To Meet Indian Concerns, China Offers to Re-Name China-Pakistan Economic Corridor

With the Belt and Road summit set for May 14-15, Chinese officials have increased their lobbying, through public diplomacy and behind closed doors, to get New Delhi to attend.

See also latest story: China Quietly Deletes Ambassador’s Offer to ‘Rename CPEC’ From Embassy Website

New Delhi: Even as India shows no sign of changing its decision to keep off the international conference China has called for later this month to promote its flagship One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, Beijing has for the first time offered to re-name the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – a key component of OBOR – to allay Indian objections.

The offer was made by the Chinese ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui in a speech to the United Service Institution (USI) here on Friday.

India’s main objection to the CPEC has been that it runs through Gilgit-Baltistan, a part of Jammu and Kashmir that is under Pakistani occupation. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi criticised the belt-road initiative, saying connectivity could not be allowed to undermine the country’s sovereignty. Last week, finance minister Arun Jaitley reiterated the same concerns. “I have no hesitation in saying we have some serious reservations about it (OBOR), because of sovereignty issues,” he told a media round-table in Tokyo.

At the closed door event on May 5, the Chinese envoy argued that his country had no “intention to get involved in the sovereignty and territorial disputes between India and Pakistan”.

Stating that the CPEC is for promoting economic cooperation on connectivity, Luo claimed that it has “no connections to or impact on sovereignty issues”.

This is not a new argument from China. A similar point was made by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi last month at a media briefing about the forthcoming OBOR summit.

But in his speech, the Chinese ambassador floated a new offer as a possible solution to mitigate Indian concerns. China, he said “even can think about renaming the CPEC.”

What’s in a name?

To the extent to which the current name implies that the route of the corridor traverses the territory of only China and Pakistan – despite the fact that a portion of it runs through Indian territory occupied by Pakistan – a change of nomenclature might help alleviate Indian concerns about not conceding any ground on the question of sovereignty. However, New Delhi may take the view that a change of name matters little since the corridor will involve Chinese investments and projects on Indian territory that is under Pakistani occupation.

In any event, the re-naming of the CPEC – or even portions of it – could raise eyebrows in Pakistan, where Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has promoted the $51 billion project as the key economic “game-changer” from his term in office. The Pakistani military establishment, which is a key stakeholder in the corridor, also sees enormous strategic value from the corridor and may baulk at any symbolic Chinese gesture towards Indian concerns.

Ambasasdor Lui Zhaohui. Credit: Couvrette/Ottawa

With the Belt and Road summit set for May 14-15, Chinese officials have increased their lobbying, through public diplomacy and behind closed doors, to get New Delhi to attend.

“China and India have had successful experience of delinking sovereignty disputes with bilateral relations before. In history, we have had close cooperation along the ancient Silk Road. Why shouldn’t we support this kind of cooperation today? In a word, China is sincere in its intention to cooperate with India on the OBOR, as it is good for both of us,” said the Chinese ambassador. The text of the speech was released by the Chinese embassy after the USI event.

Chinese officials have previously pointed out that Japan was sending a senior ruling party official to the summit, even though Tokyo cannot by any stretch of the imagination be termed a supporter of OBOR.

Indian officials have been cool to Chinese president Xi Jinping’s One-Belt, One-Road (OBOR) initiative from the beginning, viewing it more as a strategic and political endeavour to gain footholds in key regions through infrastructure projects.

China’s four-point proposal

Luo proposed that the two Asian giants could “actively explore the feasibility of aligning China’s “One Belt One Road Initiative” (OBOR) and India’s “Act East Policy”.

This was suggested by the Chinese envoy in a four-point “long term vision for China-India relations”. The other three points were to begin negotiation on a China-India treaty of good neighbourliness and friendly cooperation, restart talks on the China-India Free Trade Agreement and “strive for an early harvest on the border issue”.

Pushing for the flagship agreement, Luo said, “On the diplomatic front, India has put forward the “Act East Policy”, “Spice Route” etc, and a number of regional connectivity initiatives, as well as vigorously pushed forward the BIMSTEC. As close neighbours, China and India could be natural partners in connectivity and the OBOR”.

Recently, India’s former national security advisor Shiv Shankar Menon wrote in The Wire that with in-built riders over sovereignty, India could explore the opportunity of the Belt and Road initiative to see if “portions” could serve Indian interest in improving connectivity and economic integration.

Chinese push for Indian growth

The Chinese ambassador made another case for India to consider the economic opportunities provided by Beijing, especially since the Indian economy was behind China by at least 13 years.

He suggested that the current global environment may not enable India to meet its growth requirement and New Delhi would therefore, require the support of China to take its economic trajectory upwards.

Citing India’s “disadvantages”, Luo said, “the current trend of anti-globalisation and anti-free trade is not in line with India’s open-up efforts”.

He also said that India’s neighbourhood was “different” from China’s, which benefits from proximity to Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore.

The Chinese ambassador even cited Indian democracy as a handicap. “China and India differ in political systems and China enjoys stronger policy consistency. India’s political system has its own advantages but sometimes may cause fluctuations in its policies or at least in its pace of development. As soon as China set reform and opening-up as its centre task, the whole nation is in full sail,” he said.

The Indian bureaucracy also got the thumbs down from Luo. “After I came to India, one of my impressions is that some bureaucrats of India, to a certain extent, could not catch up with the pace of its politicians. Some policies are implemented too slowly”. However, the states, the ambassador noted, “are keener on attracting investments and expanding trade relations with foreign countries”.

He said that OBOR could provide “India and other regional countries with important opportunities”.

‘China’s 1963 agreement with Pakistan took care of India’s concerns’

Last month in Mumbai, the Chinese deputy chief of mission Liu Jinsong had said at a conference on OBOR that any connectivity link between China and Pakistan had to “unavoidably” pass through PoK. “It’s known to all that such transportation could not detour through India and Afghanistan,” he said.

Liu even asserted that CPEC’s traverse through PoK is “no fresh news for India” as there was already the Karakoram-Kunlun road built in the 1960s.

Further, the Chinese diplomat had urged India to “study carefully” the 1963 agreement between China and Pakistan. “The title and content of this agreement have fully accommodated India’s concern,” he said, specifically referring to Article 6 of the 1963 agreement, which referred to the need for China and Pakistan to re-negotiate their boundary after the “settlement of the Kashmir dispute between Pakistan and India”.

Two weeks after Liu’s Mumbai remarks, the Chinese ambassador also propounded that Indian media reports of Beijing having a Pakistan-first policy in South Asia were “not true”. “Simply put, we always put China first and we deal with problems based on their own merits,” he noted.

He reminded his audience that China had modified its position on Kashmir from support for UN resolutions till the 1990s to support for a “settlement through bilateral negotiation in line with the Simla Agreement”.

“This is an example of China taking care of India’s concern. Today few Indian friends remember this episode, or they have chosen to forget it,” said the Chinese ambassador.

‘Common fight against terrorism’

When it comes to regional stability, Luo said that China was “willing to mediate when India and Pakistan have problems”. “But the precondition is that both India and Pakistan accept it,” he added.

Luo pointed out that as China’s ambassador to Pakistan during the 2008 Mumbai attacks, “I did a lot of mediation at that time”.

Referring to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, he reiterate the Chinese line that Beijing did not oppose India’s membership, but believed that a “standard for admission should be agreed first”.

The Chinese envoy did not specifically refer to another recent dispute – Beijing’s technical hold over the listing of Jaish-e-Mohammed supremo Maulana Masood Azhar on the UN terror list – but he implicitly acknowledged this difference by dwelling at some length 0n China’s stance against terrorism and Chinese-India counter-terror cooperation..

Describing China as a “victim of terrorism”, he said that the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) was “still creating trouble for us today, and we are ready to step up counter-terrorism cooperation with India and Pakistan”.

He also added that his tenure in Islamabad made him realise that Pakistan “also suffered seriously from terrorism”.

“What I want to say is, first, China strongly opposes terrorism; second, China is ready to work with India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the international community in fighting terrorism, and believes that terrorism knows no borders; third, countries need to have compatible policies, consensus and actions in fighting terrorism,” said Luo.

Interestingly, the only issue that the Chinese ambassador did not mention in his speech, but which Chinese officials have repeatedly stressed, both in Delhi and Beijing, was that of the Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama.

When the Dalai Lama visited Arunachal Pradesh last month, China had significantly raised its rhetoric over the trip, despite New Delhi’s assertion that the Tibetan spiritual leader had travelled to that part of India several times earlier. After the Dalai Lama’s visit to the north-east, the Chinese envoy also made a trip to Assam to talk about regional connectivity.

This article has been edited as the earlier version erroneously said the closed-door event with the Chinese envoy was on May 7. It was on May 5.