Will India join US President Joe Biden’s ‘infrastructure plan’ to counter Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)?
US President Joe Biden’s suggestion to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week that democratic countries should have an infrastructure plan to rival China’s BRI has sparked a debate on India’s dilemma on the issue.
The mega infrastructure scheme launched by President Xi Jinping in 2013 involves development and investment initiatives stretching from East Asia to Central, South and Southeast Asia, and even Europe. Considered China’s most ambitious foreign policy undertaking in modern times, the BRI continues to lure more and more countries within its fold – the latest numbers are at a staggering 139.
BRI has already been set into motion with billions already spent by Chinese banks in building roads, power plants, ports, railways, 5G networks, fiber-optic cables, among other critical infrastructure in a host of countries.
China’s strong economy continues to fund and support the initiative in multiple countries, and with little impact of the pandemic compared to other countries’ economies, BRI is getting extremely successful with its developmental commitments to the partner countries.
The project is also expanding China’s political and economic influence raising alarm bells in Washington and elsewhere. Biden had earlier commented that he would not allow a situation where China surpasses the US and become the most powerful country on the planet. Right from the day he was sworn in as President, he has pledged to create investments and work with its partners to stop China in its tracks.
Biden committed to unveiling a multitrillion-dollar plan to overhaul US infrastructure, which he said would encourage “increased US investment in promising new technologies, such as quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology”.
The Great Indian Dilemma
However, the country which would be most affected by China’s ambitious infrastructure project is India, which lies next door to the communist-ruled country. With more and more countries signing deals with China to participate in Belt and Road projects like railways, ports, highways, and other infrastructure, India finds itself in a precarious position and would likely lose its influence over the Central and South Asian nations.
If the Refinitiv database report is to be believed, more than 2,600 projects at a cost of $3.7 trillion were linked to BRI as of mid-last year. This would limit India’s chances of initiating trade with its neighborhood since most of the countries would have joined the BRI and the country is headed to losing much of the market to China.
Beijing organized the May 2017 Belt and Road Forum, so far, the largest diplomatic effort to mobilize global support for the initiative. Reportedly, the Forum for International Cooperation witnessed the presence of around 1500 delegates from 130 countries including 29 Heads of states.
To India’s surprise, all of its main neighbors – Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, and Afghanistan – attended the forum and even signed agreements under the BRI and welcomed the initiative.
The participation of its smaller neighbors had raised questions on India’s capability to offer any sustainable development aids and its lack of strategic engagement with countries of importance. India only woke up to the BRI nightmare when Beijing started offering infrastructure commitments to India’s South Asian neighbors and its inexorable expansion in the Indian Ocean region.
There have been both views among the Indian strategic experts on the nation’s dilemma on whether it should join the BRI or stay out of it. The experts who advocate on India joining the BRI cite the immense economic opportunities it offers by financing domestic infrastructure projects in the country.
“To those sympathetic to Indian participation in the BRI, the sense that connectivity is gaining momentum throughout the Indo-Pacific further underscores that New Delhi should consider ways to enhance its own economic standing on trade and transportation issues so as to avoid being left behind,” opines Darshana M. Baruah in a paper published in Carnegie India.
However, the concerns against the BRI were too strong to be ignored by the policymakers in India, especially, about the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) running through the Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, which India claims to be its part. The corridor runs through the disputed region which violates India’s territorial sovereignty in the region and as such, India cannot be expected to turn a blind eye to its core concerns and joins hands with China, say the experts.
India also fears the BRI may not uphold the international standards and norms and flout rules in favor of the powerful communist nation. In 2017, while responding to a query on participation in the BRI Forum, India had said, “No country can accept a project that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
“We are of firm belief that connectivity initiatives must be based on universally recognized international norms, good governance, rule of law, openness, transparency and equality,” the statement from India read.
Again, in November 2020, in presence of the other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), India made it clear that joining BRI was out of the question. “India has repeatedly said it will not join BRI because it does not offer a level playing ground to the country’s businesses. It has also opposed BRI because a key component – the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – passes through PoK,” Hindustan Times reported on India’s position at the Forum.
Now that India has made its position clear on the BRI, will it be interested in joining Biden’s plan of rivaling the Chinese infrastructure project with one of its own? Biden’s plan is to partner with like-minded democratic nations and create a multi-faceted and coordinated plan to engage in the great-power competition with the Chinese.
The possibility is not ruled out, as experts point out that India has gone all out to confront China by forging a military alliance with the US with the signing of the BECA agreement. The QUAD Alliance, which seeks to challenge Chinese expansionism, is also growing stronger with India being an important member. The country is growing closer to China’s rivals, including Australia, Japan, South Korea, among others, making clear its position about which side it supports in the Indo-Pacific power dynamics.
Experts are, however, skeptical about the ability of these nations to commit to enough capital to match China’s BRI, even with Japan, Australia, and the UK, included. BRI has been a resounding success because of China’s unprecedented capital infusion into its projects and a strong political backing, besides the immense tangible benefits, the participating countries stand to take from it.
The pandemic has, on the other hand, crippled the economies of major powers, which are struggling domestically with containing the COVID-19 and its disastrous impacts. In such a situation, their ability to build a rival infrastructure plan that may cost trillions is questionable and unworkable.
The anti-China front will, therefore, be unable to conceive a reasonable strategy to challenge the BRI and its expanding reach across the Eurasian region and beyond, for now.