Sanjib Kumar Das
Late last month, inaugurating the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Asia-Pacific’s premier security forum, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said: “In this brave new world, we cannot rely on great powers to safeguard our interests.”
In view of United States President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Australian premier’s observation bears an ominous geopolitical echo that perhaps no non-Nato nation can ignore. And Turnbull’s words are particularly significant for South Asian giants India. A receding American role in the Asia-Pacific and Beijing’s bullish and highly ambitious $900 billion (Dh3.31 trillion) One-Belt-One-Road (OBOR) initiative, have given New Delhi enough reasons to be wary of its neighbour’s perceived pre-eminence in a post-Cold War world order.
With 65 countries already being signatories to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s grand design of connecting Asia, Europe and Africa through a common economic beltway, the pressure was never greater on India to join a gravy train that promises to be like no other since America instituted the $13 billion Marshall Plan in 1948 to prop up industrialisation in Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War.
Apart from the very obvious ‘big brother’ role that Beijing seeks to acquire for itself in view of Washington’s increasingly inward-looking stance in almost all matters in the realm of defence and trade, projection of the $56 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as one of the key facets of the OBOR is what has irked New Delhi the most and quite rightly so.
For Asia’s third-largest economy — with a 70-year history of border skirmishes and three wars with Pakistan — having an emerging superpower like China spread its wings by virtue of an all-encompassing blueprint for a long-haul trans-regional cooperation (read influence) in its own backyard is indeed irksome and alarming.
The CPEC, that aims to connect Gwadar in southern Pakistan to the Xinjiang province in China, is, in effect, the launchpad for China’s geopolitical ambitions to counter American influence in the most definitive terms since the Second World War. The fact that the CPEC will be spread over an area that will include land mass that falls within the parts that India refers to as “Pakistan Occupied Kashmir” (POK) and Pakistan refers to as “Azad Kashmir” has expectedly ruffled feathers in South Block. As part of CPEC, Beijing reportedly intends to develop ten nodal cities within the corridor, of which Gilgit, in “POK”, will be one. Given the sensitivity and the tenuous nature of relations between India and Pakistan since Partition in 1947, a third party’s — and that too a nuclear-armed one — economic muscle-flexing and aggressive geopolitical solicitation in such a volatile zone will do little to assuage concerns for the Narendra Modi-led dispensation in India. The CPEC is likely to see the mercury rise over political brinkmanship and security issues between two nuclear-armed neighbours — India and Pakistan.
New Delhi’s growing unease over Chinese aggrandisement found a resonance when a United Nations-mandated body made some pointed observations on the project. In its report made public on May 23, the Economic and social Commission for Asia Pacific (ESCAP), the UN’s regional development arm, was unequivocal in its expression of concern over the likely socio-political fallout of CPEC. “The dispute over Kashmir is also of concern, since the crossing of the CPEC in the region might create geopolitical tension with India and ignite further political instability,” the report stated. India’s concerns aside, there are certain broad-spectrum grey areas that OBOR ought to tackle head-on.The Chinese economy is set to grow by 6.5 per cent this year — its lowest growth rate in the last 25 years. No wonder, an initiative such as OBOR is primarily aimed at shoring up China’s economic future in the long run. Beijing is looking at massive investments in infrastructure projects in all countries that are part of OBOR. And lion’s share of the funding is going to come from Chinese government entities such as the China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China. Experts point out that there is an element of ‘loan’ in OBOR that participating nations ought to be wary of in order to steer clear of a debt trap in the future.
As a case in point, one can look at a recent development concerning a corpus of Chinese ‘soft loans’ to Bangladesh. According to a report appearing in the Times of India earlier this month, Dhaka had signed a deal worth $25 billion last October for nearly 30 projects in Bangladesh, to be funded by China. However, a year on, Beijing is now reportedly keen on converting these into high-interest commercial credit, “with apparently no headway into projects for which the amount was earmarked”, the Times of India said.
Moreover, for a project (OBOR) that aims to cover 65 per cent of the world’s population and involves one-third of the world’s gross domestic product, it is not just fund generation but optimisation and judicious deployment of finances that may well mark the make-or-break point. How well Beijing gets that part of the Chinese checker sorted out is anybody’s guess right now. In addition to the financial puzzle pieces is the prognosis of the Silk Road phenomenon. The ‘Silk Road’ was more of an organic entity that was characterised by exchange of cultures through people-to-people contacts, cutting across geographical boundaries. With political uncertainty and socio-economic turbulence characterising many of the OBOR participants, to what extent OBOR will be able to instil an element of mutual trust and knowledge-sharing among its partner-states is a million yuan question.
Given China’s persistent domestic problems, a sluggish economy, reliance on secretive measures, lack of transparency in its cyberlaws and paucity of confidence-building measures even amongst its close allies, fitting in a homogenous vision document into the heterogeneity of a working template stretching across three continents will be challenging to say the least.
So, objectively speaking, it is not just New Delhi, but even many of the OBOR signatories may be well-advised to study the fine print with a magnifying glass! Interestingly, in view of India’s reservations about the ‘One-Belt-One-Road’ nomenclature, which New Delhi considers as a reflection of Beijing’s hegemonic outreach, China has already agreed to call it the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’. A few such similar confidence-building measures on the more tangible policy parameters of Xi’s grand design may help this new ‘Silk Route’ take a profitable Ganges detour.
You can follow Sanjib Kumar Das on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@moumiayush.