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For India, CPEC is a corridor to nowhere

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For India, CPEC is a corridor to nowhere

One fails to understand why Beijing is so adamant to not re-open the Himalayan land ports between India and Tibet, while at the same time, it is ‘inviting' New Delhi to join the CPEC bandwagon

The Indian media always gets excited when there is a possibility of a thaw with Pakistan. One can’t do anything about it; it is too deeply engrained in the Indian psyche to dream of a rapprochement between the two neighbours.  The latest occasion was when Pakistan’s Southern Command Commander Lt Gen Amir Riaz remarked that India should join the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and enjoy its benefits. Riaz said, “New Delhi should ‘shun enmity’ with Islamabad and jointly reap the benefit of the multi-billion dollar project.”

The CPEC is a Chinese ‘dream’; when he visited Islamabad in April 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged $46 billion for it. When asked about India joining the venture, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying replied:  “I wonder whether the Indian side takes this offer made by the Pakistani general as a goodwill gesture,” before adding: “The CPEC, as an important component of China’s Belt and Road initiative, is an open initiative. …China would like to discuss the possibility of introducing a third party.”

The Global Times, the Communist Party mouthpiece further commented: “New Delhi should consider accepting the olive branch Pakistan has extended in a bid to participate in the CPEC.”

The Indian Press was quick to find a great opportunity to ‘dream’. Nobody asked why this sudden kindness and why India was suddenly invited to reap the benefits? The answer is that it might not be such a grand scheme after all, with Islamabad facing more and more difficulty to sell the Chinese ‘gift’ at home and Beijing slowing realising that the project is more complicated than expected, mainly due the internal situation in Pakistan.

According to The Business Recorder, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced that his Government had raised a Special Security Division (SSD), comprising of 15,000 military and civilian Armed Forces for ensuring the safety of Chinese ‘brothers’ working on the CPEC. Who will pay? Pakistan for the time being, but many in Pakistan realise that the Chinese ‘gift’ is a costly one

While welcoming Zheng Xiaosong, the Vice Minister of International Department, Sharif remarked that “the CPEC and its related projects symbolise the people-centric approach of the two countries.”

Does Islamabad really need India’s help? It seems a bad joke. Another rationale for India’s participation is given by Li Xiguang, a professor at Tsinghua University, who told The Hindu that India and Pakistan should be establishing soft borders “rather than go for a final settlement of boundaries in Kashmir,” Li added: “This could lead to New Delhi’s rapid integration into an expanded CPEC.”

The scholar explained that the concept of ‘soft borders’ is in tune with the approach of former ‘core’ leader Deng Xiaoping. Commentators here tend to forget that India had ‘soft borders’ with Tibet, its northern neighbour, for centuries. In any case, China not is ready to implement what it is preaching.

After Tibet was invaded by China in October 1950, the traditional Himalayan passes progressively closed down. An effort was done in 1954 to regulate the flow of people and goods through the ‘Agreement on Trade and Intercourse between the Tibet region of China and India’, the infamous Panchsheel Agreement, however, China was not ready to implement the letter or the spirit of the Agreement which lapsed in 1962.

The question is, why is China so adamant to not re-open the Himalayan land ports between India and Tibet, while at the same time, ‘inviting’ Delhi to join the CPEC bandwagon? The 1954 agreement stated that “traders of both countries known to be customarily and specifically engaged in trade between Tibet Region of China and India may continue to trade.”

Though a number of trade marts were named, as China increased its physical grip on the plateau, the trade progressively became thinner, more complicated, the Chinese authorities started harassing the Indian traders and finally in 1962, trade exchanges stopped completely.

The entire Himalayan belt from the Kararoram Pass to eastern Arunachal had lived for centuries from the trade with Tibet. Why does Beijing never mention this?

As the result of the 1962 border war and the non-renewal of the Agreement earlier in the year, exchanges between Tibet and India came to an end. It is only after the visit of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to China in December 1988, that a ‘protocol for resumption of border trade’ was signed.

It was followed by an accord for the ‘resumption of border trade’ in 1991; in 1992, trade through Lipulekh Pass in the Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand was re-opened on a small scale; and in 1993, a protocol to re-open Shipki-la in Himachal was signed. But trade never picked up due to the lack of interests of the Chinese authorities and the restricted list of tradable goods; further the agreements did not include pilgrims.

In July 2006, Nathu-la in Sikkim was added to the two other passes; it is today doing much better than the two others.

It is true that in 1954, despite the nice preamble (The Five Principles), the two delegations were miles apart, a story shows how already at that time there was little trust between India and China. In the Hindi version of the Agreement, the Indian translators had written chhota mota vyapar for ‘petty trade’. The Chinese Hindi expert could not reconcile chhota and mota, apparently two contradictory words. It took two weeks to convince the Chinese that the term chhota mota vyapar meant ‘petty trade’.

Today, while Beijing speaks of ‘soft borders’, it is tightening its grip on the Himalaya: A new ‘Border Resident New Identity Card’ (BRNIC) for people living near the Indian borders (as well as on the frontiers of Korea and Nepal) has been introduced. Though the Chinese Public Security Bureau (Police) said that the BRNIC can be obtained online, its introduction will strengthen the Chinese control over the Himalaya border.

It is not only the goods which should circulate more freely, it is persons too. It was a good surprise when the concept of ‘open border’ received the unexpected support from Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti last week; she declared: “I am in favour of opening of more routes. I strongly favour starting of Kailash Manasarovar Yatra through Leh so that the area gets a tourist and economic boost.”

Nawang Rigzin Jora, the Leh MLA admitted that it is China which blocks the issue: “(China) may have their own reasons,” however he noted: “The safest route (to the Kailash via Demchok) is through Leh. You can fly to Leh, take one or two days to acclimatise and then drive up to Kailash Mansarovar.”

Indeed, Demchok should be re-opened soon. It is up to Delhi to strongly pressure Beijing on this sensitive acupuncture point; for India, it make more sense than joining a corridor in Pakistan (and occupied-Kashmir).

(The writer is an expert on India-China relations and author of several books) 

 
 
 
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