China's BRI can help regional countries develop and prosper

The sheer scope and scale of what BRI aims to cover is indeed mind-boggling.

By Ravi Bhoothalingam

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Published: Mon 13 May 2019, 9:00 PM

Last updated: Mon 13 May 2019, 11:13 PM

The Second Belt and Road (BRI) Forum in Beijing - replete with pomp and circumstance - has concluded, and 'the captains and the kings' have returned to their stations. The results of their deliberations are now available for analysis.
The sheer scope and scale of what BRI aims to cover is indeed mind-boggling. Clearly, the Chinese have taken the push-backs to BRI seriously, and have come to the conclusion that the enterprise would be in difficulty if the standards of transparency, inclusiveness, governance, financial viability and green sustainability were not brought in line with (or made superior to) currently accepted global practice. Hence the constant reference in these documents to international conventions, covenants and standards.
Apart from the official documents released at the Forum, recent evidence from independent sources also indicates that the BRI's much-touted dangers such as 'debt-entrapment' have been overplayed. Deborah Brautigam's investigations of 1,000 Chinese loans to developing countries show that "China's lending is significant, but fears that the Chinese government is deliberately preying on countries in need are unfounded".
So, what would the world leaders assembled in Beijing have concluded at the end of the 2nd BRI Forum? As practical, shrewd men and women, they would probably assess the BRI as a new game in town that is here to stay. Not perfect by any means, still risky and prone to stumble, but yet offering an alternative model to the many countries who find that the existing arrangements offer no real recourse for them to climb up the development ladder.
The joint communique is their endorsement to give Beijing a ticket to play with the big boys, and to put its system to test.
India's reasons to shun the BRI were articulated at the time of the 1st Forum in 2017. These are, expressed in summary form and in descending order of importance: (i) the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) - a BRI project - violates India's sovereignty, as it traverses Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, a territory claimed by India and illegally occupied by Pakistan; (ii) the BRI is not simply an infrastructure and connectivity initiative but a geopolitical design to establish Chinese dominance; (iii) the BRI design is one-sided and non-transparent, and rife with the risks of crippling debt, environmental damage and adverse socio-economic consequences.
Let us consider these one by one in reverse order.
The arguments spelt out earlier in this essay should serve to answer (iii): for any remaining doubts, surely India has the capability for sufficient due diligence; (ii) all great infrastructure and connectivity ventures - throughout history - have altered the prevailing geo-economic matrix, and hence the resulting geopolitical balance. (i) That leaves us with the CPEC as the only remaining question. Eminent diplomats are of the view that it is quite possible to find a creative solution, provided that India is open to a serious dialogue about the BRI. It is thus a chicken-and-egg problem.
Here lies the rub, for we have been asking the wrong questions about the BRI. In the writer's view, the truly existential issues for India regarding the BRI are not the three reasons enumerated earlier.
The real issues can be surfaced by India asking itself the following:
First, will the BRI - or parts thereof - help the Indian people in their journey to development and prosperity?
Second, is India willing to play a leadership role towards creating an economically integrated South Asia?
It is for the new government of India, of whatever political hue, that takes office after the elections, to ponder these questions. A 'No' to both questions (very unlikely) would leave India plotting an autarkic course all by itself. A 'Yes' to the first and a 'No' to the second would leave our neighbours with a taste of either a selfish India that has abandoned its neighbours, or one that has been out-manoeuvred by China. A 'No' and 'Yes' sequence would call for proven demonstration by India of self-generated and strong levels of performance, capabilities and resources.
Finally, a 'Yes'-'Yes' pair of answers would open the door for a India-China dialogue about things that really matter - peace, development, prosperity, ecology, security and dignity. A China that has realised that it is no superhero who can single-handedly transform the world through the BRI will be ready for a productive conversation with an India that needs every possible engine of development to fulfil the promises to its people.
But we are running ahead of the script. The answers to these questions will only emerge after May 23. Till then, we can draw inspiration from the immortal lyrics of Bob Dylan:
"The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind,
The answer is blowing in the wind."
Ravi Bhoothalingam is Treasurer and Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi, and an Independent Director on corporate boards          

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