Google Maps can easily demonstrate the gap between the way India sees itself and the way the world sees us. When one accesses Maps from India and keys in “Gilgit-Baltistan”, one is served an image with sharply defined borders in which the entire erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, including the region of Gilgit-Baltistan, lies entirely within India’s borders. Do the same thing outside India, or through a VPN, and the area loses definition, with a constellation of dashes replacing unbroken lines.
In the past, the gap in perception represented an unresolved bilateral dispute that cost India and Pakistan thousands of lives and lakhs of crores in lost trade. It has now acquired a broader international dimension. That is because our government has refused participation in the most ambitious infrastructural enterprise in the world, known as One Belt, One Road or the Belt and Road Initiative, on the grounds that China is violating our sovereignty by routing trade with Pakistan through Gilgit-Baltistan.
At the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit in Qingdao on Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi doubled down on his rejection of One Belt, One Road with these words, “India welcomes any such project which is inclusive, sustainable and transparent, and which respects member states’ sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
The China-Pakistan partnership
Let’s return to those maps for a while and zoom out to reveal the relative positions of a larger set of players. It is apparent that the most convenient land route connecting China with Pakistan has to pass through Gilgit-Baltistan, the option being a long diversion through Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Since no nation accepts our contention that Gilgit-Baltistan is an integral part of the Indian republic, there was never any reason for China to take a circuitous route in its trade with Pakistan. Instead, it helped build a direct link, known as the Karakoram Highway. The highway was, from its inception, a joint Pakistan-China project. Over 1,000 workers, nearly 20% of them Chinese, lost their lives in the two decades of its construction between 1959 and 1979.
The mountainous region traversed by the Karakoram Highway is prone to landslides and, in 2010, an enormous one flooded a 20-km stretch, creating a new lake overnight, which has since become a tourist attraction. The Pakistani government built a network of roads and tunnels to bypass Attabad Lake so normal trade with China could resume. All this was before One Belt, One Road was dreamt up. Once the giant multilateral plan came into being, it subsumed a number of smaller projects that were already in the process of being rolled out. The realigned Karakoram Highway became part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a route for goods from western China to reach the Gwadar port built on Pakistan’s coast with Chinese assistance.
It is difficult to understand what India could reasonably object to in all this. A highway had existed for decades, and had been built from the outset with Chinese collaboration. India was entirely powerless to deter or delay its upgrade. With no way to stop the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, it would have made far more sense to use the promise of One Belt, One Road to our own advantage, instead of being a stick-in-the-mud as usual.
More to gain than risk
India’s position may have seemed defensible had its claim on Gilgit-Baltistan been robust. There is a good reason why even our closest allies (not that we have many at the present moment) do not accept that claim. The modern, independent state of India, in its nearly 71-year existence, has not controlled or administered the region for even one minute. Nor has there been even the slightest indication that the people living in that area desire to be citizens of India. The sole claim we have on Gilgit-Baltistan is that an unpopular king signed it away to India while under duress. What does it say about a nation that prides itself on its democratic credentials that we accept this flimsy rationalisation, particularly since, in a parallel case, India overrode the wishes of the sovereign by force, justifying its belligerence by claiming the will of the people trumped that of an unelected monarch? What does it say about our foreign policy establishment that hardly a voice has been raised against such a myopic view of our country’s present and future, in which unwinnable symbolic battles hold the nation’s infrastructural development hostage?
An argument can be made that One Belt, One Road does not promise much, that its risks outweigh the rewards, and that India is likely to grow rapidly even outside the China-led configuration. The counterview is that every lost opportunity leaves us at a greater risk of disaster, since our burgeoning population has an appetite for jobs difficult to satiate. We are too complacent that our current growth trajectory is sustainable, and sufficient to stave off mass unemployment and serious social turmoil in the medium term. Like all counterfactuals, the argument in favour of One Belt, One Road will remain speculative in the absence of any change of mind within the country. However, even the anti-One Belt, One Road crowd might accept that India counts among few nations with an economy and polity deep and strong enough to resist China’s hegemonic designs. Within One Belt, One Road, therefore, it would be able to pick projects with substantial benefits, particularly those helping the development of our North East, and reject any foisted by China solely for its own profit. In that sense, the lone developing nation to have rejected One Belt, One Road stands to gain the most and risks the least by joining the initiative.