same.’

A joint statement issued at the end of the meeting highlighted that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) also tried to assuage India’s fears on sovereignty. “We respect sovereignty and territorial integrity of each other and affirm that each country has the right and primary responsibility to define its development strategies in accordance with its national priorities and legislation,” it said. Delhi needs to discuss this in details with China and work round it to India’s advantage.

India has to consider its options as more countries line up for China’s BRI. India desperately needs funds for its reeking infrastructure. Connectivity in both South Asia and East Asia is a major target in its plans for expanding trade. Delhi would do well to get into the act and co operate with China on projects that will benefit India. An ostrich like refusal to wake up to reality will not work. China is keen for India to sign in and will be willing to accommodate Delhi’s interests. It has already made it plain that its project which runs through POK is by no means a challenge to sovereignty. It is nothing more than a physical structure which happens to be in POK.