What are India’s stakes in China’s Belt and Road plan?

Is India the missing element?
Is India the missing element?
Image: Reuters/Bobby Yip
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China has called India its natural partner in the Belt and Road, but views in India are decidedly cooler.

In April 2018, when prime minister Narendra Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping met for an “informal summit” at Wuhan, the two sides agreed to improve relations and address the growing tension since the Doklam crisis almost a year before. The rapprochement came to be known as the “Wuhan spirit,” but since then many have asked whether that spirit is still alive. Doubts have resumed, mutual recrimination has not ended and India’s response to the Belt and Road is still riddled with contradictions and hesitations.

As two rising giants, China and India will play a disproportionate role in shaping the new world political and economic order, but like every claim on the future their role remains ambiguous. In the case of China, the question is whether it will eventually measure up to the task of replacing the existing, United States-led order with something new, or whether it will be forced to find a place—no matter how relevant—within the existing arrangements. It is a question to which India will provide its own answer. If the two countries are able to align their foreign policies, if their leaderships rekindle the revolutionary spirit that once brought them together, then the Belt and Road’s chances of success increase proportionately. But if India decides that life within the Western order will be better than under alternative arrangements, the Belt and Road will struggle to meet its original ambition… Deng Xiaoping once said that Chinese policy should follow from these facts: America’s friends were doing well, its enemies much worse, so China should be closer to America. Where should India be?

A vivid illustration of India’s strategic ambiguity took place in the December 2018 meeting of the G20 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Prime minister Modi was first photographed posing with president Donald Trump and prime minister Shinzo Abe during a trilateral meeting most openly concerned with China’s economic and military rise. Hours later, however, Modi had joined president Vladimir Putin and president Xi in a second trilateral. This one could be summarily described as being aimed at the global order led by the United States and its allies. The second trilateral meeting was defined as a counterpoise to the first, and Modi managed to attend both. Shaking hands and smiling with Trump first and with Xi later.

India has much to think about in the coming years. Most immediately, the Belt and Road poses an economic challenge. The same reasons that push China into playing a greater global role…explain why India may find itself increasingly constrained by the Belt and Road. Access to commodities and energy sources, control over significant markets and the need to organize highly competitive and cross-border value chains—in all these cases, China is gaining the upper hand. Wherever the West has been retreating, China has quickly moved in. The question is of course whether there will be any space left for India. How will the Indian economy be able to move up into higher-value segments of global value chains if it turns around and sees many of its fast-growing neighbours already incorporated into a China-led economic network? An enforced return to India’s period of economic autarchy haunts its future development.

By investing in the Iranian port of Chabahar, India may hope to prevent an outcome where it finds itself isolated from the growing economies on its doorstep, but the limited scale of the project offers a vivid contrast to the mammoth scale of the Belt and Road. As opposed to Chabahar, the Chinese-led initiative is designed to fundamentally change global networks and move China to the centre of a new political and economic order. It seems unlikely that two or three infrastructure projects can offer an adequate response on India’s side. Nor is the issue strictly confined to economic power and rivalry. For many commentators in South and Southeast Asia, the Belt and Road is an opportunity for China to entrench its naval presence in the Indian Ocean, as its state-owned companies build dual-use ports that berth its cargo ships and military vessels, and open its first overseas bases in places such as Djibouti, and perhaps Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

In a world where China and the United States will compete for control over key technologies, India risks becoming the market where the outcome of that battle will be in large measure decided, but no more than that. A territory rather than an actor. With its population soon to overcome that of China—and boosting an expanding middle class—India will be a coveted market for Chinese and American companies. Can it leverage that prize into political and economic influence and, if so, how should this influence be exercised?

An awareness of how the United States and China both need India to realise their plans may well explain why Indian decision-makers prefer to dither and delay rather than provide clear guidance as to their role in the great game. Much can be gained by negotiating with both sides at once. But the hesitation is also connected to genuine strategic alienation. It is difficult to think that India could feel at home in the Chinese world order described in this book, but has it ever felt part of the Western order as it was understood for the past seven decades? Hardly. This order, at its apex, coincided with India’s years in the wilderness.

It is not surprising, then, that many in Delhi regard the Belt and Road more as an opportunity than a threat. Here is how the argument goes: While in a Western-led order India cannot expect to enjoy more than a secondary role, China’s rise offers the exciting possibility of a genuinely multipolar—rather than merely multilateral—world where India can legitimately expect to become an autonomous centre of geopolitical power. In this scenario, global power would be shared between four or five major powers: America, Europe, Russia, China and, presumably, India. Starting from behind, India would have to play its cards well, but nothing in the nature of things would prevent it from becoming a power at least equal to a declining Russia.

It is not a coincidence that this vision of India’s future is not too distant from the way Russian authorities think about the problem of world order. Just like Russia, India would come to terms with the Belt and Road. The initiative would be accepted as the main lever opening the gates to a multipolar world order, but only under strict conditions: that India—or Russia, for that matter—would be treated as a partner equal in stature to China, or least formally, and that its economy would reap immediate and tangible results from the association. Right on cue, Russia has called on India to join the Belt and Road. Speaking in Delhi in December 2017, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that India should not let political problems deter it from joining the project, involving billions of dollars of investment, and benefiting from it.

Opposing the Belt and Road will be expensive—even when it makes sense as a long-term economic strategy. Embracing it can at least open a number of exciting negotiations. In politics, sometimes expectations rather than realities are the main currency. The Belt and Road is famously generous when it comes to the former. That, too, helps explain the attraction.

To be sure, Chinese foreign policy has been particularly disastrous in the way it has addressed the India question. At the very beginning, the Belt and Road was supposed to include Kolkata as one of its main nodes. The city and port play that role in the famous Xinhua map of the initiative. But China must have thought that India would be happy with any kind of role in the Belt and Road and neglected the vital task of cajoling and flattering its neighbour. The result has been very much the opposite—India became the core critic of Chinese geopolitical plans—but many in Delhi think that because the root of the problem is China’s misperception of the issue, it can be corrected and an aggressive policy towards Beijing should be tempered by the recognition that India and China ultimately belong together.

An influential politician and writer—Ram Madhav, national general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—has suggested that a multipolar order is not enough. We need not multiple poles but multiple stakeholders. It is a more complicated chessboard, one where multiple projects balance each other but where each of these projects, rather than being conducted by a single power, is shared by willing partners. It is a world order tailored to Indian instincts: active but never exclusive, universal and plural, expressed in the understanding that a parcel of the truth can be found everywhere. It is ultimately a vision of a democratic world order, where power must be shared more than contained and states learn to subject their cherished national plans to different views and goals.

Those instincts may explain why India will leave everyone waiting, but will never make up its mind on the Belt and Road. It will never join the Belt and Road because it could only ever countenance joining a new project with China. And it will never join an American initiative to rival the Belt and Road unless the United States agrees to make it much less confrontational.

After the Doklam crisis, one could perhaps speak of a Doklam spirit. I wrote about it on several occasions, including in this book. It seemed to many of us that the foundations for the China-India rivalry had been set and all that remained was for that rivalry to run its perilous course. But the Doklam spirit was then followed by the Wuhan spirit, which in itself has not been able to last and may well return us to Doklam. Non-alignment in this new version means not that India wants to remain detached from the great affairs of the world, but that it is equally critical of all. We will probably continue to find in Delhi the most vocal critics of the Belt and Road, but they will be just as critical of every rival project or alternative. From the field of forces defined by the opposing poles of Doklam and Wuhan, India seems at present unable or unwilling to depart. The Belt and Road—by returning Indian foreign policy to the paralyses of non-alignment while raising the specter of economic autarchy—may come to symbolise India’s incapacity to leave its own past behind.

Excerpted from Bruno Maçães’s Belt and Road with permission from Penguin. We welcome your comments at