New Delhi, Nov 1 (IANS) In what can be seen as remarks targeting China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale on Thursday said that regional connectivity projects should respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries.
“Physical hardware of connectivity across nations can only sustain itself in a common and universally applicable rules-based world order,” Gokhale said while addressing a regional connectivity conference on South Asia in the Indo-Pacific context organised by the Cuts International think-tank, the Washington-based East-West Centre, industry body Ficci and the US State Department here.
“Such an order must uphold sovereignty, territorial integrity and equality of all nations,” he said.
The Foreign Secretary’s remarks came after India on Wednesday lodged strong protests with Pakistan and China over a bus service scheduled to be launched on Saturday between Lahore and Kashghar, a city in the Xinjiang region in China’s far west, through Pakistani Kashmir.
“It is the government of India’s consistent and well-known position that the so-called China-Pakistan ‘boundary agreement’ of 1963 is illegal and invalid, and has never been recognised by New Delhi,” the External Affairs Ministry said in a statement.
“Therefore, any such bus service through Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir will be a violation of India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
While the bus service is an attempt at increasing “friendship” between Pakistan and China, the issue lies in the fact that the bus route passes through Pakistani Kashmir, a part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which is a key project under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pet BRI project.
India has not joined the BRI on the grounds that it does not respect other countries’ territorial integrity and has put participating countries in debt traps.
“All nations must respect their international commitments,” Gokhale said in his address on Thursday.
“This is the foremost requirement, and therefore a pressing need in our part of the world (Indian Ocean) and any such arrangement must naturally accord due primacy to the states located in the geography of the Indian Ocean.”
Secondly, Gokhale said, “connectivity can be meaningful only when everyone has equal access under international law to the use of global commons that would require freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law”.
“Third, connectivity efforts in the region must be based on principles of economic viability and financial responsibility,” he said.
The Foreign Secretary stressed that all connectivity initiatives must follow universally recognised international norms, rule of law, openness, transparency and equality.
He said that incorporation of ecological and environmental standards and skill and technology transfer makes connectivity and infrastructure sustainable in the long term.
“Fourth, connectivity initiatives that straddle national boundaries must be pursued in a manner that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations,” Gokhale said.
Stating that regional connectivity in South Asia is today very much of relevance to the wider Indo-Pacific and the world at large, Gokhale said that this is because physical connectivity is “only a part of the larger web of trade and economic interaction, digital connectivity, people-to-people links and knowledge connectivity that are the defining parameters of the Indo-Pacific region”.
“India views the Indo-Pacific as a positive construct of development and connectivity, in which India can play a unique role by virtue of its geographical location and economic gravity,” he said.
In this connection, he referred to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June in which he said that India believed in a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific Region, which includes all nations in this geography and others who have a stake in it.
US Ambassador Kenneth Juster, who was also present, highlighted the need for private sector-led development in South Asia.
While enunciating the US-led initiatives for regional connectivity, he also expressed the need to have a well thought out legislation on data localisation and to manage connectivity efficiently so that risks emanating from greater connectivity can be better managed.
It is noteworthy that the US is focusing on digital economy, infrastructure and energy as new areas to better position the US government to support private sector growth in the region.
Japanese Ambassador Kenji Hiramatsu enunciated specific regional connectivity projects being jointly executed by India and Japan and stressed upon “quality” infrastructure as a prerequisite to sustainable regional connectivity.
He spoke of Tokyo’s cooperation with New Delhi in development and infrastructure projects in northeastern India.
“Like China’s Belt and Road initiative, Japan too steers a Partnership for Quality Infrastructure or PQI and is working closely with India in her Act East (Policy) pursuits,” Hiramatsu said.
“Most recently, India and Japan have conceived Asia-Africa Growth Corridor which marries India’s Act East Policy with a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific and seeks to bring out economic gains for Africa through its integration with India, South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia and the Pacific region,” he said.