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BEIJING: India refused to extend support to China’s ambitious Belt and Road infrastructure project at a foreign ministers’ meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation on Tuesday. The refusal precedes a trip to China this week by India’s prime minister.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s landmark scheme to build infrastructure to connect China to the rest of Asia and beyond, a giant reworking of its old Silk Road.

India has not signed up to the initiative as parts of one key project, the $57 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, run through Azad Kashmir.

Whether or not China will be able to win India round to the BRI will likely be a key measure of the success of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China to meet Xi Jinping for an informal meeting on Friday and Saturday.

But Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj did not express support for Belt and Road in the communique released after foreign ministers of the China and Russia-led Shanghai Coope­ration Organisation (SCO) met in Beijing.

India, along with Pakistan, joined the group last year.

All the other foreign ministers — from Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — “reaffirmed support for the Belt and Road proposal”, the statement read.

It gave no further explanation.

The communique otherwise was a broad expression of unity by the ministers on issues ranging from their support for the Iran nuclear deal to the need to combat the spread of extremism.

Narendra Modi is coming to China as efforts at rapprochement gather pace following a testing year in ties between the two neighbours.

The Asian giants were locked in a 73-day military stand-off in a remote, high-altitude stretch of that boundary last year. At one point, soldiers from the two sides threw stones and punches.

The confrontation between the nuclear-armed powers in the Himalayas underscored Indian alarm at China’s expanding security and economic links in South Asia.

Speaking at a daily news briefing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said both countries had agreed that holding a more relaxed informal meeting was a good idea.

“It can provide a comfortable atmosphere for the two countries’ leaders to have full and deep exchanges on important issues of mutual concern,” Lu said.

China believes the meeting, in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, will reach important new consensus and promote the continued healthy development of ties going forward, he added.

Modi will come again to China in June for a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

China will also have to tread carefully to avoid giving Pakistan cause for alarm. On Monday it reassured Pakistan that relations between the two countries were as firm as ever and would “never rust”.

Published in Dawn, April 25th, 2018