China has moved from its harm offensive at Doklam to a charm offensive of sorts with its ambassador here mentioning that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) could be renamed if that would persuade us to join the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
In May this year the ambassador had said the same thing, but the embassy’s website subsequently removed a reference to it apparently because of the adverse reaction in Islamabad for which changing the name would imply that China was willing to assuage, even if symbolically, India’s sovereignty concerns that are central to its opposition to the BRI. China’s position remains that the CPEC is an economic project, with no bearing on sovereignty issues which India and Pakistan have to settle bilaterally. In May and now again, to demonstrate China’s benign, win-win intentions, the ambassador has proposed a corridor between China and India through Kashmir or Sikkim.
China loses nothing through this sham diplomacy apparently prompted by suggestions from some China experts in India that a diplomatic way out of the BRI impasse would be to re-name the CPEC and render possible India’s participation in the BRI in the future.
A cosmetic change in nomenclature will, however, make no difference on the ground as any corridor between China and Pakistan has to traverse parts of the erstwhile J&K state illegally occupied by Pakistan. This India cannot accept not only for legal reasons but also for what is a strategic move to encircle India in an area where China itself is involved in a territorial dispute with us. China is drawing Pakistan deeply into its sphere of influence not only to continue using it as a weapon against India, but also to challenge the already declining US presence and power on the Asian landmass.
China will not give up the CPEC - no matter what it is called - as it is central to its geopolitical ambitions in Asia and beyond. If it wants to sink $46 billion or more in a politically unstable, terrorism-wracked country that needs financial bail-outs by the IMF or Arab donors and attracts little foreign investment, and, which, moreover, is bent on creating an unfavourable environment for itself by perpetuating conflictual relations with both its direct neighbours, it is for larger geo-political reasons, not economic gain alone.
The China-India corridor through Kashmir that has been aired would supplement the CPEC, and not be an alternative to it. China pretends that these corridors are politically neutral and that it can envisage a corridor through Kashmir without taking any position on India’s sovereignty over J&K that Pakistan disputes. A corridor through J&K would get linked to the corridor through POK and China would conveniently reap a double benefit.
Through this ploy China will solidify its grip over J&K on both sides. Even Mehbooba Mufti has backed linking India to the BRI through Kashmir as a rediscovery of “traditional trade routes of Kashmir”.
Actually, what is intended is not any new China-India corridor through Kashmir but linking Srinagar through Muzaffarabad to the CPEC. The CPEC renaming gambit, in seeming disregard of Pakistani sensitivities, may be intended as a pressure point on implementational aspects and subduing voices in Pakistan questioning the project’s benefits.
The propitiatory kite-flying on corridors should be seen also in the context of the Russia-India-China dialogue at foreign minister level at Delhi on December 11 and 12. Russia supports BRI but India has widened its opposition to it by teaming up with Japan and the US to expose its dubious dimensions.
The author is former foreign secretary