Can BRI push peace in South Asia?

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is largely seen as the China Pakistan Economic Corridor in South Asia, but this overlooks the potential for trade, water cooperation and research collaboration

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is the country’s flagship project to create the infrastructure for trade connectivity between China and world.

The BRI roughly follows and expands the old Silk Road on land (the belt) and complements it with a maritime part (the road) to build a series of economic corridors with the goal of boosting trade and stimulating economic growth across Asia, Europe and Eastern Africa.

In South Asia the biggest part of BRI is the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through which China is financing a series of energy and infrastructure projects. While exact numbers are hard to ascertain, China will invest an estimated USD 50 billion in CPEC as grants and soft loans.

The project has courted controversy ever since it was announced in 2015 since a part of CPEC goes through the former princely state of Jammu & Kashmir, whose territory is claimed by both India and Pakistan, though both countries only control parts of it.

While the Indian government has dismissed CPEC as violating its sovereignty, political parties from the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir have demanded that Kashmir should be part of CPEC. For example, former chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti, has demanded it several times in recent months.

She reiterated this demand while delivering a talk on Kashmir at the think tank Observer Research Foundation, in Mumbai in December 2018. She said that Kashmir’s inclusion in the economic corridor will be an opportunity for the state and “not a security threat as perceived by the security experts and policy makers.”

China and Pakistan have also invited India to join CPEC, but the government of India has refused. In April 2018, the Indian ministry of external affairs issued a statement stating that ‘the so-called’ China-Pakistan Economic Corridor “violates India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

CPEC is an important part of BRI in South Asia, but has led to concerns in India.
CPEC is an important part of BRI in South Asia, but has led to concerns in India.

Can water lead to cooperation?

Despite official roadblocks to cooperation, the region’s growing water crisis, exacerbated by the developmental path being pursued by countries, might force cooperation.  A report published in September 2018 by the Hong Kong based non-profit China Water Risk, revealed that China, India and Pakistan “simply do not have sufficient water to ensure food and energy security” plus develop under the current export-led economic growth model.

This comes into sharper relief given that the sources of many Asian rivers, including the shared rivers of the Indus, Ganga, Brahmaputra, and the Mekong, are in the Himalayan region. In the face of climate change, water sharing in the region presents both an opportunity and a challenge.

See: Beware the China model: Asia doesn’t have enough water

According to Ashok Swain, professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden, cooperation over shared water resources has already started happening owing to the need to jointly manage water.

“China’s emergence as an active user of Himalayan rivers in recent years is gradually pushing India to be more accommodative and build water cooperation with its neighbours in South Asia, particularly in the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin,” he said. India’s neighbours have often complained about India’s hegemonic behaviour towards smaller countries. The entrance of another large country may open the way for more equal treatment across the board – if they can cooperate.

Pakistan and India signed an agreement to share the water of the Indus River — the Indus Waters Treaty—  in 1960. But this excludes the two other riparian states —  China and Afghanistan — that share the Indus basin.

“In the Indus basin, the cooperation treaty (the Indus Waters Treaty) should bring in two other riparian countries, China and Afghanistan. Bringing in only China will be good in itself, but it might be objected to by India for fear of China and Pakistan coming together against her. Inclusion of Afghanistan might help India feel comfortable and work towards basin based Indus water cooperation.”

The management of the Indus waters will have a key impact on Pakistan since the majority of its fresh water comes from the Indus river basin. It will, therefore, also have an indirect impact on CPEC.

See: Expand the Indus Waters Treaty to make peace

Swain said that China sharing Brahmaputra river flow data with India for payment is cooperative behaviour and should be promoted in all transboundary river basins.

“In the Indus basin, at least, China, India and Pakistan should establish a joint mechanism to share river flow data. In transboundary water cooperation, data sharing is a low hanging fruit but unfortunately upstream countries are reluctant as they intend to use it as a [bargaining chip] in bilateral negotiations,” he said.

Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, who heads the department of Earth Sciences at University of Kashmir, said that India and Pakistan should agree to real-time exchange of data on river flows and climate. As the majority of Pakistan’s water flows through Indian territory before it reaches Pakistan, such real time data can be crucial in helping Pakistan plan for high-intensity weather events, such as floods.

“This would be one of the important confidence building measures between the two countries and would win goodwill for India in Pakistan and the international community,” he said.

“Under the IWT (Article VI), it is mandatory for India to share the river flow/discharge data on the Indus and its tributaries with Pakistan. Though… [Pakistan] complains that the data is not shared regularly. I believe that the delay in the sharing of the river flow [data] particularly during the floods [of September 2014] has added to the mistrust between the two countries,” Romshoo said.

Daanish Mustafa, a Pakistani academic who teaches politics and environment at King’s College London, said that Pakistan wants real-time flow data and timely notice of any infrastructural development projects upstream from the [Indus basin] rivers flowing into Pakistan. He said that sharing real-time data flow “has nothing to do” with security concerns.

“I can’t imagine any legitimate security concerns in this realm. Also, if one knows anything about water, one knows that securitising water is [largely] based upon ignorance of basic hydrology, as well as a means to feed jingoistic nationalist agendas,” Mustafa said.

As regards the deepening role of China in South Asia thanks to BRI, Mustafa said, “So far, the indications from leaked documents on CPEC in Pakistan are that the Chinese are angling for a major investment stake in the Pakistani agricultural sector. My fear is that [China] is really looking for Pakistan’s water [to] transfer that as virtual water to China. But the Pakistani state is too enthralled with the USD 52 billion number to see what it is allowing China to do.”

Romshoo also said that CPEC “will have significant impact” on the political and diplomatic environment in South Asia. “Already India is aware of it and needs to use the initiative to improve the security situation in the region.” Unfortunately, he argued,  there is little public discussion on how CPEC could be a lever for greater goodwill in India. In fact, many experts in India have dismissed such an idea.

“If you look at the history of Pakistan-China relations, it primarily hinges on adversarial ties that both countries share with India. In this context, it is rather premature to consider that [BRI] will provide an opportunity for the three countries to mend relations and build unanimity on projects that are planned therein,” said Priyanka Singh, from Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), a defence think tank funded by the Indian government. The dynamics between the three countries since the announcement of BRI projects have been far from cordial, he argued, especially with regard to a section of the CPEC passing through Kashmir, a territory that is claimed by India

Some, however, feel that India could consider joining CPEC if plans were expanded to link the corridor to Central Asia. Deepankar Sen Gupta, who teaches economics at the University of Jammu, said that the potential of the CPEC for the Indian economy is very large, should India choose to join it on the basis of certain modifications.

“If CPEC is no more than a single economic corridor from Xinjiang to Gwadar, then, of course, there is not much that India can expect. If, on the other hand, this corridor has tributary roads/pipelines/electric lines from Central Asia to India then India will have access to the Central Asian energy sources, both hydrocarbons as well as [hydro] power from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan,” Sen Gupta said.

Muhammad Amir Rana, director of  the Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), said that CPEC will bring the three neighbours closer and provide an opportunity for constructive engagement. Rana said that BRI is a geo-economic integration initiative and if India joins it, it can prove an effective channel to build confidence between India and Pakistan, which will provide better opportunities to discuss bilateral disputes including water issues.

Ongoing cooperation

There is already ongoing cooperation between India and China on some water issues. For example Chinese academics have now been part of the four-country Brahmaputra Dialogue which includes India, China, Bangladesh and Bhutan to discuss issues on the development of the Brahmaputra basin. While this is a NGO initiative, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), an intergovernmental organisation based out of Kathmandu, has more formal levels of cooperation, with governmental representation.

ICIMOD has brought India, Pakistan, China and Afghanistan together in its work on the Upper Indus. ICIMOD has fostered transboundary cooperation between Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan for conservation of biodiversity in its Ban-e-Dunya Network, which may be a model that could be followed in South Asia.

ICIMOD has also been working with scientists and researchers on the “Hindu Kush Himalayan Monitoring and Assessment Programme (HIMAP)”. This is a collaborative effort by scientists and researchers on the under-studied region of the Hindu Kush Himalayas – which is also one of the worst affected by climate change, and the source for the Indus, Ganga, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Yellow and Yangtze river basins. Such efforts show that further collaboration is possible. The only real question is whether there is the political will to make this happen.