Books | A Case for Cooperation

This is an extract from the ‘explanatory essay’ written by Sudheendra Kulkarni in his book August Voices



Constructive Partnership with China for SAARC’s Success

A major geo-political development since the two partitions in the Indian subcontinent is the Rise of China as an Asian power and global power. China has come to exert unprecedented influence over Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and other countries in South Asia. India views this with suspicion. China, on the other hand, views with suspicion India’s growing military ties with the United States of America, which fears China’s rise. Therefore, constructive re-imagining of future India-Pakistan-Bangladesh relations without taking into account China’s relations with our three countries would be futile.

Can India and China reset their relations in ways that benefit each other, and also the whole of South Asia? Yes, they can. And they must.

China’s Rise, though more spectacular and faster, cannot obscure India’s own Rise. Already an important Asian and global player, India in the coming years will emerge as an even more prosperous and influential nation in the world. The near-simultaneous national rejuvenation of India and China will have the most decisive — and potentially most constructive — impact on the affairs of the world in the 21st century and beyond. However, for this impact to be constructive, both India and China have to march ahead on a path illuminated by the light of their own civilisational wisdom; not the path of rivalry and conflict trodden by the now-weakened western powers, who brought death and devastation on an unprecedented scale in the 20th century. It is the kind of wisdom that Mahatma Gandhi gave expression to in 1942, when both India and China were struggling for freedom from foreign domination.

“As a friend of China, I long for the day when a free India and a free China will cooperate together in friendship and brotherhood for their own good and for the good of Asia and the world.”

Gandhi’s message of brotherhood — remember that he had urged Jinnah, unsuccessfully, in his talks with him in 1944 that India and Pakistan should separate as “brothers in a family” and not on the basis of the “Two-Nation” theory — is as relevant for South Asia as it is for China. Indeed, China also belongs to South Asia, just as it belongs to other parts of Asia. What it means is that India should not think, and act, only in terms of its own rise but work actively for the rise of South Asia and Asia as a whole. Similarly, China’s policies, too, should be guided by the benign vision of South Asia’s, and the rest of Asia’s, balanced rise. No rift in India-China ties, South Asian solidarity, and China’s ties with South Asia should be allowed to surface either on account of external meddling or internal power-play. At the same time, each of the countries in the region, and also China, should be free to pursue friendly relations with outside powers such USA and Russia. In particular, there is a need to enhance collective security cooperation in the region — also around the world — based on reduction in military spending and increase in spending on human and ecological security. India and China should come together in establishing this new paradigm of international relations, in which big and powerful nations assume bigger responsibility in creating a just, peaceful and cooperative new world order.

A serious impediment in such constructive partnership between India and China is the current enmity between India and Pakistan. Why India and Pakistan should, and how they can, resolve all bilateral disputes peacefully has been discussed in the previous pages. It has also been stressed that India-Pakistan reconciliation is a precondition for the success of the stalled SAARC project. Mutual trust between India and Pakistan is essential for dispute-resolution. Trust begets cooperation. And cooperation breeds trust. Here I would like to submit that a major trust-building and cooperation-boosting opportunity has presented itself before our two countries, and this opportunity can fructify if India, Pakistan and China work together in the spirit of brotherhood and Asian solidarity.

The opportunity is so large that it can integrate the whole of South Asia infrastructurally, economically and socially. India’s vision and plans for regional connectivities in South Asia need to be synergised, with China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) strategy. One important point of synergy lies in the early implementation of the proposed BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar) corridor. BCIM envisages a network of modern road, railway, port and communication and trade connectivity stretching from Kolkata to Kunming in southern China. Even though BCIM is one of the richest regions in the world in terms of natural and human resources (home to nearly 500 million people, not counting the entire population of China), it is also one of the least integrated, economically as well as socially. Before history changed its map in the last century, the people of this region not only shared geography without rigid borders, but also close racial, linguistic, cultural and spiritual interconnections. Sadly, whereas the neighbouring ASEAN community has become a zone of prosperity, the BCIM region (barring southern China) is mostly underdeveloped, India’s seven north-eastern states a stark example. BCIM, which was conceptualized 16 years ago, can benefit India in a big way.

Apart from addressing the critical infrastructural needs in India’s north-east mentioned earlier, tourism will also get a boost. Bangladesh attracts less than 1 million foreign tourists in a year. For India’s north-eastern states, the figure is less than 2,00,000. Contrast this to the fact that Vietnam attracts 8 million, Cambodia 5 million, and Thailand 26 million foreign tourists annually.

For all these reasons, India should cooperate with China, Bangladesh and Myanmar for prioritised implementation of BCIM. It can be a game-changer for this region in Asia; it is also pivotal for India’s ‘Act East’ Policy.

Another potential point of synergy between India’s and China’s infrastructural vision for South Asia is the ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China has pledged to invest nearly $50 billion on CPEC — roughly one-fifth of Pakistan’s annual GDP! CPEC’s main infrastructural corridor, running over 3,000 km, will connect Kashgar in China’s Sinkiang province to Gwadar port in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. India should welcome this initiative. CPEC will no doubt boost Pakistan’s progress and prosperity; it will also help Pakistan tackle many social and other internal problems, including the menace of religious extremism and terrorism. It is in India’s vital interest to see a stable, prosperous, progressive, united and democratic Pakistan, which is at peace with itself and its neighbours.

Our support to CPEC will enhance trust between India and Pakistan on one hand, and between India and China on the other. Furthermore, India should propose to join this project by offering to link BCIM with CPEC. This will mean an infrastructure corridor connecting Bangladesh, India and Pakistan — the pre-1947 India!

Interconnecting CPEC (with its extensions into Afghanistan and India) and BCIM is not a novel idea. It is simply the 21st century version of the 16th century road built by Sher Shah Suri, connecting the cities that later became the capitals of four countries Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Linking BCIM with CPEC will boost comprehensive South Asian Partnership and the partnership between South Asia and China. If BCIM seeks to connect Kunming and Kolkata (K-to-K), taking this corridor all the way up to Kabul, with India-Pakistan-Afghanistan collaboration, it will create a K-to K-to-K connectivity. How such developmental collaboration can significantly reduce India-Pakistan hostility, and Pakistan-Afghanistan hostility, should be obvious to all.

As a new component of this regional cooperation architecture, the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline (which is already a part of CPEC) should be extended into India. New Delhi has remained cool to this flagship proposal by Tehran until now, partly due to perceived security issues between India and Pakistan, and partly on account of American pressure. However, with increased India-Iran cooperation, and with China playing the driver’s role in CPEC (and hence in a position to exert pressure on Islamabad), the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline can become a reality. Thus, the CPEC-BCIM interconnection has the potential to immensely bolster India’s energy security both on western and eastern flanks.

Indian critics of BCIM and CPEC state that China and Pakistan cannot be trusted. India certainly has some legitimate security and other concerns that both Beijing and Islamabad must address. However, India’s concerns can be better addressed by constructively engaging, rather than by trying to oppose, Pakistan and China on CPEC. Mutually beneficial cooperation builds trust and trust helps nations resolve their disputes amicably.

Moreover, when two big nations such as India and China cooperate in a regional cooperation framework, it generates confidence among other countries in the neighbourhood. They become crucial stakeholders in making India-China and India-Pakistan ties stable and irreversible. Another major benefit for both India and Pakistan: If our two countries can take the lead in South Asia’s infrastructural and economic integration, Pakistan’s dependence on China will reduce, leading to a better balance in the region.

Sudheendra Kulkarni
Observer Research Foundation Mumbai, Pg 263

Call us