Bottomline | The Big Picture in the East

Prime Minister Modi’s participation in the OBOR Summit can only have positive spin-offs

Pravin Sawhney

Since relations between India and China have hit a serious roadblock, the burden of retrieval is now wholly on New Delhi. This was the clear unsaid message that emanated from the recent strategic dialogue held in Beijing where foreign secretary S. Jaishankar was met by state councillor Yang Jiechi and foreign minister Wang Yi.

In the country sensitive about protocol, the significance of two senior Chinese leaders confabulating with Jaishankar could not have been lost on India. And it was two-fold: One, China will not relent on the three Indian demands that affect its strategic roadmap. These include agreeing to UN sanctions on Masood Azhar; India’s membership of the NSG (without Pakistan being in it); and halting work on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which passes through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. To be sure, CPEC is the flagship of President Xi Jinping’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) project, and therefore, Pakistan is now China’s closest ally and not a lackey who can be dictated to abandon its proxy war (where Azhar is a strategic asset) into Jammu and Kashmir.

The other forceful message was that China desires good relations with India. Just as President Putin’s Russia has merged its Eurasia Economic Union project with Xi’s OBOR in a win-win situation, Beijing wants Prime Minister Modi’s Act East Policy to seek common ground with the OBOR and the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar) which was offered to India before OBOR was unveiled by President Xi Jinping to the world. This was conveyed by inviting Prime Minister Narendra Modi to participate in the OBOR summit in May 2017. It is a no-brainer that the summit meeting called by Xi would be attended by the heads of government of Pakistan, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, most Central Asian Republics, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Philippines amongst others.

India’s reaction to Chinese invite has been surprising. Instead of mulling over the implications of attending the summit and the benefits it could accrue with China and Pakistan, especially in Kashmir where things are on the downslide, Jaishankar, in a display of misplaced arrogance, asked China to explain how India could attend the summit when the CPEC violates India’s sovereignty over POK and Gilgit-Baltistan. While India’s tough stand against China would win accolades at home, it ought to be remembered that the military and geostrategic landscape in Kashmir, at present, is tilted against India with little hope of redemption without a drastic course correction.

Take Kashmir, where in the absence of political reforms, the insurgency is on the upswing with the onus on the security forces alone, particularly the army, to keep things under check. Instead of appreciating that the Pakistan Army is heavily committed elsewhere, the Indian Army is willy-nilly contributing to Rawalpindi’s Kashmir agenda.

For instance, the two top priorities of the Pakistan Army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa are to provide assured security to the CPEC, and to fight home-grown terrorism. Known to accomplish results on time, China will be extremely upset if the CPEC (and consequently the OBOR) — which passes through restive Baluchistan and Gilgit-Baltistan — is delayed for security reasons. Moreover, if Rawalpindi is unable to defeat the ‘bad terrorists’ which are allegedly being used by Afghanistan and India against Pakistan, its own ‘good terrorists’ would be severely handicapped to fulfil its agenda of installing a favourable regime in Afghanistan — the gateway to Central Asian Republics.

Given Rawalpindi’s heavy commitments, it would be loath to open the third front against India by increased firings across the Line of Control to keep the Kashmir pot boiling. The Indian Army, unfortunately, has saved Rawalpindi from considering this reluctant choice. Instead of reviewing his options, the Indian Army chief, General Bipin Rawat has made things difficult for his own force by venting his frustration at civilian stone-throwers by saying they would be treated as terrorists. Rather than being scared, these civilians, in defiance, have been further emboldened in support of the swelling home-grown terrorists. This has provided Rawalpindi with two advantages: it need not intensify cross border firings since India is fulfilling its agenda by augmenting turbulence within, thereby enabling Pakistan to go to all conceivable global forums to highlight Indian atrocities on Kashmiris.

If only General Rawat had thought like the top operational commander, which he is, instead of being fixated on CI ops (tactical operations), he could have distracted Rawalpindi from its present priorities. A good option for him would have been to allow J&K commanders to handle ground realities in collaboration with other security forces. He instead should have focussed on strengthening the operational level of war by providing field commanders with credible operational level options and war-waging materiel needed for conventional conflict. He should also reinvigorate the Chiefs of Staff Committee for better operational coordination between the three services, while keeping the political leadership in the loop about the bigger evolving geopolitical matrix.

For instance, once the CPEC becomes a reality — which is would sooner than later —, it would bring huge economic benefits to the region. So much so, that India with frugal infrastructure will not be able to match the burgeoning prosperity unleashed by the CPEC-OBOR combine. Interestingly, Kashmiris are aware about this and relish the thought of reaping economic benefits from across the military line; in closeted conversations, they make the point that soon there would be three parties to the Kashmir dispute: India, Pakistan and China. They add tauntingly that India will not be able to stand up to China like it does to Pakistan.

With the CPEC in place, even the military pressure on India could increase in north Kashmir. China — which in December 2010 declared that it did not have a border with India in Ladakh (J&K) — would not be averse to Pakistan seeking depth to the CPEC by assaulting north Kashmir where India is militarily weak. Given the increased military inter-operability between Pakistan military and the People’s Liberation Army, and the continued tactical operations (CI ops) by the Indian Army, India would be extremely vulnerable at the operational level of war. More so, India’s bigger defence supplier Russia, which has accepted to be a part of the OBOR and has developed close ties with Pakistan, might find it difficult to support India’s war effort.

Given all this, India should seek to stay a step ahead rather than face heavy odds in the near future. While India’s Act East policy and China’s OBOR and BCIM economic corridors are about trade, financial integration, better connectivity and policy coordination amongst Asian nations, Delhi reluctance to jump on the Chinese bandwagon is understandable. Let alone the OBOR which has the CPEC as its integral being, even the BCIM is viewed as China’s method of influencing India’s Northeast — which have tenuous physical links with the mainland — through its economic might with evident political implications.

The inescapable conclusion for India is for Modi to seriously consider attending the OBOR summit. There could be many gains in doing so. First and foremost, it would be an unambiguous signal that India too desires good relations with China. This would help the reported five different subgroups to remain on the positive trajectory. The subgroups headed by senior diplomats are on Afghanistan, nuclear issues, United Nations, bilateral issues, and consular or visa matters for people-to-people ties.

Moreover, three other gains might accrue from the Prime Minister visit. Since Pakistan would be represented at the highest level, there could be an opportunity for thaw in relations between India and Pakistan. It is no secret that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who desires trade ties with India, has been hemmed in by Rawalpindi which wants Kashmir talks to take centre-stage. The way out of the impasse can only be found through highest level political interaction.

The other gain could be on Afghanistan, where China seems to have gained enough political traction in recent months. According to reports, the Taliban are amenable to China brokering peace-talks with the Kabul regime, and Chinese military personnel have been sighted in Afghanistan. A probable one-on-one between Modi and Xi might help both sides find a common ground on cooperation in Afghanistan. And, there could be an opportunity for Modi to meet leaders of both own and China’s neighbourhood countries.

This would help India immensely as it could assist the maiden planned meeting between Modi and US President Donald Trump. It is no secret that the present US administration is keen to deepen the strategic and military ties with India for peace and security in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region. Given all this, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Modi’s attendance at the OBOR summit cannot be detrimental to India’s geostrategic interests.