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India is not stepping up to the challenge of countering China

It should be easy for the world to criticise China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has completed 10 years. Consider its record, for one. Several countries have realised the Chinese often promised a lot more than they delivered while yet others — Pakistan and Sri Lanka, in India’s neighbourhood — also realised that Chinese gifts came with heavy costs.

Pakistan has been a major focus of Chinese outflows under the BRI —official sources declare about $25 billion. Its experiences are, therefore, germane to understanding how the Chinese project has played out.

The Pakistanis have had none of their economic problems resolved despite 10 years of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). For a project of such magnitude in terms of investment value,the number of jobs created in Pakistan runs into only a few hundred thousand— in a country of over 240 million people. Meanwhile, the CPEC simply added more power capacity with new thermal power plants even though the problem was never lack of capacity but non-payment of dues by the Pakistani consumers and hence the inability of power plants to buy the fuel to keep themselves going.

But perhaps the biggest unintended impact of the CPEC has been to turn the Chinese presence in Pakistan into a matter ofconcern and debate among ordinary Pakistanis. The Chinese and their projects have been accused of discriminatory treatment — by the Balochis in Gwadar, by Pakistani businessmen who do not have the same privileges as their Chinese counterparts in the Special Economic Zones, and by Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa who believe the two other provinces, particularly Punjab, have cornered most of the benefits. Chinese presence appears to also have given a fillip to the insurgency in Balochistan withfrequent attacks against Chinese personnel.

As for Sri Lanka, the argument has been made that Sri Lanka’s debt is not China’s fault but the result of Colombo’s financial mismanagement — that the accusation against China of ‘debt trap’ diplomacy is unfounded. This line promoted by a desire to ‘stick to the facts’ or to the numbers is a classic case of missing the woods for the trees, and explains why many analyses of China have often failed to predict or anticipate Chinese behaviour.

Most observers fail to understand the nature of the Chinese State dominated by the Communist Party of China, an entity devoted to the single objective of remaining in power and in the pursuit of which it has determined that competing political systems outside of its borders, especially those liberal and democratic in nature are a threat to itself. Democratic systems are seen as unpredictable and capable of acting over and beyond concepts of narrow self-interest. By contrast, the cards fall clearly where authoritarian regimes are concerned — it is self-interest above all, and China’s leaders are quite adept at dealing with such leaders having learned the skills from their own political experiences.

Thus, while it might not be possible to blame China for the numerical side of Sri Lanka’s debt, the latter’s downward spiral into debt was the result of a political system and policymaking style dominated by strongmen, an inability to exercise or share power in a democratic fashion, equitably and without ethnic discrimination. China directly encouraged and became a model for such political behaviour owing to its increasing presence in Sri Lanka as part of the BRI. From this perspective, Sri Lanka’s long-standing economic woes, including its mountainous debt, are clearly China’s fault. Of course,there are also hard numbers to back up concernsabout a Chinese debt trap in a wide range of countries from Montenegro to Djibouti to Tajikistan.The declining number of heads of stateattending the third BRF in Beijing last week compared to the two previous iterations tells its own story.

Yet, China’s BRI continues to have wings; three spin-offs have emerged over the past three years — the Global Development, Security, and Civilisation Initiatives — and it is still difficult to put together and promote a coherent, consistent case of international bad behaviour against China’s BRI.

This is because the United States, the world’s predominant purveyor of soft power and influential ideas, while finally waking up to the long-term challenge from China since the Donald Trump administration is also just as liable to be distracted given the magnitude and diversity of problems it needs to deal with as the world’s sole superpower.

Under the circumstances, China, currently the other great purveyor of influential ideas — even if in the form of disinformation and falsehoods — given its global diplomatic reach and extensive economic resources, has a far more open field than it would have normally had.

Who then can counter China’s international bad behaviour if not India?

In 2017, on the eve of the first BRF, New Delhi was prescient when it laid out its objections to the Chinese project and advocated principles of “rule of law, openness, transparency and equality… of financial responsibility” for the operation of connectivity projects. These are principles that the BRI projects have largely ignored over the ensuing decade.

But India has been too slow to pick up the leadership mantle of countering China, showing a rather heavy dependence on the US in the ideational and operational space. India’s response even to Chinese transgressions across the Line of Actual Control in 2020left much to be desired. It has also failed to push forward some of its own connectivity projects that it highlighted in its 2017 statement — the Trilateral Highway project, the Chabahar Port in Iran, and the International North-South Transport Corridor, for example.

However, as India’s hosting of the G20 Summit shows — it is not only action that matters but also messaging — the widespread impression that India was a successful host is as important as whatever actionable results might have been achieved. China’s third BRF is an attempt at promoting what successes there have been and covering up the failures. New Delhi can do a better job than trying to ignore the event orsimply reiterate its 2017 position as its foreign ministry spokesperson did a few days ago. The US is distracted as a thought leader and missing in action in the battle against Chinese propaganda. India needs to step up.

(Jabin T Jacob is Associate Professor, Department of International Relations and Governance Studies, and Director, Centre for Himalayan Studies, Shiv Nadar Institution of Eminence, Delhi-NCR. X: @jabinjacobt.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

(Published 25 October 2023, 06:01 IST)

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