[op-ed snap] Raja Mandala: Falling behind on Digital Silk Road

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Mains Paper 2: IR | Bilateral, regional & global groupings & agreements involving India &/or affecting India’s interests

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Belt and Road Initiative, Qingdao summit of SCO, South Asia Satellite, Digital Silk Road, Pakistan East Africa Cable Express (PEACE)

Mains level: China’s expanding footprints in digital connectivity sector with India’s neigborhood and its consequences


Context

China’s OBOR & India’s rising challenges

  1. India’s continuing political challenges with China’s Belt and Road Initiative have been matched by Delhi’s enduring difficulties in advancing its own connectivity initiatives
  2. 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 favor of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)
  3. China’s BRI will inch closer towards India this week when Nepal Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli travels to China
  4. Like most other neighbors of India, Nepal has already endorsed this Initiative & is getting ready to sign onto major BRI projects like Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives
  5. Many of these projects would be grouped under the so-called Trans-Himalayan Connectivity Initiative

Neighborhood duties ignored

  1. Delhi has taken for granted the deep geographic interdependence with its neighbors and did little to modernize it for the 21st century
  2. Now they have an alternative in the form of Chinese connectivity initiatives
  3. For other neighbors, the BRI offers “strategic autonomy” from India
  4. The idea of seeking strategic autonomy from very large neighbors is not unique to South Asia
  5. Many of China’s immediate neighbors in East Asia do much the same
  6. They seek insurance through diversifying partnerships with many countries, including India

Ray of hope: Digital connectivity

  1. 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
  2. During PM’s visit to Singapore, he signed a number of agreements to connect the financial markets of the two countries
  3. Last year, India had launched the South Asia Satellite as part of its neighborhood first policy
  4. To India’s worries, China has been a frontrunner here too
  5. Beijing has launched a number of ambitious initiatives, now being banded together as the “Digital Silk Road

What China plans to do?

  1. 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
  2. China wants to deploy its nationally developed platforms based on artificial intelligence, big data, cloud storage and quantum computing to pursue these goals
  3. China and Nepal have operationalised an optic fibre link between the two countries earlier this year
  4. The link would eventually reduce Nepal’s dependence on India for internet connectivity
  5. 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
  6. China’s digital initiative also includes deepening space cooperation
  7. Last year, Sri Lanka joined China’s Beidou navigation system

India’s chance

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

Way forward

  1. At the turn of the century, India paid little attention to China’s internal, cross-border and international infrastructure projects that eventually came under the rubric of BRI
  2. Delhi is now struggling to cope with the strategic consequences for the Subcontinent and the Indian Ocean
  3. Delhi needs to quickly shed its digital defensiveness and leverage possibilities on digital development and diplomacy
Foreign Policy Watch: India-China
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