Chinese offer to rename CPEC if India joins OBOR could be in play again

China-Pak Economic Corridor map (Courtesy: Dawn)
Beijing's offer to rename the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to address India's concerns over the project if New Delhi joins Chinese President Xi Jinping's centrepiece One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative might be on the table again, months after China's ambassador to India made the suggestion, which was subsequently retracted according to reports. 

The Times of India reported on Friday that upon being asked about Chinese ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui's remarks on renaming CPEC, the Chinese foreign ministry on Thursday neither endorsed nor refuted Luo's statement. According to the national daily, this suggests that Beijing has given Lou the go-ahead to negotiate with New Delhi regarding the matter without upsetting key ally Islamabad. 

Lou has publicly made the same suggestion twice

Lou's suggestion, originally made in May this year ahead of the Belt and Road forum held in China later that month, is not an isolated incident either. According to agency reports, during an interaction with experts on Chinese affairs and students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) last week, ambassador Lou said that China could change CPEC's name and also create an alternative corridor through Jammu & Kashmir, the Nathu La pass, or Nepal to allay India's concerns. These steps, as suggested by Lou, would be conditional to India joining the OBOR connectivity project. 

Unnamed observers cited by ToI said that Luo publicly discussing the possibility of renaming CPEC twice "indicates that he was acting on instructions from Beijing and not expressing his personal views". 

Further, as reported by agencies, the Chinese foreign ministry said on Thursday: "CPEC is an economic cooperation Initiative that has nothing to do with territorial sovereignty disputes, and does not affect China's and Pakistan's position on the Kashmir issue."

China does not want to tick off Pakistan but it still wants to talk to India

While unpacking Beijing's remarks, experts cited by ToI said that Pakistan was mentioned in the foreign ministry's statement as China did not want to offend Islamabad's sentiments until Lou is able to reach an agreement with New Delhi. However, sources told the national daily that Beijing was interested in negotiations with New Delhi, a fact they said was evident from the Chinese foreign ministry not contradicting Luo's remarks on renaming CPEC.

On Lou's reported remark about building an alternative corridor through Jammu and Kashmir, the Chinese foreign ministry said, "China is ready to strengthen connectivity with all neighbouring countries and promote regional economic cooperation and common prosperity". 

In fact, China might have tried to downplay Lou's original offer made in May. According to agency reports, Beijing had removed Lou's remarks offering to rename the CPEC from the transcript of his speech posted on the Chinese embassy website. 

As reported earlier, India, for its part, has raised concerns over the CPEC project as it passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). The CPEC is a planned network of roads, railways, and energy projects linking southern Pakistan and the Gwadar Port to China's restive Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region.

ALSO READ: India's stand on OBOR and Kashmir are both very clear

Further, as reported in May this year, India boycotted China's high-profile Belt and Road Forum, taking its protest over the CPEC project to a new level despite Beijing's overtures to ensure New Delhi's participation.  

No Indian official of any level was present at the elaborate opening ceremony attended by 29 heads of state and government along with top officials of world bodies like the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. India skipped the meeting due to its sovereignty concerns over the $50 billion CPEC.

It's not just CPEC, India has voiced reservations about OBOR itself

Just ahead of the BRI forum held in China, India had expressed its displeasure over OBOR, stating that the nation would not accept a project that ignores its core concerns about sovereignty and territorial integrity.

"We are of firm belief that connectivity initiatives must be based on universally recognised international norms, good governance, rule of law, openness, transparency, and equality," Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) official spokesperson Gopal Baglay had said. "Connectivity projects must be pursued in a manner that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity," he added.

Baglay said India has been urging China to engage in a meaningful dialogue on its connectivity initiative. "We are awaiting a positive response from the Chinese side," he added.

As reported in June this year, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Washington, in what was seen as a virtual endorsement of New Delhi's position on OBOR, the US and India called for bolstering regional economic connectivity through the "transparent development of infrastructure while ensuring respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity".

Further, the joint statement "Prosperity Through Partnership" issued after a summit meeting between PM Modi and US President Donald Trump said the two leaders agreed that a close partnership between the United States and India is central to peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. 

This was not the only time the US called out China on OBOR. As reported in October, ahead of his maiden visit to India, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson supported New Delhi's stand on the OBOR initiative, saying China's financing of infrastructure projects resulted in enormous levels of debt and underscored the need for an alternative financing model. 

Further, Tillerson, in his major India-policy speech, highlighted the need for collaborating with India on offering an alternative model of financing infrastructure projects and economic development to that of China. In fact, he described Beijing's approach in the matter as "predatory economics".  

"We will not be able to compete with the kind of terms that China offers. But, the countries would have to decide what they are willing to pay to secure their sovereignty and the future control of their economies," Tillerson said, after the speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a top American think-tank.  

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