Economic reforms and cultivating friends are crucial for India’s strategic heft

It would be extremely naive on anyone’s part to believe that when foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale took up once again UN listing of Jaish-e-Muhammed terror chief Masood Azhar with China, Beijing will decide the issue on the merits of the evidence against Azhar that India has handed to it. There’s no dearth of evidence that China works with Pakistan to tie down India and check its rise – its support to anti-Indian terrorists is only one exhibit in this regard. To agree to the listing China is likely to demand a much bigger quid pro quo from India – which could be India joining its marquee Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for transnational connectivity.

New Delhi shouldn’t accede to this under any circumstances. In fact, the second edition of the Belt and Road Forum is set to begin tomorrow and India has rightly declined to attend. Not only is BRI opaque in its operation and exports Chinese debt and influence to other countries, its centrepiece is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that tramples on Indian sovereignty. And with China planning to take BRI to space – building a constellation of advanced satellites – cutting-edge Chinese tech will aid Pakistan attain parity with and even surpass India, furthering Beijing’s strategy of using Islamabad to hem in New Delhi.

This situation requires New Delhi to read the tea leaves carefully, and what should concentrate its mind is a quick inventory of who supported it – and who didn’t – during the confrontation with Pakistan following the Pulwama terror attack. India has no option but to hedge and increase security cooperation with the US and other democracies. Getting the Quad – comprising India, Japan, the US and Australia – working is a good idea.

However, India needs another string to its bow – it must also help itself. The US move to squeeze Iran by ending sanction waivers for Iranian oil imports will hurt India, at a moment when its economy has already slowed down. The only way for India to get other nations to take it seriously is by quickly growing its economy through resolute reforms. This in turn would include creating more space for the private sector in critical domains such as space and defence to catch up with China here. Poll bravado is all very fine, but the next government will need to grapple with the realities of India’s economy and neighbourhood.

This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.

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