New Delhi: Drawing a comparison between China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and India’s overseas infrastructure creation efforts, Indian foreign minister S. Jaishankar on Friday said India believes in a ‘softer and collaborative diplomacy’ wherein there is a ‘sense of partnership.’
This sharp distinction comes in the backdrop of China’s BRI which seeks to invest about $8 trillion in infrastructure projects across Asia, Europe and Africa. The ambitious Chinese programme has come under intense scrutiny because of the risk of a sovereign debt default among relatively small and poor countries. New Delhi is opposed to the BRI as it says the initiative lures countries into debt traps and does not respect sovereignty or address environmental concerns.
Responding to a query about whether India’s efforts would be similar to the scale of BRI, Jaishankar said that India’s ways of executing projects stem more from a sense of partnership rather than an “all mine" attitude.
“The manner in which we do things is more aggregated and more organic," Jaishankar said and added that India’s approach was to first understand what the partner country wants and not force its own ideas on the same. Also unlike other models, it will be the host country that owns and operates the infrastructure assets once India builds it.
This comes in the backdrop of the US describing BRI as a "vanity project".
India has also been critical of China developing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), cutting through Gilgit and Baltistan areas of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). The showpiece One Belt One Road (OBOR) infrastructure initiative, first unveiled by Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2013, aims to put billions of dollars in infrastructure projects, including railways, ports and power grids across Asia, Africa and Europe.
“The world is a competitive place. While we may have our references but world doesn’t run by entitlement but by capabilities," Jaishankar said. He also spoke about India’s growing footprint in South Asia in the backdrop of Indian subcontinent being among the least regionalised economies.
“The PM thinks that we have to do something about it. A lifting tide lifts everyone," the former foreign secretary said and added that with India being one of the largest economies in the world, a lot depends on it.
India had invited the leaders of Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inauguration on 30 May, signalling the primacy of neighbourhood and economic diplomacy, as well as connectivity, in Modi’s second term in office.
The last time around, in 2014, Modi had invited the leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc)—Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka as well as the Mauritius PM.
“We don’t talk reciprocity in our neighbourhood anymore. We have very ambitious lines of credits to all our neighbours. The training numbers have gone up," Jiashankar said.
The South Asia-focused neighbourhood-first policy is an initiative of PM Narendra Modi and a cornerstone of his government’s foreign policy. A case in point being the NDA government's playbook of creating a new energy security architecture for its neighbours. Mint reported on Friday about India installing smart LED (light-emitting diode) streetlights in Maldives and Bangladesh; under the aegis of India’s ministry of external affairs (MEA).
Jaishankar also spoke about India not making a “splash" about its efforts while building electricity transmission links, fuel supplies links, border roads fairly deep inside the neighbouring countries, port connectivity, railways and waterways.
India has been playing a key role in creating a new energy ecosystem with some of its neighbours to counter China’s Belt and Road initiative. India has been supplying power to Bangladesh and Nepal and has also been championing a global electricity grid that may initially aim to link countries such as Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam with the sub-continent.
India’ energy diplomacy initiatives range from cross-border electricity trade to supplying petroleum products and setting up liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals. Apart from building power projects in Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh, India already has power grid links with Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar and Bangladesh, and plans to develop power transmission links with Sri Lanka.
“The entire neighbourhood minus one is a very good example of cooperation," Jaishankar said, indirectly referring to Pakistan.
The US under President Donald Trump has also exerted considerable pressure on Pakistan to cut support to terrorism, with Pakistan PM Imran Khan’s recent efforts in New York to highlight India’s alleged atrocities in Kashmir failing to get traction.
Jaishankar said that there is a “change in status quo" and expressed hope that one day Pakistan would come around. He explained that with other Indian neighbours prospering due to India’s contact, at some stage that will an impact on Pakistan.
“There are challenges...they have mindset issues," he said.
Tensions between India and Pakistan have been running high since India on 5-6 August abrogated a Constitutional provision granting limited autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir, and split the state into two federally administered territories. New Delhi also imposed restrictions on communications and deployed thousands of additional troops in a bid to ensure Pakistan does not infiltrate terrorists into the region and cause a law and order problem.