New Delhi: China says it is willing to hold talks with India to resolve differences over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor passing through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. This comes in response to a press statement of the Indian envoy to China who said India’s reservations about CPEC oughtn’t to be swept under the carpet. What does all this mean?

China has maintained that the execution of the CPEC project does not prejudice the claims of either India or Pakistan to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. CPEC must be recognized for what it is, a transcontinental infrastructure project that has no political intent and does not strive to alter the status quo. This line is a bit difficult for India to swallow, but it does not have many options.

India cannot seize Pakistan-occupied Kashmir by force. There was a time for that in the 1970s preferably alongwith the liberation of East Pakistan. Possibly, even then, it would have been difficult. East Pakistan was not central to the rest of Pakistan’s security and survival as much as whatever constituted the entity, legitimate or otherwise, of West Pakistan, including occupied Kashmir. India may not have been able to sustain major wars on two fronts. And even were it to be militarily possible, the United States would have intervened directly and sooner and impeded the Bangladesh war effort. Today, Pakistan being India’s military-nuclear equal, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir is well and truly beyond India’s military grasp. It is pointless raising false hopes about something which is impossible.

CPEC, however, is a symptom of the deeper malaise affecting India-China relations. China is a Major Power. India is a middle power which has thoroughly lost its way under Narendra Modi. India cannot contain China as a middle power alone or with a set of countries in the Asia-Pacific region grouped together as ASEAN. The United States and Japan would desire India to attempt to contain China at no cost to them. No rational Indian leader can take that perilous path.

In other words, India diplomatically has to deal with China as its immediate neighbour to the north. It has to resolve the boundary issue and prevent flare-ups like Doklam. It has to persuade China to appreciate its concerns about encirclement in South Asia and terrorism from Pakistan. Further, India has to cooperate with China and Russia to stabilize Afghanistan which is beyond US control.

Above all, India and China have to accommodate each other’s rise. China would expect assurance that India is not aligning with distant and near powers to contain it. At the same time, India would desire that China sees such rise as it is capable of as a natural process of evolution of a backward country and not view everything through the narrow prism of geopolitics. India could live without NSG membership just as it has survived and prospered as a non-NPT nuclear power but China’s support of India’s membership would definitely boost ties.

Rapidly improved strategic ties are not possible in a narrow timeline. CPEC, however, provides a window for repairing frayed relations. The roadblock, though, are CPEC projects related to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir about which India has taken justified objection. Unless the Kashmir issue is resolved to India and Pakistan’s satisfaction, PoK will present a hurdle. Until then, PoK has to be separated from the CPEC programme with possible route realignments. Also, a generic name for CPEC would meet fewer objections from India.

India may not be a Major Power but it is a major democracy with a growing economy. While the Belt and Road Initiative of which CPEC is a part will not collapse from India’s non-participation, its involvement, nevertheless, would infuse tremendous life into the programme and give it the legitimacy it hitherto lacks. These are early days but Sino-Indian cooperation on geo-economics would smooth the rough edges of geopolitics which keep them apart. India and China need one another. South and Southeast Asia require to knit together as the weight of geo-economics decisively shifts to favour them.