From the Ming court to OBOR

What are Delhi's concerns about West Bengal's involvement in China's new Silk Route, and how justified are they? Garga Chatterjee explains

From the Ming court to OBOR
This month, China is hosting a high profile meeting of stake-holders and potential stake-holders of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) mega project, the largest logistics and infrastructure building initiative in the history of mankind. It will host many heads of government – both federal and provincial, from all across Eurasia and beyond. Even the US is invited and it is still deciding whether to join in or to sit it out. The aim of OBOR is to achieve connectivity across the Eurasian super-continent, to the benefit of industry, trade and commerce for all parties involved. The Union government in Delhi is still unsure as to whether it will attend. Delhi cites security and sovereignty concerns about the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). While Delhi drags its feet about OBOR, which undoubtedly will mean closer economic ties with China, it also understands that the sheer scale of OBOR will make it the principal economic axis of Eurasia, irrespective of whether Delhi signs on to it or not.  The West Bengal premier Mamata Banerjee has been invited multiple times by trade and industry bodies of China to visit and explore opportunities of Chinese investment. Recently, a brief controversy broke out in West Bengal’s political circles when Ananda Bazar Patrika, the leading Bengali language daily of West Bengal, carried the news of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee being refused permission by the Union government to attend the OBOR conference in June. After the outcry over the reported denial of permission in West Bengal’s political circles, the Ministry of External Affairs officially rebutted the press report and stated that “no reference for such clearance has been received and therefore, the question of denying it doesn’t arise.” This whole episode, beyond exposing the tense Centre-State relationship that exists between Delhi and West Bengal, also shows the growing interest of West Bengal in maximising its economic development with opportunities that China might offer. In doing so, the pre-existing issues of conflict between Delhi and Beijing are irrelevant.  Even after China acquired Aksai Chin or got active in infrastructure-building activities in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, no security or sovereignty concern stopped Narendra Modi, then Chief Minister of Gujarat, from visiting China to attract investments.

Giraffe gifted by the rulers of Bengal to the Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty, in 1414

Bengal sent 12 diplomatic missions to the Ming capital, in a period of 35 years

As West Bengal looks to China for economic cooperation, it is only doing what Bengal has done for a very long time. The Himalayas, conjured up in Indian textbooks as some kind of an insurmountable border to give a “natural” basis to the Indian Union as it is, have hardly been a hurdle to international relationships across the Himalayas. The Sino-Bengal relationship predates the formation of the Indian Union by many centuries. So much so that the earliest mention of the name ‘Bangla’ in print happens in China. The relationship between Bengal and China was especially fascinating during the rule of the Ming dynasty which has been described as “one of the greatest eras of orderly government and social stability in human history”. However much the geo-political distance between New Delhi and Beijing might be today, the geopolitical distance between Bengal and China in that era was not too much. In fact, relations were such that that Bengal sent 12 diplomatic missions to Nanjing, the Ming capital, in a period of 35 years - 1405 , 1408, 1409, 1410, 1411, 1412, 1414, 1421, 1423, 1429, 1438 and 1439. Some of these missions had more than 200 envoys amongst them. When a ruler of Bengal died in 1412, Zhu Di, the Yongle (Perpetually Happy) Emperor of Ming Dynasty sent senior statesman Hou Xian as his special representative to Bengal to offer the Emperor’s condolences. While these marked the deep relationship between two sovereign countries, China clearly was the much bigger power – it was truly the Middle Kingdom around which the international politics and diplomacy of this part of the world took place: much like the role the Indian Union aspires to in South Asia and fails miserably at. Areas, ties, closeness and alliances were quite differently imagined less than three hundred years before the British made Kolkata the base of their colonial operations. What they grabbed from that base they termed the Empire of India. The partitioning of this part of the world into East Asia, South Asia, Central Asia and South-East Asia reflects, more than anything else, the colonial imagination of the last three centuries. Thus, it is hardly surprising that when threatened with an attack from the neighbouring independent Jaunpur sultanate (presently part of the Bhojpuri linguistic homeland), Bengal asked China for intervention. China maintained a diplomatic relationship with both Bengal and Jaunpur. It sent a high-level diplomatic mission to Jaunpur led again led by Hou Xian and ably supported by Admiral Zheng He. The matter was settled without conflict. In that era, Delhi was neither a player nor a part of the political picture here.

Whether Delhi likes it or not, China is the manufacturing hub of the whole world and has a positive trade balance with every foreign country it trades with. Meanwhile, the Indian Union has systematically impoverished its eastern states through decades of freight equalisation policy and consequent de-industralisation. From time to time, Delhi has done PR stunts like “Look East” and “Act East” to “revive” the eastern states. The reality sinks in when Delhi torpedoes the already-agreed-upon Sagar port project and refuses permission to the proposed Tajpur port, both in West Bengal. West Bengal has thus been systematically denied the opportunity to make the use of its stragetic geo-economic location for its development. Indian Union’s much hyped BBIN regional connectivity project is all but dead with Bhutan pulling out of it. It is in the this context that China’s OBOR project can provide West Bengal and the Indian Union’s territories to its North-East that real game-changer in economic terms by ensuring market connectivity with the rest of Eurasia – a link that Bengal historically enjoyed. The People’s Republic of Bangladesh has already stolen a march on this front by putting its economic development priorities above all considerations and welcoming Chinese investment and alignment with OBOR. Delhi and Beijing have border disputes. Beijing does not seem to care and has welcomed everyone to be part of OBOR. Beijing doesn’t mix business and disputes but Delhi’s antagonistic stance against OBOR using the CPEC excuse shows that Delhi, the weaker one in the dyad, is ready to disrupt the economic development of its eastern territories is some kind of strategic victory. For West Bengal, this is as good as forced economic hara-kiri in the service Delhi’s supposed “strategic” concerns. Sadly, Delhi isn’t ready to cough up any compensation to West Bengal on compassionate grounds – forget matching China.

The China-bogey that is often bandied about by Delhi as it has done in case of OBOR is a red herring. However, such “strategic” concerns do not stop the “Make in India” mandarins from getting its giant Vallabhbhai Patel statue being largely manufactured in China. Nor do “strategic” concerns stop the $1 billion Chinese Industrial Park project near Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Neither do “strategic” concerns stop Union Transport minister Nitin Gadkari to revoke e-rickshaw ban to invite Chinese e-rickshaw manufacturers to China with the Gadkari-founded Purti group having a stake in the e-rickshaw sector. Pure coincidence, right? China is the Indian Union’s fastest growing FDI partner. West Bengal, due to its location, is poised to gain the most through a plug-in to the OBOR project. That isn’t applicable for the large BJP-ruled states. While BJP rules states benefit from huge Chinese investments, when it comes to an issue like OBOR from which non-BJP states like West Bengal would benefit, all kinds of “concerns” creep up. In Delhi’s narrative, OBOR is a security concern while the Chinese investments in BJP-ruled states is pure tricolour, even saffron. This hypocritical double-standard must end.

While BJP ruled states court China, China seems to be less choosy. China wants India in OBOR. West Bengal stands to gain from this immensely given its location and its excellence in the MSME sector. China wants to set up manufacturing units in West Bengal for the huge Chinese market and the world at large. Six large Sino-Bengal joint ventures have been proposed in the fields of agro machinery manufacturing, fertilisers, food processing, chemicals and pesticides manufacturing and seeds. When the Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao met Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata, Delhi circles were “concerned” that West Bengal might ask for low interest loans from the China dominated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank at rates that lower than Delhi offers to West Bengal. Delhi even offers credit lines to Bangladesh at rates lower than its loans to West Bengal. But the world economic dynamic is a sheer force of nature. Thus, the daily flight from Kolkata to Kunming (K2K in industry parlance) is always nearly-full. China has proposed a K2K railway and road link. Delhi again is the spoiler.

The K2K connection is not new but is closely aligned to the old Southern Silk Road of which Bengal was a part.  Bengal’s excellent historical international trade and commerce connectivity is evidenced by the gift that the country of Bengal gave to the Ming Emperor of China: once in the 1414 diplomatic mission and then in 1438. On both occasions, Bengal gifted China a giraffe imported from East Africa. Bengal imported things of scale from far-away worlds and exported them across the Himalayan “barrier” to China. Whether Delhi likes it or not, the present century economically belongs to China as it regains its rightful place in world industry, trade and commerce. The question is, will Delhi allow West Bengal to regain its rightful place?

Garga Chatterjee is a Kolkata-based commentator on South Asian politics and culture. He received his PhD from Harvard and is a member of faculty at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. He blogs at