Modi to miss China’s ‘Silk Road’ summit

India's president Modi has refused to attend Beijing's biggest diplomatic event of the year, which it hopes will build consensus and cooperation for its ambitious One Belt One Road plans: highways, railways, ports and power grids in an infrastructure network that recalls the ancient Silk Road trade route

Banners promoting the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation can be seen hanging between skyscrapers in Beijing's central business district on May 11, 2017. Andy Wong / AP Photo
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In a few days, China will host a major summit to boost its One Belt One Road initiative that involves trillions of dollars of infrastructure investment in Asia, Africa and Europe.

The project will have huge security and economic ramifications for India, the other major regional power, but prime minister Narendra Modi has refused to attend amid concerns about China’s expanding influence in the region.

The leaders of at least 28 countries, as well as hundreds of ministers from other countries, will converge in Beijing on May 14-15, in what will be China’s biggest diplomatic event this year.

Among the leaders who have confirmed their attendance are Russian president Vladimir Putin, Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif, Indonesian president Joko Widodo, Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, and Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni.

In contrast, India will send a low-ranking representative to the summit.

China hopes to use the summit to build consensus and cooperation for its ambitious One Belt One Road (Obor) plans: highways, railways, ports and power grids in an infrastructure network that recalls the ancient Silk Road trade route.

Unveiled in September 2013, Obor comprises land and sea routes linking about 60 countries in South-East Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, East Africa the Midle East and Europe. China plans to invest a cumulative $4 trillion (Dh14.692 trillion) in Obor countries.

“One Belt, One Road is to date the most important public good China has given to the world, first proposed by China but for all countries to enjoy,” Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, told Reuters last month.

India's concerns about the project – which relate primarily to security and sovereignty – betray its "cliched mentality", an op-ed in China's state-run Global Times said last month.

“[India] should give up its biased view on the Belt and Road initiative,” wrote Lin Minwang, a research fellow at Fudan University. “For India, [the summit] may be an embarrassing occasion.”

The Indian government has objected to the route of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a section of the Obor network that passes through a region called Gilgit-Baltistan.

Although Gilgit-Baltistan is currently in Pakistani hands, India has long maintained that the region is an integral part of its state of Jammu & Kashmir, and that Pakistan is an illegal occupying force.

China says routing the economic corridor through Gilgit-Baltistan is unavoidable.

“It’s known to all that such transportation could not detour through India and Afghanistan,” Liu Jinsong, China’s deputy chief of mission in India, said last month.

Mr Modi insists that the CPEC implicitly acknowledges Pakistan’s sovereignty claims over Gilgit-Baltistan. Although India “appreciates the compelling logic of regional connectivity for peace, progress and prosperity”, connectivity projects such as Obor “cannot override or undermine the sovereignty of other nations”, he said in January.

India’s finance and defence minister, Arun Jaitley, reiterated that stance during a visit to Japan last week.

“I have no hesitation in saying we have some serious reservations about [Obor], because of sovereignty issues.”

On May 5, the Chinese ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui, said his country could “think about renaming the CPEC” – an apparent bid to persuade India that it did not impinge on its sovereignty.

But three days later, that sentence from Mr Luo’s speech had been deleted from the text of his address, which had been uploaded on the Chinese embassy’s website.

T P Sreenivasan, a retired diplomat who served as India’s ambassador to the United Nations, thinks that China may have pulled up Mr Lou for signalling the possibility of changing the CPEC’s name.

But perhaps even a change of name would not have been sufficient for India.

India continues to worry that Obor is “a grandiose project aimed at global domination through connectivity and infrastructure”, said Mr Sreenivasan. “It will increase China’s reach beyond its neighbourhood. We cannot stop it, but why should we be party to such an enterprise?”

Mr Sreenivasan also called CPEC’s economic benefits “questionable”, saying that the infrastructure would accumulate huge debt, as in the cases of other Chinese-funded projects in Sri Lanka and Kyrgyzstan.

“The tactic that they are adopting is to scare us by saying that we will be isolated and left out in future dispensation,” he said. “In my view, there is no need to rush into Obor, and nothing much will come to us even if we join.”