By Krishna Koundinya Mothukuru
‘The game is on’, Sherlock quips. But, this chess game is now on a macro scale. The board is the Indian Ocean and the players are China and India, fighting an unequal war. The rising powers of the Asian Century, competing for influence on the geopolitical chess board, have both made moves. China has moved its rook in the form of the ambitious ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative (including the Maritime Silk Route), and India replied with its pawn, Project Mausam.
One Belt One Road (OBOR) was first proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to Indonesia in October 2013. To date, 58 nations are involved in OBOR, with a total economic aggregation of $21 trillion, a massive 29% of world trade1 which encompasses infrastructure, trade, finance, people-to-people contact, and policy coordination across continents. Dubbed as the Chinese version of the Marshall Plan, it envisions to invigorate economic, cultural and social relations between nations.
Project Mausam, on the other hand, endeavours to ‘position itself at two levels: at the macro level it aims to re-connect and re-establish communications between countries of the Indian Ocean world, milieu’.2 It was launched in Doha in June 2014 as a multi-disciplinary project to rekindle long-lost ties across the Indian Ocean littoral states. It is viewed by strategists as the Indian reply to Chinese Maritime Silk Road initiative. India’s historical role as a focal point for trade in the Indian Ocean region is the prime inspiration for this project. The seasonal monsoon winds in the Indian Ocean were used by sailors in for swift journeys. With the two extremities of the ocean as starting points (Indonesia or East Africa), India served as a stopping point between the seasonal reversal of wind. Thus, regular cultural contact between diverse groups of people was established. Precisely this cultural contact is hoped to be leveraged in modern times for geopolitical advantage.
However, apart from a monthly lecture series, an international conference, and a research centre, Project Mausam has not achieved much, which makes it a scenario of pawn against rook.
The Chinese OBOR already includes the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor and $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) under its ambit. India has at best vacillated and hesitated over the decision to become a part of OBOR. According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, ‘China is ready to work with the South Asian countries to strengthen policy communications and explore ways of mutually beneficial cooperation’.3 This, coming from a belligerent and aggressive China, may be seen as a hand of cooperation to compensate for its antics in the South China Sea which have alienated various nations. As a boost to bilateral relations and mutual cooperation, Defence Dialogues 2014 also included naval exercise initiatives, apart from ‘Hand in Hand’ annual exercises.4
However, India’s response has been less encouraging. The Malabar naval exercises irked China, which made its displeasure public. India is also being drawn into the US’s sphere of influence, as a part of the American strategy to contain China with the Asia Pivot policy. The prospects of Project Mausam and Spice Route being integrated into the larger framework of OBOR are becoming increasingly bleak.
As agreed to by China’s Blue Book itself, the navy is one of the very few areas in which India holds a strategic advantage vis-à-vis China. It is in India’s best interest to leverage this as best as possible. India has always maintained a position of neutrality in international relations (Panchsheel, Non Aligned Movement, Gujral Doctrine, etc). With Modi’s distinct stamp on foreign policy, non-aligned has metamorphosed to multi-aligned, but at the cost of Chinese bilateral relations. The prudent thing for India to do now would be to put aside differences, resist US influence, and gain the benefits of cooperation with China. For example, if shipping were permitted in each other’s territorial waters, then India could transport oil, mineral resources, etc with greater ease to the South China Sea , the Far East and maybe even to North East China. Moreover, it makes more sense for India to leverage OBOR as an alternative to the US-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an initiative which India has not joined yet.
Modi’s surprise visit to Pakistan to wish the Pakistani Prime Minister on his birthday can be seen as a welcome divergence from earlier jingoistic stances. A similar extension of cooperation with China in terms of naval policy will do wonders for India. The integration of Project Mausam with OBOR would benefit India not only as a rising power, but also as a responsible regional peacekeeper.
The author is an entrepreneur and the co-founder of two start-ups. He has worked with Deloitte, Infosys, and Vizag Steel, specialising in IT and finance. At a CXO level, he has assisted with financial valuations and planning.