One Belt One Road doctrine (OBOR) doctrine envisioned and initiated by President Xi Jingping in 2013 has now emerged as the most powerful foreign policy of China. In the past four years, China buttressed the plans of developing a gargantuan infrastructure development activities across 60 countries with unabated flow of investments. Painstakingly and rather deftly China garnered the support of Asian countries including India for establishing financial institutions (AIIB- Asia Infrastructure and Investment Bank) to realize the grand vision. More on OBOR at https://myind.net/Home/viewArticle/sri-lanka-buckles-under-mounting-chinese-debt-trap and https://myind.net/Home/viewArticle/dubious-chinese-investments-in-south-asian-countries
Belt Road Forum (BRF)
Surpassing the scale of engagement and collaboration of 21st century trade alliances, 68 countries signed cooperation agreements under OBOR. The first summit meet of Belt Road Forum (BRF) held at Beijing on May 14th-15th was attended by heads of state of 29 countries and delegates from by 130 countries except a major country in the region-India. Drawing red lines, India resolutely stayed away from the BRF summit. Indo-Chinese relations has gone south of late with China snubbing India officially.
Recent phase of animosity intensified with China launching a volley of attacks both diplomatically and through media over 9 day long Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh in April. China retaliated by giving Chinese names to six places in Arunachal Pradesh. As BRF neared, seeking India’s high-level participation Chinese spokesperson began to clarify that “the belt and road is a connectivity program for economic development and will also benefit India”. In the meanwhile, China steadily expanded scope of CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) making it a $62 billion project.
From the inception, India raised serious objections about CPEC and stubbornly prevailed that CPEC violates Indian sovereignty as it runs through PoK (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir), a legitimate territory of India. When India clarified that Prime Minister Modi will not attend the summit, China’s mouth piece Global Times dissuaded that “India is exaggerating the situation. India is viewing Beijing and Islamabad as potential threats and is suspicious of OBOR initiative and CPEC”. It remarked that “China has and will never seek hegemony in the region”. Meanwhile, India was irked when Global Times in an article cited that “Beijing respects New Delhi’s sovereignty concerns and is willing to mediate in India-Pakistan disputes, on the condition that it accords to the wishes of both India and Pakistan”. While the official media repeatedly urged India to be part of OBOR, it didn’t shy away from interfering Indo-Pakistan affairs which are purely bilateral. This double talk and China’s renewed interest in CPEC despite India’s repeated appeals suggests that China will not steer clear off the Kashmir issue.
Moreover, Pakistan illegally conceded a sizeable Kashmir territory under its occupation way back in 1963 making the dragon an invisible third partner in Kashmir issue. With construction of Karakoram Highway China began meddling with India’s sovereignty CPEC inauguration exacerbated India’s worst fears. To make matters worse, a Chinese website is now showing Gilgit-Baltistan as part of Pakistan even when Pakistan constitution doesn’t recognize it. In addition, 30,000 strong PLA troops are deployed in PoK region to safe-guard Chinese assets. India has severely protested to all these developments. In 2014 Sushma Swaraj, Prime Minister Modi and Ajit Doval asked China to respect “One India Policy”. But China has never heeded to India’s concerns. Interestingly, China highlighted CPEC as the flagship project of the OBOR initiative.
Reiterating India’s stand of not attending BRF, MEA spokesperson said, “we are of firm belief that connectivity initiatives must be based on universally recognized international norms, good governance, rule of law, openness, transparency and equality”. Referring to CPEC, he added, “No country can accept a project that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity”. Few Indian scholars attended the meet. Indian delegation is conspicuous by its absence at a forum touted to be global development initiative by Chinese.
For decades, India had put up with China’s typical doublespeak and arm twisting tactics. Lately, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi and other diplomats threatened to isolate, but Modi government has refused to budge and boycotted BRF. Ironically, China wants India to embrace OBOR, even as it impedes New Delhi’s long standing goal of obtaining NSG membership and repeatedly snubs India at UN. But critics opine that India is taking a huge risk by not towing in line with Dragon whose GDP is five times India. India has however left door open for a “meaningful dialogue” and indicated in unequivocal terms that bilateral ties will not be affected. India while prudently making point about its uncompromising stand on sovereignty, dehyphenated territorial issues from trade.
Apprehensions about OBOR
Interestingly, for a mission of this huge proportions, instead of building a viable multilateral organization to bring all the partners on board, China roped in partner countries through bilateral negotiations. The one to one agreement with individual countries not necessarily based on a common framework was mired in secrecy rendering OBOR projects opaque. Further the scale and nature of the investments and loans offered under the banner of assistance with high interest rates began raising curious doubts about the real intentions of the much publicized OBOR which was conceived on the basic premise of filling in the lacuna of infrastructure development and connectivity in the third world countries. High interest development loans extended by China reflected the dubious intentions of the Middle Kingdom. While China aspired to effectively camouflage its real intentions behind professed developmental projects, it invested in fragile economies and pandering to countries that gravely violated human rights. A careful deliberation of the projects rolled out so far busted the grand developmental narrative. A brutal disregard for environmental concerns and violent protests to Chinese investments in various countries have already eroded the sanctity of OBOR.
Overriding the narrative of commercial viability, most projects under OBOR are carefully chosen to fit into the larger purview of geostrategic significance for China. By consequence, more often recipient weak economies are lured to pay for this larger “Chinese dream”. Hambantota port of Sri Lanka and the Mattala Airport, falls into this category. The deep-sea port and the airport are now notoriously famous in international circles as White Elephants. The inimical situation in Sri Lanka emerged as the fitting example of Chinese investments for the large-scale protests that rocked the nation. It is no exaggeration to say that eventually these domestic concerns led to overthrowing of a pro-Chinese Rajapaksa government with a political outfit that promised to renegotiate. Similar domestic lash was witnessed in Myanmar.
In yet another instance of Chinese hegemony, enraged by Chinese takeover of Scarborough Islands, Philippines in 2012, approached Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA). The verdict dismissed Chinese claims and ruled the case in favor of Manila. China blatantly refused to uphold the verdict. Instead China courted President Duterte pledging $15 billion investments. Duterte not only refrained from raising cudgels against the Dragon but meekly surrendered to China and pivoted against US. Interestingly, ASEAN Summit, 2017 held in Philippines made no mention of PCA verdict. China effectively conscripted South East Asian countries into subjugation through its investments. The patterns of Chinese investments under the banner of the 21st century Maritime Silk Route, a refurbished ancient Silk route from China to Europe underscored the hegemonic aspirations of Middle Kingdom.
Progress thus far
In these four years, slowing economic growth, fleeing capitals and mounting debt of China emerged as potential hurdles for OBOR. But the doctrine received a shot in arm, with US receding to its shell and adopting a rather protectionist agenda. Though OBOR is believed to be brain child of President Xi, several strategists indicated that China, which was one of the oldest civilizations keen on reclaiming old glory had carefully etched a road map to overtake US. Supremely ambitious Xi has given wings to the Maoist Vision of becoming a super power by 2049. With OBOR, China managed to sideline US in Asia and managed to portray Beijing as the new globalization leader. But depleted foreign reserves ($4 trillion, reduced to $3 trillion) and strategic overdraft are raising fresh concerns about the sustainability of OBOR. The foundation for most of the Chinese infrastructure projects has been political connections. Hence, lack fair competition, auditing and transparency. Through OBOR China has emerged as the second largest creditor after Japan. So far, China Development Bank and Export and Import Bank of China lent $50 billion. President Xi committed $124 billion towards OBOR at BRF.
EU skeptical of OBOR, instituted investigation into the 350 km long high speed railway line constructed by the China Railway Corporation between Belgrade and Budapest on grounds of financial viability. This project was part of China-Europe Land-Sea Fast Transport Route that link western parts of China to Greek port of Pireus (1). In fact, the gargantuan scale of OBOR projects sprawling the globe has raised serious suspicions in several countries. EU now has serious misgivings of Chinese investments in 16 East and central European countries and highly suspicious of Chinese ambitions. EU minced no words in calling it “divide and rule” of China.
Russia is irked by looming Chinese presence in its sphere of influence Central Asia. Under the ruse of developing ports, China penetrated South Asia and established String of Pearls. Already aggressive reclamation of islets in South China Sea (SCS) and extension of claims to over 90% SCS mirrored belligerent nature of China. Beijing’s defiant objection to PCA verdict firmly established China’s pugilistic approach. Now a domineering ingress into developing economies through opaque OBOR projects at unprecedented speed is evoking suspicion.
The two-day BRF summit failed to obtain endorsement of European countries for proposed trade statement as there was no mention of transparency clauses and standards of tendering procedure. Though the communique released at the end of summit implied that it is committed to free trade, respect for national “sovereignty and territorial integrity” and “opposition to all forms of protectionism” China must walk the talk to sustain OBOR.