External Affairs

Why is India So Coy About China’s Maritime Silk Road?

Silk and Spice Routes. Credit: UNESCO

Silk and Spice Routes. Credit: UNESCO

The Chinese ‘Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century’ (MSR) is the new buzzword in many Asian capital cities, including in New Delhi. The more the Chinese want the Indians ‘inside the tent’, the more wary and suspicious India gets, in a way even blinding itself to its probable positives. An objective analysis is unlikely to have been attempted by Indian think-tanks, not so much because the Chinese have not yet articulated the “details”, but more so because the stance of Indian policymakers is perceived as fait accompli.

A quick assessment of this idea brings fourth three facets of the MSR: economics, national security and symbolism. Let us examine each one of these in the Indian context.

Economics

As the largest manufacturing economy in the world, China’s impressive economic growth in the past few decades has led to rising incomes and better lifestyles, but also slowing down of its exports due to rising production costs. China seeks to address this conundrum by outsourcing manufacturing to its MSR partners. For India – given its advantages in terms of the relatively low cost of labour and raw-material – this presents an opportunity to strengthen its manufacturing base, propagate its ‘Make in India’ campaign, and generate employment opportunities.

The prevailing cynicism against shifting China’s ‘sunset industries’ to India purely on environmental considerations is a bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Considering that China’s industrial capacity is at least two decades ahead, Indian industries could leapfrog in the same way that the Southeast Asian economies did in the 1980s on the back of outsourcing by Japanese multinational companies.

On the other hand, if New Delhi opts to stay out of the MSR, India’s industrial growth will lag behind its Asian neighbours – most of which are China’s avowed MSR partners – thereby adversely affecting India’s economic growth and developmental plans.

India also needs to overcome infrastructure-related constraints to enhance connectivity for its overseas trade, which contributes substantially to the national economy. The MSR could be an effective maritime supplement to the land-based Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor under active consideration by New Delhi. It could be dovetailed with India’s own ‘Sagarmala’ project, and thereby contribute to the nation’s efforts to enhance sea-trade connectivity, while also progressively leading to ‘port-led development’ of the hinterland, and the SEZs. Of course, if the envisaged economic and developmental dividends of China’s MSR could be substituted by Japan and Taiwan, this would be preferred, but is this feasible?

Security

China’s military-strategic intent behind the MSR cannot be discounted. The unprecedented docking of a PLA Navy submarine at Colombo port in September 2014 is a bellwether for future developments in the Indian Ocean.  China is likely to seek naval access to the maritime infrastructure that it is helping to create, thereby increasing its strategic presence in India’s backyard. The PLA Navy could seek replenishment facilities in Chittagong, Colombo, Gwadar, Hambantota, and so on. The question arises: what can India do to prevent this? India could possibly try to use its leverage with the IOR countries, but these are hardly adequate vis-á-vis the economic attractiveness of China’s MSR. Notably, even Bangladesh and Maldives have opted to support the MSR, and with Pakistan, India has no leverage at all. Hence, the progress of the ongoing developments seems inevitable, over which New Delhi seems to have little control.

On the other hand, permitting a Chinese company to develop an economic zone – comprising a port-hinterland complex with manufacturing hubs – in an appropriate location in India would entail considerable Chinese investment in terms of finances, technology and possibly, skilled human resource. This would lead to China developing major stakes in India, which would enhance rather than diminish India’s national security. In the present times of national-technical means and stand-off non-kinetic offensive weapons, national security cannot be achieved through physical barriers.

It may be conceded that New Delhi would be risk-averse considering the history of Chinese aggression against India and the prevailing adversarial potential in bilateral relations. Even so, Chinese companies and entrepreneurs could be permitted access to select Indian production and distribution hubs while laying down caveats to ensure that they do not indulge in  intelligence-gathering or sabotage.

Due to China’s rather overzealous endeavour to sell the idea of MSR to the Indians, the MSR concept has not only gained traction in the Indian academic discourse, but also become an emotive issue in India. An Indian may prefer to call it nationalism, but to be objective, it is not exactly that. It is some sort of a symbolism that makes Indians unwilling to agree to any arrangement that subordinates them to the Chinese, even if the deal is a win-win proposition.

As an Asian society, even the Chinese love symbolism. Being based on a historic idea that is of little relevance to the present times, the MSR itself is an apt example. But China uses symbolism as a means to an end; it uses symbolism in consort with realism to meet its national objectives. As Deng Xiaoping had said, “Practice is the sole criterion of truth… It doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black, so long as it catches mice.” To most Indians, however, ‘symbolism’ is an ‘all encompassing virtue’, self contained to be both the ‘road’ and ‘destination’.

Captain (Dr.) Gurpreet S. Khurana is the Executive Director, National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the NMF, the Indian Navy or the Government of India.