While a conducive neighbourhood is India’s desire, countering growing Chinese muscle will be top of the agenda.
India participated in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) this year too. The SCO is a Eurasian organisation comprising countries such as China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyztan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan formed in 2001. Last year, Pakistan and India were granted full membership. The SCO summit is held to bolster cooperation on terrorism, extremism and radicalisation.
On the sidelines of the summit, India made sure it signed sharing of hydrological data regarding the Brahmaputra river with China as also rice exports to China. However, amid these developments, India has refrained from endorsing the Chinese Belt Road Initiative (BRI). However, India is keen on the 7,200km-long North South Transport Corridor that could enable it to enter the Central Asian market. An agreement on export of rice to China is a major breakthrough as until now, China did not import Indian rice on grounds of “phytosanitary norms” that involved food standard including animal and plant hygiene.
One of the reasons Prime Minister Narendra Modi cited for not endorsing the BRI was a violation of Indian territorial integrity. He put it diplomatically by saying, “connectivity with neighbouring countries is India’s priority. We welcome connectivity projects which are sustainable and efficient and which respect territorial integrity and sovereignty of other countries.” Hence, it was clear that India would support only those projects that would promote inclusivity and cannot support a project that threatens its own territorial integrity and sovereignty. Moreover, such a project ensures China’s influence in the region which India would likely want to counter.
At the moment, the BRI has been a concern for India as also the Chabahar port developments in March this year, when Iranian Foreign Minister Javed Zarif announced that Iran had invited Pakistan and China as prospective stakeholders in the Chabahar project. Chabahar port is crucial to India as it would enable India to access Afghanistan and Central Asia bypassing Pakistan.
Of course, this is no surprise, as there has been Chinese presence at Chabahar port. China is investing militarily and financially in Iran, and hence, Chabahar may come as no big surprise. It must be noted that China’s Gawdar port initiative is a component of its BRI. Hence, Chabahar too could become a component of China’s BRI, should Iran allow greater Chinese presence and dominance.
However, amid the border skirmishes between India and China, and China’s refusal of accepting India as a Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) member, the fact that India and China made progress with hydrological data sharing over the Brahmaputra is a great leap forward in their bilateral relationship. Sharing of river data has been a concern between the two countries for long.
India being a lower riparian state has always complained of lack of data sharing on China’s part considering that China was the upper riparian state. However, how much of data sharing will be initiated by China in case of a Doklam kind of stand-off between India and China will need to be seen. Moreover, China was planning in 2017 a 1,000-km long tunnel system to divert these waters into the arid Xinjiang province.
Russia and China on the other hand have considered this platform as a platform to promote peace between Pakistan and India. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had stated that the SCO would provide a “better platform” for India and Pakistan to resolve their issues and provide better opportunities for building better relations between them. Both Russia and China are wishing for an improvement in the relations between India and Pakistan for the successful running of the organisation. Russia during the Iranian nuclear impasse has proved its mettle as a mediator between Iran and the European 3 (E3) - Germany, Britain, France, China and the United States.
Such an economic integration could also result in both Pakistan and India realising the strengths of an improved bilateral relations that could also help revive the defunct South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). So far, both India and Pakistan have not been able to let go of their concerns and inhibitions regarding the issue of Kashmir that has resulted in SAARC almost becoming a defunct organisation. If the two countries can forget their differences in the SCO, they surely would benefit in the regional cooperation frameworks. There are also reports that India and Pakistan are likely to participate in joint military drills organised by the SCO along with the other members of the SCO that would enhance coordination and cooperation between member states on counter-terrorism operations.
However, it must be noted that India is a member of the QUAD that also comprise the United States, Australia and Japan, that aims to strengthen India’s maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region. Joining the QUAD was a result of India’s ‘Act East Policy’.
India has also signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the United States while on the other hand, in 2015, it has included Japan as a member in the Malabar exercise. Both the United States and Japan are vying for maritime supremacy against China in the South China Sea (United States vis-a-vis China) and also in the East China Sea (Japan vis-a-vis China).
Hence, it is also to be seen as to how far China takes India seriously in the SCO and also how India’s equations with the United States and Japan shape up. Of course, India’s refusal to become a member of the BRI will be a sigh of relief for the United States too as the BRI is an initiative of China that also aims to counter US influence. According to reports, in February 2018, the QUAD also discussed the possibility of a similar Belt Road Initiative by the QUAD to counter China’s BRI.
It must be noted that while India is keen on the SCO and has been excited about the summit, under no circumstance will India accept Chinese influence in the region. It will continue to remain a member of the SCO as long as it serves its strategic and economic interests. But at the same time, it would refrain from any activity that would be a direct threat to its own sovereignty.