‘Soft border approach can bring India into CPEC’

A focus on establishing “soft borders” between India and Pakistan, rather than a final settlement of boundaries in Kashmir, can lead to New Delhi’s rapid integration into an expanded China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), says a top Chinese academic.

In an interview with The Hindu, Tsinghua University Professor, Li Xiguang said the concept of “soft borders”, one that avoids a “hard” settlement of disputed boundaries, offers a way forward for regional cooperation.

Earlier this month, Prof. Li was in Gwadar to participate in an international maritime conference on CPEC. The conclave, sponsored by the Pakistani Navy, included participants from China, Pakistan, Iran and the German Marshall Fund.

An endorsement of “soft borders” by New Delhi and Islamabad would address India’s core objection to the CPEC — its passage through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).

Endorsed by Manmohan

The concept of “soft borders” as a pragmatic solution to the Kashmir dispute is not new. In 2005, shortly after a bus service from Srinagar and Muzaffarabad had started, Pakistan’s former President Pervez Musharraf had called the opening of cross-border transport routes as “the first step towards converting [the Line of Control] into a soft border”. His remarks followed similar observations by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. “Short of secession, short of re-drawing boundaries, the Indian establishment can live with anything,” he told columnist Jonathan Power in a 2004 interview. He added that “we need soft borders — [as] then borders are not so important. People on both sides of the border should be able to move freely.”

However, Prof. Li has extended the idea of “soft borders” to both Kashmir and Afghanistan in order to impart regional inclusiveness to China’s ‘Belt and Road’ connectivity project, manifested in the CPEC.

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“If Kashmir has a ‘soft border’, I think CPEC could unlock Kashmir and make it a part of a much grander regional transportation network, with Srinagar as one of its important nodes. Remember, in earlier times Kashmir used to be the terminal of the Silk Road — it was part of the route pursued by diplomats, connecting Central Asia, Kashgar, Ladakh and Delhi.”

Prof. Li also highlighted that Pakistan and Afghanistan should accept ‘soft borders’ as the touchstone for resolving their differences along the Durand Line.

The Chinese scholar stressed that Afghanistan is the “heart of Asia”. “We already have trains running from China to Uzbekistan and then across the Amu Darya into Afghanistan. In the future, we can connect Afghanistan with Balochistan.” He also strongly advocated a common initiative by China and India to impart stability to Afghanistan.

Instead of developing as rival hubs, Prof. Li “strongly supported” the Iranian port of Chabahar, and Gwadar as “sister-ports”. Chabahar, which is being jointly developed by Iran, India and Afghanistan, and Gwadar, are separated from each other by only around 100 km.

Asked whether it would be unrealistic to expect India to support the idea of “sister-ports”, in view of apprehensions that China may build a military base in Gwadar as part of its perceived consolidation in the Indian Ocean, Prof. Li said: “During my stay in Gwadar, … [n]ot once did I hear any proposal about establishing a Chinese naval base in Gwadar. No one talked about it. On the contrary there is much talk, especially from businessmen about developing Gwadar on the Dubai model, which would be inclusive and open. That is why Gwadar port will be an international hub not only for China and Pakistan, but also for Central Asia, Iran and Russia, which has historically felt the need for warm water ports.“

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Source:- The Hindu

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