Editorial Analysis || Raja Mandala: Falling behind on Digital Silk Road

• India has had two recent high-level engagements. One in Qingdao, China earlier this month and the other engagement with the Southeast Asian leaders in late May.

• At the Qingdao summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, where India was participating for the first time as a full member, Delhi had to dissociate itself from the consensus in favour of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

• In Jakarta, the PM unveiled his ambitions to strengthen maritime connectivity with Indonesia, including the development of port infrastructure in the Sumatra Island.

COUNTRIES EMBRACING BRI

• Nepal has already endorsed President Xi’s Initiative. Nepal is getting ready to sign onto major BRI projects and this is evident from the upcoming visit of Nepal PM to China.

• Many of these projects would be grouped under the so-called Trans-Himalayan Connectivity Initiative. This is likely to include oil storage terminals, rail and road links, hydel projects and electricity transmission lines.

• The questions of cost are being raised but it won’t dampen the enthusiasm for BRI.

• For Pakistan, the participation in China’s BRI is very much part of its ever-deepening strategic partnership that was forged decades ago to balance India.

• For other neighbours, the BRI offers, shall we say, “strategic autonomy” from India.

HOW CAN INDIA GROW TIES?

• Many of China’s immediate neighbours in East Asia do much the same — they seek insurance through diversifying partnerships with many countries, including India.

• But unlike China, India has not been able to deliver on the promises it has made to its East Asian partners.

• India has found it hard to develop institutional capabilities to implement infrastructure projects across and beyond its borders but it has some possibilities in the arena of digital connectivity which was demonstrated during PM’s visit to Singapore where he signed a number of agreements to connect the financial markets of the two countries.

• These included the launch of India’s RuPay card, the BHIM QR code and SBI’s cross-border remittance app.

• Last year, India had launched the South Asia Satellite as part of its neighbourhood first policy.

CHINA’s DIGITAL SILK ROAD

• China’s Digital Silk Road agenda is about strengthening internet infrastructure, deepening space cooperation, lowering barriers to e-commerce, developing common technology standards, promoting cybersecurity, and improving the efficiency of policing systems among the BRI countries.

• China wants to deploy its nationally developed platforms based on artificial intelligence, big data, cloud storage and quantum computing to pursue these goals.

• China and Nepal, for example, have operationalised an optic fibre link between the two countries earlier this year. The link would eventually reduce Nepal’s dependence on India for internet connectivity.

• Last year, China’s Huawei signed an agreement to construct the Pakistan East Africa Cable Express (PEACE) that would connect Pakistan to Kenya via Djibouti.

• Huawei may extend this cable to Egypt in the north and South Africa. When completed, the cable is likely to have a total length of 13,000 km.

• China’s digital initiative also includes deepening space cooperation. Besides its long-standing space cooperation with Pakistan, China is discussing plans to launch a national satellite for Nepal.

• Last year, Sri Lanka joined China’s Beidou navigation system. China wants to leverage its earth observation satellite capabilities to deepen cooperation in a number of areas ranging from environmental monitoring to disaster management.

CONCLUSION

• India has long had significant and growing national capabilities in the digital and space domains. But Delhi has fallen terribly short in integrating these with larger national economic and security strategies.

• Delhi’s bureaucratic bias towards over-regulation, restrictions on the domestic private sector, constraints on innovation and suspicion of external collaboration have limited India’s possibilities on digital development and diplomacy.

• Delhi is struggling to cope with the strategic consequences for the Subcontinent and the Indian Ocean. Unless Delhi quickly sheds its digital defensiveness, that pattern might well repeat itself with China’s newest version of the Silk Road.

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