Modi Criticises China's One Belt One Road Plan, Says Connectivity Can't Undermine Sovereignty

In his inauguration speech at the second Raisina Dialogue, the prime minister took a stand on China's grand connectivity project and urged Pakistan to shun terrorism if it wants good relations with India.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at the second edition of the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi on Tuesday. Credit: Twitter/@MEAIndia

New Delhi: In an implicit criticism of China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his inaugural speech at the second Raisina Dialogue on Tuesday said that regional connectivity corridors could not “override or undermine the sovereignty” of nations.

India’s opposition to China’s grand connectivity project was strongly articulated at the first Raisina Dialogue in 2016 by the external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and foreign secretary S. Jaishankar. Ten months later, Modi reinforced those views in his first public reference to China’s ambitious OBOR, which has roped in several of India’s closest neighbours.

Modi noted that India did “appreciate the compelling logic of regional connectivity for peace, progress and prosperity”.

“In our choices and through our actions, we have sought to overcome barriers to our outreach to West and Central Asia, and eastwards to [the] Asia-Pacific,” the prime minister asserted, citing India’s own connectivity plans in Chabahar and the International North-South Transport Corridor.

“However, equally, connectivity in itself cannot override or undermine the sovereignty of other nations,” he said, without taking any names.

India has termed the OBOR as a ‘unilateral’ or a ‘national’ initiative of China, with a limited role of other participating countries in shaping the priorities of the connectivity projects. New Delhi has also objected to the route of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – a sub-set of OBOR – going through Gilgit-Baltistan, which is in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

“Only by respecting the sovereignty of countries involved can regional connectivity corridors fulfill their promise and avoid differences and discord,” Modi said

In the last Raisina Dialogue, Swaraj, who missed the current event due to her ongoing medical treatment, had noted that India’s connectivity philosophy was to have a “cooperative rather than unilateral approach”. Jaishankar had been more explicit, noting that connectivity should not add to regional tension. “Indeed, if we seek a multi-polar world, the right way to begin is to create a multi-polar Asia. Nothing could foster that more than an open-minded consultation on the future of connectivity,” he said in March 2016.

Incidentally, the theme of the second edition of the MEA’s flagship international policy conference, held in partnership with the private Observer Research Foundation, is ‘The New Normal: Multipolarism with Multipolarity.’

Dwelling on this topic, the prime minister pointed out that the country welcomes the “dominant fact” of a multipolar world and Asia, as it “accepts that voices of many, not views of a few should shape the global agenda.” “Therefore, we need to guard against any instinct or inclination that promotes exclusion, especially in Asia,” he added

He noted that there were “vibrant pools of progress and prosperity”, but also “visible stress points” of “rising ambition and festering rivalries”.

“The steady increase in military power, resources and wealth in the Asia-Pacific has raised the stakes for its security. Therefore, the security architecture in the region must be open, transparent, balanced and inclusive. And, promote dialogue and predictable behaviour rooted in international norms and respect for sovereignty,” he said.

This emphasis on adhering to “international norms” was repeated again, but this time in reference to the maritime domain.

Modi prefaced his remarks by stating that India’s approach to the Indian Ocean was “not an exclusive one”. “The primary responsibility for peace, prosperity and security in the Indian Ocean rests with those who live in this region,” said the  prime minister – a seemingly ‘exclusive’  policy position which would be slightly comforting to China which has been wary of the ‘pivot to Asia’ by the US, which does not ‘live in this region’.

However, the sting in the tail was in the next two sentences. “And, we aim to bring countries together on the basis of respect for international law. We believe that respecting freedom of navigation and adhering to international norms is essential for peace and economic growth in the larger and inter-linked marine geography of the Indo-Pacific”.  Modi’s mention of international law in this framework was certainly not in line with the Chinese view, which gives primacy to historical claims over international treaties in its disputes in the South China Sea.

China’s giant shadow loomed large in several parts of Modi’s speech, but he only referred to India’s northern neighbour explicitly by name in the bilateral context.

“In our engagement with China, as President Xi and I agreed, we have sought to tap the vast area of commercial and business opportunities in the relationship. I see the development of India and China as an unprecedented opportunity, for our two countries and for the whole world,” he said.

But, Modi pointed that it was “not unnatural for two large neighbouring powers to have some differences”.

“In the management of our relationship, and for peace and progress in the region, both our countries need to show sensitivity and respect for each other’s core concerns and interests,” he asserted.

China and India have had a difficult few months, due to “differences” over the route of the CPEC, membership of Nuclear Suppliers Group and over the listing of Jaish-e-Mohammed supremo Masood Azhar with the UNSC sanctions panel.

Modi told the audience of ministers, military personnel, diplomats and foreign policy analysts that India’s “strategic intent” was shaped by the “civilisational ethos” of “atharthwad (realism), sah-astitiva (coexistence), sahyog (cooperation) and sahbhogita (partnership)”.

Making a case for the country’s central role in the new global order, he said that India’s “actions and aspirations, capacities and human capital, democracy and demography and strength and success will continue to be an anchor for all round regional and global progress”.

“Our economic and political rise represents a regional and global opportunity of great significance. It is a force for peace, a factor for stability and an engine for regional and global prosperity”.

He noted that India’s transformation was taking place when there were immense opportunities. “But, sluggish growth and economic volatility are also a sobering fact,” he added.

Globalisation was at risk, he pointed out, due to “walls within nations, a sentiment against trade and migration, and rising parochial and protectionist attitudes across the globe”.

“Instability, violence, conflict, extremism, exclusion and transnational threats continue to proliferate in dangerous directions. And, non-state actors are significant contributors to the spread of such challenges. Institutions and architectures built for a different world, by a different world, seem outdated, posing a barrier to effective multilateralism,” said Modi on Tuesday evening.

Turning his eyes towards India’s immediate neighbourhood, Modi claimed that his “neighbourhood-first” policy had shown results across all the nations, except one.

“My vision for our neighbourhood puts a premium on peaceful and harmonious ties with entire South Asia. That vision had led me to invite leaders of all SAARC nations, including Pakistan, for my swearing in. For this vision, I had also travelled to Lahore. But, India alone cannot walk the path of peace. It also has to be Pakistan’s journey to make. Pakistan must walk away from terror if it wants to walk towards dialogue with India”.

On relations with the great powers, Modi said that in his phone conversation with US president-elect Donald Trump, both of them had agreed to build on the gains of the strategic partnership. He described having “long conversations” with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the challenges confronting the world, even as bilateral ties had broadened and deepened.