Cooperation between the two on the infrastructure plan would benefit both, but will remain a step too far as long as Indian fears over the initiative’s aims and financing are not assuaged

China’s multi-billion-dollar infrastructure development plan, the Belt and Road Initiative, straddles three continents, with over 80 countries expressing an interest in the projects. It is estimated that China has already pumped US$200 billion into the initiative. In spite of US misgivings, many of its own allies, including the UK and Italy, have shown a willingness to be part of the initiative. There are indications that more members of the European Union will join.

Many Asian nations are part of the initiative. India, however, in spite of repeated overtures from China, has steadfastly refused. India was upset when the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a major belt and road project, passed through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, which India claims to be its territory. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while addressing the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit held at Qingdao, China, in June 2018, had said that any connectivity project must respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a country.

Further, India is fearful of the “debt trap” associated with belt and road projects in Sri Lanka, Venezuela and other countries. In India’s view, China played the role of a loan shark in the way it compelled Sri Lanka to lease its Hambantota port to a Chinese organisation when it failed to service its debt.

In Malaysia, the government has renegotiated a planned China-backed rail link, with the costs cut by about one-third, after the previous deal became unpopular because of the inflated costs and links to a corruption sandal. Experts have warned that the deal could also become a Chinese debt trap.

India also worries that the Belt and Road Initiative will thrust China into a position of strength in South Asia. Although Beijing claims it is only a commercial initiative, the hidden Geo-Strategic implications are not lost on India. It views China’s attempts to build ports, surveillance posts and naval bases in its neighbourhood as an attempt to encircle it. India’s concerns are real and can’t be wished away.

Given its anxieties that the projects would benefit China more than its partners, New Delhi needs reassurances on the objectives, nature and financing of the initiative.

Although India is today one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, with over 7 per cent growth, sadly this has not translated into job creation. According to estimates, India’s unemployment is at its highest level in the past 45 years. Modi has failed to create the 10 million jobs a year that he promised.

India is also beset with a farming crisis, which has lead to angst against the Modi government.

This is where the belt and road plan could come in, by helping India tackle its unemployment problem and boost its stagnant exports to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asian countries through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Lei Jun, the founder of Chinese mobile and electronics giant Xiaomi, believes China’s growing

with the US will cause Beijing to look towards India for investments. India is a key market for Chinese smartphone makers. In fact, four of them – Xiaomi, Vivo, Oppo and Realme – take more than half the market share in India.

There are too many benefits of Sino-Indian economic cooperation through the well-funded belt and road project to ignore, and closer trade ties can not only benefit both but will also help prevent another Doklam-like.

China has to abandon its obstinacy and share details of the belt and road plan with India, to address the latter’s concerns about the project’s viability. India’s participation would be a win-win situation for all participating countries.