Trade ambitions shadow annual India, China defence talks

Defence dialogue comes as nations pursue conflicting economic projects

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 April, 2015, 3:05am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 April, 2015, 4:23pm

When India and China enter into their annual defence dialogue tomorrow, they do so amid apparent efforts to narrow the gap on their duelling transnational trade ambitions.

But Beijing's apparent offer to link its Maritime Silk Road project with India's like-minded Mausam project is fuelling intense debate in India about whether it should respond positively to the Chinese overture.

Some Indian observers worry that China's trade goals also come with strategic and defence-related ambitions that may be incompatible with India's. That assessment provides a backdrop to Indian Defence Minister RK Mathur's visit to Beijing for the defence talks that conclude on Thursday.

Asked about suggestions that China wanted to discuss the two projects, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told the Press Trust of India on Sunday that China was looking to work with both India and Sri Lanka to "identify the meeting point of their development strategies, explore effective ways of mutually beneficial cooperation and common benefit of the region".

That came after a recent article in the Chinese state-run Global Times said "the linking of MSR with India's Spice Route and Mausam projects might provide a blueprint for cooperation that could create tangible benefits for both sides".

The Silk Road project is President Xi Jinping's US$40 billion strategic initiative to link the Chinese economy with Central Asia and Europe, while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Mausam project represents a similar bid to revive India's ancient maritime routes and cultural linkages with Indian Ocean nations. India has been keen to maintain the Mausam programme's exclusivity. But Xi has also recently emphasised the Maritime Silk Road's inclusiveness to dispel any misgivings about its benefits accruing solely to China.

It is perhaps symbolically important that during Modi's China visit in May, he will join Xi in his home province of Shaanxi , the start of the ancient Silk Road.

"The programmes of development will be open and inclusive, not exclusive. There will be a real chorus comprising all countries along the routes, not a solo for China itself," Xi told last month's Boao Forum.

But India regards the geographically ambitious Maritime Silk Road project, whose reach extends across the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, as a foreign policy challenge.

Critics worry about the military and strategic intent behind the scheme.

The perception that India would be sidelined also lingers.

"MSR is seen as a hegemonic project in India because it places China at the centre of the web of connectivity and commerce linking Asia, Africa and Europe," said Sreeram Chaulia, dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs. "Project Mausam cannot be diluted by being subsumed by the former. China has put a lot of money to back the Silk Road plan and will hence dominate the entire show, leaving India as a junior partner."

Chaulia said Delhi could not afford to play second fiddle on a plan that involves shipping, backed up by navies, and having strategic ramifications of naval vessels docking in harbours.

"The Silk Road has wider geopolitical implications. Project Mausam is about Indian leadership of our oceanic littoral. The two cannot be twinned because we view security as an imperative in the IOR [Indian Ocean Region] and believe that India alone can offer that leadership in the area."

Other experts focus on the economic perspective.

"MSR is about connectivity which will promote trade in the region. It's therefore to India's advantage to be part of it," said Manoj Joshi, a former member of India's Task Force on National Security. "India has certain geographic advantages in the Indian Ocean, including a sophisticated and growing navy, which China can't easily offset.

"For the foreseeable future, the true hegemony of the IOR is the US, whose military and political clout India depends on to secure the sea planes, especially those emanating from the Persian Gulf."