What is OBOR –
BRI (Belt and Road Initiative), initially known as OBOR (One Belt One Road) is an ambitious network of infrastructure projects proposed by China with the purported goal of enhancing regional cooperation and economic policy coordination. It consists of Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st century Maritime Silk Road Initiative and runs through Asia, Africa and Europe and also connects various countries through maritime connectivity via the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean encompassing almost 70 countries and covering more than half the planet’s population. The major purpose of this initiative, as claimed by China, is to connect vibrant Asia with developed Europe to boost trade and economic growth.
Reasons for sudden Chinese interest in OBOR
Historically China has been a reluctant member in multilateral forums and has usually preferred bilateral relations with other countries. Also, it has a reputation for prioritizing its short-term goals over long-term ones which are very evident from the pollution levels of its cities and the increasing debt to GDP ratio. What then explains their sudden interest in a long-term project of such a huge scale to promote regional cooperation?
Firstly, the popularity that President Xi Jinping enjoys both in within his party and with the public is so immense that he is sometimes compared with the great Chinese economic reformers, Mao and Deng. This gives him the leeway to imagine projects at a scale which his predecessors could not. Secondly, post-2008 financial crisis, with more and more countries in the west turning protectionist and growing cynical towards multilateral forums (the US and the UK being the prominent examples), China feels that time is ripe for asserting its position as a global leader. Thirdly, a well-connected and an economically better Asia is in the best interests of China to boost its stagnating economy. Finally the number of employment and investment opportunities the project offers cannot be easily pushed aside.
India on OBOR-
Though BRI or OBOR brings a lot of benefits to India, India is against the project and went to the extent of boycotting the first summit held in Beijing in May 2017 to prove its displeasure. The main reason behind India’s opposition is that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) which is claimed by India as its territory. Though India made this clear multiple times, China doesn’t seem to be paying heed to India’s sovereignty issue. Also, India fears that BRI is a step to bring other countries in the region under the Chinese clout. Therefore, India feels that giving China a free hand in the region is detrimental to its national security interests in the long run.
India has always supported the idea of a multi-polar world order and that is why India’s boycott this year has raised a few eyebrows. Given the enormity of the project and the economic gains that is in offer to India, it cannot afford to let the opportunity slip by giving excuses on flimsy grounds (flimsy because the resolution to border issue is nowhere in the vicinity and even after the resolution we cannot be sure that the claimed territory will come under India’s control). As a regional superpower, India would be better-off to join the project to check Chinese monopoly and to prove itself as a responsible leader. Also, since BRI is a Chinese initiative, once India joins the project, China cannot continue to ignore India’s interests in the long run. India already missed a huge opportunity to in the late 1970s and 1980s when other Asian countries opened their markets. With BRI or OBOR touted as another such watershed moment in the Asian region, can India afford to miss another opportunity?