China is one of India’s top trading partners, but India has chosen not to be part of China’s New Silk Road. It’s not wild about a future in which China leads Asia, much less the world. Instead, India’s offering its own investments and vision of a more multipolar world. And with Chinese and Indian troops in a tense stand-off on their contested border, India’s strengthening its ties with the US, Japan, Australia and others, to counterbalance China’s influence.

Episode Transcript

(Sound of woman chanting) 

Buddhism, born in India, traveled to China on the ancient Silk Road. Those trade routes go back more than 2,000 years. They connected the region, and ran all the way to Europe.

(Sound of chanting)

Some Buddhist pilgrims traveled through Ladakh. It’s a Himalayan region that borders both northern India and China’s western edge, where Tibet and Xinjiang meet. And Ladakh is one of three parts of the bigger region of Kashmir. There’s Indian-controlled Jammu & Kashmir, Pakistan-controlled Azad Kashmir, with tensions between India and Pakistan over those areas. 

And then there’s Ladakh, administered by India, and bordering China. But that border has never been demarcated. And it’s hotly contested. 

India and China fought a war there in 1962, with China seizing a chunk of land a bit smaller than Rhode island, and then building a road within it to connect the Chinese territories of Xinjiang and Tibet. In summer 2020, conflict at that Line of Actual Control erupted again: 

(Sound of Indian and Chinese troops fighting)

Chinese troops pushed forward, and Indian troops pushed back. This sound, from a video released by the South China Morning Post, is of a tight scrum, with Chinese and Indians beating each other, some with sticks.

(Sound of Indian and Chinese troops fighting)

There’s been a long-standing agreement not to use gunfire at that Line of Actual Control. Twenty Indian soldiers died. And China took casualties too, though it hasn’t said how many. Since then, each side has moved tens of thousands of troops to the Line of Actual Control, standing off at high altitude, as winter sets in.

(Sound in lane outside Ladakh Buddhist temple in New Delhi)

Ladakh Buddhist temple in New Delhi.

In New Delhi, down a dusty lane with juice vendors and stray dogs, in a tranquil Ladakh Buddhist temple, Ladakh native Phuntsog Angchuk has feelings about what China’s doing:

Phuntsog Angchuk: It always says that Ladakh is a part of China. But it is actually not part of China. Ladakh was an independent country for many years.

Mary Kay Magistad: So in other words, you’re concerned that maybe China would try to have more influence in Ladakh?

PA: Yeah, it will try.

It’s already trying, he says, with China’s Belt & Road Initiative – one of the world’s most ambitious infrastructure projects. India is not part of it. That’s a conscious choice, due to security concerns, and to a desire for India not to be drawn into a network that China controls. 

But India’s neighbor Pakistan has joined the Belt & Road, and it’s home to one of the initiative’s biggest projects: the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. It includes roads, a railway project, dams and more. And it runs from China, southwest through Ladakh, and through that contested part of Kashmir that Pakistan occupies and India says is rightfully its own.

Phuntsog Angchuk: Because China is always trying to dominate the whole region, the whole Asia. That’s how they’re trying to just dominate India, through trying to surround India through that route, also. We are not in favor of that route.

China has one vision of how the Asian Century will play out – with China as the center of a hub and spokes network, as the top power in Asia, and perhaps in the world. India is not on board with that, and it’s looking for ways to counter China’s ambitions, with its own vision of a more multipolar Asia, and world.

(Indian music)

You’re on China’s New Silk Road. I’m Mary Kay Magistad, a former correspondent in China for NPR and for PRX’s The World, looking here with the Global Reporting Centre at how China’s global ambitions are seen around the world, and at the impact China’s actions, trade and investments are having on the ground.

(Sound on New Delhi streets)

India’s capital, New Delhi, is a leafy, low-rise city, where neighborhoods of villas are called colonies, where the streets are cheerfully chaotic, and everyone, it seems, likes to honk.

A cow in New Delhi.

(Sound of honking)

I came here often, when I was based in Beijing as a correspondent. I heard Chinese friends come back from visiting India, wondering how anyone gets anything done with such crumbling infrastructure. And I’ve had Indian friends come to China, expecting to find it more backward than India, shocked at how good China’s infrastructure is, and how quickly it’s all been built. I’ve been at more than one gathering in both places, where Indian businesspeople lamented that India didn’t have an efficient, technocratic, authoritarian government like China’s, so they could just get things done. Of course, that’s not a universally-held opinion – but Indian culture shock in China is pretty common:

Santosh Pai: Well I considered myself very international, having, before I went to China, I had already visited like 35-40 countries. I was so full of – I felt like nothing could shock me. So that’s why when I went to China, I truly believed that my life is now divided into before China and after China.

This is Santosh Pai. 

Santosh Pai: I’m an Indian and UK qualified lawyer. I moved to China in 2010 as a ‘trailing spouse’ with my wife, who was still with the Indian Foreign Ministry, when she was posted to Beijing. At that stage, I had very little knowledge of China. I’d never been to China. I’d never read about China. And I just took it as an adventure, with an open mind.

Santosh spent a few years in China. He picked up an MBA and a law degree at top Chinese universities. And his timing was good. It was when China and India were slowly opening up to each other:

Santosh Pai: More transactions started happening between China and India. Chinese investment in 2010 was hardly anything. It’s about 30 Chinese companies doing some small projects in India. Today there are about, well over 1000 Chinese companies with substantial investments.

These days, China is one of India’s top trading partners. Santosh now advises both Indian companies interested in investing in China, and Chinese companies coming to India. When he first went to China, there was even talk of “Chindia” – the idea that the two Asian giants would rise together as economic growth engines in Asia. After all, they started out, in the early ‘90s, with roughly the same per capita GDP. And for a few years in the first decade of the century, India and China had some of the highest economic growth rates in the world. But then, China sprinted ahead. And now, its per capita GDP is five times India’s. And on the business side, Santosh says, a growing number of Indians realize they could learn a thing or two from China:

Santosh Pai: We have infrastructure deficit. We can’t get our roads built fast enough. We can’t build enough bridges or we can’t modernize our railways fast enough. So all of those skills, actually the Chinese have. And they’re all here. They’re all in India. They’re circulating. They’re checking out these projects, doing their own feasibility. But it’s just a question of – why should we help them do their job?

Well, a recently-built New Delhi subway line, built as a joint venture between an Indian and Chinese company, seemed to work pretty well. And Santosh says, why not more of that? 

Santosh Pai: The Indian security establishment within the government has already put down clear red lines, where Chinese activity will not be invited. And the Indian government, through the Ministry of Commerce and our investment promotion agency, called Invest India, repeatedly does road shows in China, inviting Chinese participation in infrastructure industry. If there was such a thing that, okay, we don’t want the Chinese coming to India at all for infrastructure, they wouldn’t do that.

Santosh and I are talking here in December 2019, when smog hangs heavy in the air from fires, coal and car exhaust, months before the summer border clash broke out. At this point, in late 2019, India was still considering having China’s telecommunications powerhouse, Huawei, install India’s 5G, the next generation of faster connectivity, for the Internet of Things. But even then, there were concerns – as telecommunications consultant, VK Cherian, tells me: 

VK Cherian: The fear is that they have the source code of these technologies, and they can manipulate it to their advantage in a critical situation.

Mary Kay Magistad: Kind of more specifically, how could they manipulate things to their advantage?

VKC: It can be that in the case of clashes, they have already put some spywares, so that all the phones, they can listen to.

Huawei says it does not have spyware, or backdoors, in its equipment. But it is subject to a Chinese law, that Chinese individuals and entities must cooperate with Chinese intelligence services, if asked.

VK Cherian: Or they can literally shut off some networks, critical networks. I know that the Indian army is not using it, army intelligence. Army networks are generally kept off from the main network. I’m sure the intelligence agencies are keeping their own network. So it is that way, strategically, they have taken the precaution. But it affects the people at large.

People in India seem to be of two minds about Chinese tech. They love apps, like TikTok:

 (Sound of TikTok Indian music video)

Like this couple, busting out their best Bollywood dance moves. 

(Sound of outdoor tech market in New Delhi)

Gaffar Market, an outdoor tech and mobile phone market in New Delhi.

But then, at this outdoor tech and mobile phone market in New Delhi – Gaffar Market – with crowded narrow aisles and lots of eager vendors – I heard mixed reviews on Chinese products. There was this:

Seller: Yeah, I don’t have Chinese phones.

Mary Kay Magistad: Why not?

S: I, I don’t like.

MKM: Why not?

S: I don’t like quality. Chinese, after one week, there’s a problem. 

And then, another vendor, Guarav Kapoor – was more loquacious, and more nuanced:

Mary Kay Magistad: How long have you had your shop here?

GK: Since my grandfather. Near around more than 40 years or so.

MKM: And do you sell any Chinese products here?

GK: Yes, ma’am. The Chinese have a great impact on the Indian economy. And majority of electronics are from China actually.

MKM: And how’s the quality of what you see coming from China these days?

GK: It depends on the prices.

MKM: It depends on the prices?

GK: Yes. If you’re buying cheap, the quality would be down. Whereas, higher price would be giving you premium quality.

(Continue AMB 9B under):

But in this market, he says, and in much of India, people are looking for a bargain. So the Chinese brands that end up here are cheap – sometimes in both senses. Higher end Chinese phones are available to Indians who can afford it, and they’re among the top-selling smartphones in India – appreciated for being high quality for the price. That’s also why India telecoms providers turned to Huawei and ZTE, for some of the installation of 3G and 4G systems, says telecommunications consultant VK Cherian:

VK Cherian: Because the Chinese companies, Huawei and ZTE, offer the service of managed networks, which is that they put up a network, infrastructure, everything, and it is dedicated for you, and of course, you don’t have to buy that network. They manage it, and they charge you fees for it.

He says Indian telecommunications providers operate on thin margins. So they can’t afford to do this on their own. So as long as India and China had peaceful, stable relations, having Chinese companies provide 3G and 4G, seemed fine, as did the idea of sticking with Huawei to upgrade to 5G. But that changed with the border tensions. Now, with Indian and Chinese troops facing off, the Indian government considers this a security risk – and Huawei is off the table. India has also banned dozens of Chinese apps that, it said, might be collecting and using Indian data, including TikTok – which had at least 120 million active users in India.

(Sound of street vendor in residential area) 

Across town, in one of those leafy neighborhoods of villas called colonies, I pass a pedaling street vendor, and a guard opens an iron gate for me to enter. I’m meeting someone here who can tell me more about how China’s rise looks to India, in terms of security risks.   

Dhruv Katoch: I’m Major General Dhruv Katoch. I retired from the Indian Army in 2009. And I’m currently working as the director India Foundation. Prior to this, I was also the director of the Center for Land Warfare Studies, which is the Indian Army’s premier think tank.

Dhruv Katoch spent much of his military career defending Indian territory in the Kashmir region, near where Chinese and Indian troops are now facing off. 

Dhruv Katoch: So China knows very well that this is a disputed area. And Pakistan has been in illegal occupation of this territory.

Here’s the backstory. Under British colonial rule, India and Pakistan were one country. As the British prepared to leave, in 1947, Muslims in India pushed to have their own country. The British agreed. But creating Pakistan was bloody. Millions of people had to move, and between one and two million people were killed. 

Back then, the region of Kashmir was on the fence about which country to join. It’s majority Muslim, so Pakistanis felt it should be part of Pakistan. They invaded. And they still occupy about one-third of Kashmir. That’s what Dhruv Katoch is calling an illegal occupation, even as Pakistan is planning to make the part of Kashmir it controls, its fifth state. China’s New Silk Road in this region, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, runs right through that part of Kashmir.

Dhruv Katoch: So as far as India is concerned, there is no way we can ever support the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. It passes through our sovereign territory.

Mary Kay Magistad: Is it a strategic risk to India?

DK: I think it is a very major security concern. It really involves constructing roads, telecommunication links, building infrastructure projects, enroute along that road. To protect that road, a very large number of Pakistani military troops are employed. But what is not known is that a very large number of Chinese soldiers are also employed. These soldiers are not in uniform, but they are part of the security apparatus of the Chinese state. And I think it gives China and Pakistan a nexus to join hands from this particular area should any hostilities take place between India and China.

That may be one reason why India last year revoked the autonomy of the part of Kashmir it controls. It sent in troops, and cut off internet access there for months. India doesn’t want to lose any more territory to Pakistan, or China. 

But Isfandiyar Pataudi, a Pakistani retired major-general I talked to back in the San Francisco Bay Area, said there’s no need for India to worry about an armed Chinese presence in Pakistan, because – it’s just not there.

Isfandiyar Pataudi: Not even a police officer, not even a security person. So all Chinese are protected by Pakistani private security, Pakistani police and Pakistani soldiers. So I mean, just for your information, no foreigner can carry a weapon in Pakistan, including Chinese, of course. So that’s the rule. And so this fear, American audiences need to dispel, that there is going to be a Chinese outpost at the mouth of the Persian Gulf.

Funny he should mention the mouth of Persian Gulf. Because if you follow China’s New Silk Road in Pakistan – it goes from that contested northeastern corner in Kashmir, diagonally, southwest, like a backslash – all the way down to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port – near the Strait of Hormuz, leading into the Persian Gulf, through which Middle Eastern oil passes, as do US navy ships, coming and going from their base in Bahrain. 

China now has a 40-year lease of Gwadar port. And it’s building there at speed. It’s following a pattern in what it’s building, of what Chinese military strategy calls “port-park-city,” which is not uncommon in ports along the New Silk Road. And it goes like this. Build or expand a port in a strategic location. Add an industrial park – good for civilian use now, and potentially for military use in conflict. And add housing for lots of outsiders to come in.

But to Pakistanis – especially potential homebuyers – Gwadar is being promoted as an upscale city of the future.

Female voice: The international port city, I mean, that vision is absolutely stunning. What we see around us today are the building blocks and the foundations of a future that is very bright and very modern, and of course hopefully very prosperous for all of Pakistan.

Second female voice: This is such an interesting place. Walking around here, I just feel like a sense of something building up. A sense of something coming to this very place, something quite big. 

This is a promotional video by a company called CPIC. It calls itself a property promotion company by overseas Pakistanis, for overseas Pakistanis. And its videos show new paved roads leading to what is planned to be a new international airport. It shows dusty plots for luxury villas, and another area that will become an industrial park. This promotional video also includes an interview with an unidentified Chinese manager:

Chinese manager: My dream is make the Gwadar port like Dubai, and development, local Pakistanis have a good life, and have more people can have good jobs.

Interviewer: What are you expecting? Are you expecting like Chinese businesses to come into Gwadar Free Zone, or Pakistani businesses, or every international business?

Chinese manager: We expect to have more and more Chinese companies will come here, build a plant, and development here. (Fade out)

Gwadar is in Balochistan, and Balochistan is one of Pakistan’s poorest provinces. Over the years, it’s seen outsiders come in to mine its copper and gold, and drill for oil. But Baloch people are still poor, and many feel left behind. Now with China coming in, some are angry enough to do something about it. One example came in this 2018 video, shown widely on Indian and Pakistani media: 

Rehan Baloch: Through this act, I want to make China and its people realize that whosoever will try to move in Baloch without Baloch nation’s consent will face the wrath of Baloch nation.

This is the elder son of the separatist Baloch Liberation Army’s senior commander. In this video, Rehan Baloch, a wiry young guy in glasses, a white tunic and a tan vest that looks like it could hold explosives, holds a rifle as he stands in front of the Balochistan flag, tacked to a craggy hill. After making this video, he blew himself up on a bus filled with Chinese engineers and other employees of China’s Gwadar port project.

And that’s just one of several attacks in recent years by Baloch insurgents. There was one on China’s consulate in Karachi, Pakistan’s other port city, and another on the Karachi Stock Exchange. There was one on a luxury hotel in Gwadar. And just in October 2020, there was an attack on oil and gas workers returning to Karachi from Gwadar – killing 14 people. Still, China’s not giving up on Gwadar.

Taha Siddiqui: I think China’s has its eyes on Gwadar port for a very long time, and is going to get that no matter what, and keep that, no matter what, and has gotten that access now.

This is Taha Siddiqui, a Pakistani journalist who has covered Balochistan extensively. But we’re not talking in Pakistan, or even in India. We’re in a park, in a Paris suburb, watching kids play nearby, because Taha is in exile. His critical reporting on the Pakistani military – which is one of the main partners for China’s Belt & Road investments in Pakistan – led to what he describes as a kidnapping attempt, which he escaped:

Taha Siddiqui: When I went to the police to file a case, the police tried to look for a CCTV camera in the area, and the cameras were cut off. It was quite organized. The number plates on the cars were captured in a camera that was previous. But they were fake number plates. One of the cars was a big SUV, the double cabin SUV with the tinted glasses, which is usually what the military uses in the country. And then I met with the interior minister at that time, who had called upon me to discuss my case a week after the attack. And he told me privately, he was like, why don’t you write an apology letter to the Pakistan army chief? And I was like, what for? And he’s like, just ask for forgiveness for everything.

Instead, Taha came here, to Paris. But he keeps an active interest in how China’s investments in Gwadar could shape the region – and not always in the way China expects.

(Music from welcoming ceremony in Pakistan)

When Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited Pakistan in February 2019, part of a swing through Asia, including India and China, that he made just four months after the murder and dismembering of journalist Jamal Khashoggi – he pledged that Saudi Arabia would invest $20 billion in Pakistan, with half of it going to build a new Saudi refinery and petrochemicals complex – in Gwadar: 

Taha Siddiqui: We’ve heard that Chinese have reservations about that, because they’re like, ‘this area is ours. Why are the Saudis coming close to us?’

Taha offers a couple of possible answers to that question. For debt-strapped Pakistan, bringing in more money through another investor helps Pakistan pay back its loans to China and reduce its dependency. From Saudi Arabia’s perspective, Gwadar is close to the Iranian border, and Iran is Saudi Arabia’s top regional rival. Being close to Iran’s border gives Saudis easy access to mess with Iran. And already, Taha says, Saudis have been active in Balochistan:

Taha Siddiqui: So Saudis have been building madrassas, the seminaries, the mosques, in these areas for their own interests, to keep an eye on what is going on in Iran and having their proxies who regularly go attack inside Iran.

He says, Pakistan’s government tolerates this, because the Baloch insurgents have traditionally been fairly secular. Pakistan’s leaders have accused India of backing them. Taha says, the idea seems to be that Islamicizing the Baloch population will make them more loyal to Pakistan, a Sunni Muslim country like Saudi Arabia – as opposed to the Shia Muslims in Iran:

Taha Siddiqui: So it’s like two benefits from the same thing. It’s like killing, how do you say?

Mary Kay Magistad: Two birds with one stone.

TS: Killing two birds with one stone, where you Islamize the population through Saudi money. But the result of it is that you see more killings of Shias in the province, with the Hazaras being targeted a lot. You see a lot of Shias being killed on the way to Iran. I’ve been to that road. And I covered the story of the Shias being taken off their buses and being shot.

But what China wants in Gwadar is stability. And Taha says, he’s heard that China’s been contacting the Baloch exiled political leadership:

Taha Siddiqui: …to understand and find a settlement with them, and perhaps pay them.

And, he says at least one Baloch insurgent group that used to be quite critical of China, BNP Mengal, has toned down its criticism.

China wants stability in Gwadar, both for the sake of the port itself, and because China has taken advantage of US attempts to isolate Iran. It’s been working out a $400 billion deal to get cut-rate oil from Iran over 25 years, as part of a bigger military and economic partnership that will include access to Iran’s Chabahar port, less than 50 miles down the coast from Gwadar. That could be useful to China in expanding its presence in the area, even closer to the Strait of Hormuz – except that India is also investing in the same Iranian port.

So all of this three-dimensional chess is going on between China and India in Pakistan, and in the region. And some Indian strategists see China trying to encircle India – in Pakistan, to India’s north and west, in Myanmar, to India’s east, with a Chinese-built port, and in Sri Lanka, to India’s south, where China now has a 99-year lease of the port of Hambantota. Back in India’s capital, New Delhi, Major-General Dhruv Katoch says India needs to be vigilant – and prepared. 

Dhruv Katoch: I think what India will have to do is to maintain a strong fleet. We have to increase the capacity of our navy. As of now, it’s quite alright. We have to increase the capacity of our navy to match what Chinese can do in the future.

The United States has been happy to play a role here. It held a joint US-Indian naval exercise just weeks after Chinese and Indian troops clashed at the border – as this India Today report laid out.  

India Today anchor: In a big message to China, the American navy ship USS Nimitz carrier battle group is conducting a passage exercise with Indian Navy’s frontline ships near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean. Now this is a huge show of strength, and fate.

The ships are shown cruising through open seas. They went toward what for China is the strategically vital Malacca Strait, through which much of China’s imported oil from the Middle East and Africa passes. This display backed up what President Trump told a stadium full of Indians when he visited New Delhi in February 2020:

Donald Trump: America loves India. America respects India. And America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people.

The US government has also been working with India, Australia and Japan – in something called the “Quad” – because there are four of them. They focus on security, but also in offering the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, other options for infrastructure projects than just taking money from China, on China’s terms.

And at a well-heeled club in Delhi, a former Indian Foreign Secretary, Shyam Saran, tells me, India should play to its strengths: 

Shyam Saran: We have had a history of investing in education in Africa. We have had a history of offering Africa assistance in things like medium and small scale industries, entrepreneurship. China has been much more extractive. Investment has been much more extractive. Not so much India. And, I think on balance, rather than try to compete with China, if China has done a stadium, then we must also run and do a stadium – or if China has invested in something here, then we should also do the same. I think rather than doing that, really try to leverage precisely the areas of strength that we have.

Like, India is really good at making high-quality, low cost pharmaceuticals – many of which have gone to Africa. By contrast, Chinese companies have, in the past, been called out for supplying Africa with lower quality, sometimes fake or unsafe pharmaceuticals. 

But if India is going to provide the region and the world with alternatives to China, it’s got a heavy lift on some fronts, because it has challenges China no longer does.

More than a quarter of India’s population still lives in poverty, compared to China’s 1.7%. More than 20% of Indians are illiterate, compared to 4% of Chinese. Just one-third of Indians live in cities, where ideas and innovations spread more quickly, compared to 60% of Chinese. And rural areas in India tend to be poor, and underserved. 

So when it comes to a head-to-head competition with China in the world, not all Indians think it’s going to be a slam-dunk anytime soon, even when it comes to monetizing India’s strengths:

Saibal Dasgupta: My whole concern is whether Indian companies will do this, or simply buy and sell Chinese products.

This is Saibal Dasgupta. He’s a correspondent for the Times of India in Beijing – we overlapped, there. And he’s author of the book, “Running with the Dragon: How India Should Do Business with China.”

(Chatter at book launch gathering)

We caught up in New Delhi at his book launch at the Foreign Correspondents Club of South Asia – where samosas and other savory snacks were served on the grassy front lawn.

And we caught up later, for a quieter chat.

Saibal Dasgupta: So Indians, Indian companies, Indian firms, have those capabilities. It’s the question of, do you have fire in your stomach? You know, like in sports, Indians are supposed to be lacking the fire in the stomach. They’re not fighters. They’re great talkers, great debaters. But can they put their head down and fight it out?

Mary Kay Magistad: Well, in Silicon Valley, they do it. Huge numbers of startups are done by Indian immigrants to the US.

SD: If you go to places in California, you see Indians, not only doing business, but doing the most innovative part of the business. Artificial intelligence is researched by Indian scientists in American universities and replicated in China.

So, great, he says, China sees the value of what Indian researchers are doing. But why don’t Indian entrepreneurs hit the market with such technologies before China does? Why isn’t India exporting its innovations around the world, the way China did over 30 years, to create what many hail as a miracle of economic growth? 

Saibal Dasgupta: But I have always thought that the miracle is an overstated story. It was never a miracle. It was a miracle because the world was foolish enough not to grab opportunities. And India was particularly responsible for the Chinese miracle, because India was not doing those things that it could have done with the same factories, with the same energy, with the same capability, with the same bad infrastructure. 

Saibal argues that it takes vision and drive to make that happen, and India’s leaders could use more of both. Former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran agrees that India’s government could and should do more to incentivize more Indian companies to become more globally competitive:

Shyam Saran: I mean, there is a lot of innovation taking place. This is a big startup culture now, here – a lot of young entrepreneurs who are in their 30s, and who are coming up with great solutions to problems that we face. I don’t think that is an issue. I think the issue, really, here in India is, how do you create an ecosystem where there can be very rapid commercialization of the innovations that you are coming up with? That ecosystem is still, I would say, somewhat weak. And that depends a great deal on government policy. It depends a great deal on what kind of incentives, what kind of regulatory regime the state has in place. And in that respect, I think China has created an ecosystem which has enabled companies which may have started small, but are now big multinationals. That is the way to go.

(Sound of walking down corridor)

A small example of how that might work is playing out at the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi. It’s kind of like the MIT of India. And in one of its buildings, I’m heading to a lab, sponsored by Ericsson, experimenting with ways to use 5G:

Brejesh Lall: It’s extremely important for India, to not be left very, very far behind the rest of the world as far as the evolution of communication technology is concerned.

This is Brejesh Lall. He heads this 5G Center of Excellence, and the school here of Telecom, Technology and Management. He says, on this front, India has a lot of catching up to do:

Brejesh Lall: As far as 2G, 3G and 4G are concerned, India had almost no role to play. 


Brejesh Lall: When you are this constrained for resources, then at times it becomes difficult to contribute to the technology. So even though you have a large volume, but you don’t have enough financial clout to be able to contribute to the development. The other area that’s important is, we might be a very, very large market, but the market is not a very aware market. As a consumer, we do not pressure our service provider to improve the technology.

And that means that despite the head-start India once had over China in tech – it is not in a position now to install its own 5G at home, much less export it abroad. Here, in this lab, engineers are working to change that.

Brejesh Lall: We had a pre-release 5G setup here, and finally now we have a release-compliant 5G setup down in the lab, the test-bed that we have, in the Center of Excellence. There was a driverless car, a first of its kind, in the country, happened out of this lab. So that created a lot of interest, a lot of buzz. So now people know what 5G’s about. So this is about getting people interested. It’s about people contributing. It’s about people making an effort to make India a player. 


Perhaps by the time 6G rolls around, in what Brejesh Lall guesses will be five to 10 years – because 6G relies more on software than hardware, and software is the Indian tech sector’s power alley.

Another point that has long been in India’s favor is that it has been a tolerant, multicultural, secular democracy, with free speech and free assembly.

That’s been eroded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist policies – including a Citizenship Act, amended in December 2019, when I was in New Delhi, that could take rights away from millions of Muslims in India.

Indian police move toward people protesting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Citizenship Amendment Act, passed in December 2019, that could take rights away from millions of Muslims in India.

(Sound of protests) 

Protests broke out around the country, with police beating protesters, and sometimes even beating their parked motorcycles.

(Sound of police hitting parked motorcycles)

One protester in Delhi, who asked not to be named, told me she sees the Citizenship Act as a design to profoundly change India:

Female protester: …to make a Hindu state, so Hindi as the language, Hindu as the religion, and Hindustan, as in the home of Hindus. And I think now that they’re in power they’re without any qualms, trying to progress towards that agenda…which is completely unfair, because India is a secular democracy. And you cannot – even if the government of the day has a majority, they cannot attempt to change our Constitutional values. That is not ok. And that’s why I’m here today.

As we talk, standing on a grassy traffic circle, we see dozens of uniformed police with sticks advancing on a small group of protesters. A bus is idling nearby. 

Female protester: I think what they’re doing is that they’re not letting people protest, in the sense that as soon as people are trying, like right over here  –

Mary Kay Magistad: Like what we just saw.

Female protester: Like what we just saw. And I know that they’re taking people in buses. They’re not even detaining them. They’re just dropping them in a really far away part of town.

Male protester: Outside the city.

Female protester: Yeah, like East Delhi where they can’t come back. So that’s what they’re doing. They’re not able to come together, because the minute they do, people are – it’s draconian. It’s not cool. You’re not even letting people gather, because you don’t want there to be images tomorrow that show, across newspapers in the world, that show that there were a huge number of people against this.


The protests went on for days, around the country, and so did police violence. Many of the Indians who came out felt India’s whole identity was at stake – as a tolerant, secular, democratic nation, an alternative Asian Giant to the authoritarian one trying to shape the world with its New Silk Road.

But on the tolerant, secular, democratic front, India – is slipping. 

And on a crowded Delhi street, in a low-slung administrative building that’s seen better days, a man with high piles of paper on his desk was documenting just how much Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s focus on building a Hindu India – has already cost Muslims:

Zafarul Islam Khan: Mob lynchings happened. A lot of mob lynchings happened during Modi’s time. I have, on my own personal initiative, compiled a report which has, I think, more than 400 such cases.

This is Zafarul Islam Khan. At the time we talked, he was the chairman of the Delhi Minorities Commission. Its job is to safeguard the rights of minorities. In late October 2020, Indian police raided his home and office, looking for evidence he’d helped to fund Kashmiri separatist groups – a charge he called false, and a set-up. When I talked to him, he said Modi’s tenure in general, and the Citizenship Act in particular, had kept him busy. 

Zafarul Islam Khan: There was an act actually, and they have now amended in such a way that only Muslims are the “other” in India. And if minorities from the neighboring countries come to India: countries, that is Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan come to India, and they are not Muslim, they will be accepted. If they’re Muslim they’ll not be accepted. But this is not the real issue. The real issue is something different. Through the National Register of Citizenship, they are going to exclude Muslims. And I think they are going to exclude something like 20 million people.

Twenty million Muslims could be left stateless in India, if they can’t produce papers proving their citizenship prior to 1971. Twenty million, out of 200 million Muslims in India – almost as many as in Pakistan. 

Zafarul Islam Khan: Our home minister, which is Interior Minister, Mr. Amit Shah, he has written to all the states to construct concentration camps. They call it detention camps, but it’s concentration camps for these people who will become stateless.

Which sounds – kind of like what’s happening with reeducation camps in China’s western Muslim region of Xinjiang – except on a bigger scale, and more permanent.

And yet, Prime Minister Modi’s popularity ratings have stayed high – above 70%, in many polls – through all of this, even through COVID-19 hitting India hard, and causing India’s GDP to contract 20% by autumn 2020. 

Trishaws in New Delhi, with a billboard of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the background.

(Sound in Newsclick newsroom) 

And in the New Delhi newsroom of an online news organization called Newsclick, editor Prabir Purkayastha says through this widespread support of Hindu nationalist policies, India is squandering one of its greatest assets –

(Sound of reporter on phone)

…a diverse generation of smart, engaged young people, like the ones pounding the phones in this newsroom.

Prabir Purkayastha: Let’s put it this way. India, I think, had an enormous advantage in that it had conceived of itself as a country coming out of colonialism which did not base its nationhood on ethnicity, language, race, any of these things. It was an inclusive nation. And in that sense, I would say, what European Union was trying, India had actually reached well before that as part of the anti-colonial struggle.

He says being inclusive, helped spur India’s economic growth over the past couple of decades:

Prabir Purkayastha: So it gave us a very large economy. And of course people is the key resource base. And after having spent a huge effort in building a nation of this kind, we’re at the moment in complete reverse gear, and abandoning all the gains that we have made, all the things that we could value as what makes India different: young people, forward looking society. We’re now backward: looking back, looking at divisions, and how to set one set of people against another. And how to justify the nationhood on the basis of an internal enemy and an external enemy. Pakistan is the external enemy, internal enemy being the Muslims.


India has long been the other Asian giant – influential in many ways, over millennia. The question now, in the face of China’s ambition, and India’s current direction – is what kind of nation India wants to be – at home, and in the world – and whether India will decide to lead by example, in a direction in which others want to follow.


Thanks to Indian journalist, and friend, Saibal Dasgupta and to Pakistani journalist Taha Siddiqui for sharing insights from their reporting. Thanks, too, to researcher Tripta Narang, for help on the ground in New Delhi. Dave Rummel is the editor for this series. The sound designer for this episode is Jennie Cataldo. Our executive producer is Christine Brandt.

On China’s New Silk Road is a production of the Global Reporting Centre, a nonprofit group that teaches, practices and promotes innovation in global journalism. Peter Klein is the GRC’s founder. Philippe LeBillon, a Global Reporting Centre partner and geography professor at the University of British Columbia, provided valuable input to this series. 

On China’s New Silk Road, was made possible by generous funding from Humanity United, and from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. You can find photos, transcripts and more at While you’re there, check out other great journalism from the Global Reporting Centre. 

Next up – for our last episode, we go back to where we all began – to Africa, now, the youngest Continent, which Chinese investment is helping to transform.

Unidentified voice: So although Western capital was considering Africa and Ethiopia as frontier markets, China was actually really courageous enough to get involved in such a market. So it really helped us.

Ethiopia, Africa, and possible futures, next – on China’s New Silk Road.