China’s Belt & Road Initiative: Towards South Asia  

By Prasanta Kumar B.K. (KATHMANDU, 1 July 2018) – Today, Deng Xiaoping’s foreign policy mantra, ‘hide one’s capabilities and bide one’s time’ seems to be more passive in relation to external diplomacy because China claims itself the ‘winner of globalization’. Chinese leadership’s stated desire to ‘strive for achievements’ and play a more active role in the international system. This is all about to materialize ‘China Dream’ and ‘promote the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ in 21st century. In this context, China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative'(BRI)is a grand geo-economic vision as well as a long-term geopolitical strategy. It mainly aims to promote the connectivity and the economic cooperation between China and the countries involved.It actively pushes forward the policy coordination, currency circulation as well as the people-to-people bond. The world’s great expectations further increase the audience for what the Chinese sometimes describe as the country’s ‘second opening’, after the 1979 model which led to China’s rapid economic growth over three decades and so.

South Asia: Land of Possibilities?

South Asia is inhabited by one fifth of the world population, any social and economic instability in this part of the world would definitely have an impact on the peace and stability of the rest of the world. And, South Asia is the land of problems ranging from poverty to pollution, corruption to conflict; and trade to trust deficits. At the same time, it is a land of tremendous possibilities, in terms of resource;both natural and human.In fact, the region requires suitable conditions and opportunities for faster economic growth so that people come out of poverty and hunger, which breeds fundamentalism, terrorism and other kinds of social and religious extremism and problems. For that, it badly needs infrastructure, governance and sustainable development and utilize its untapped natural resources.

As a part of solution, there is an argument that once the conflict is resolved, the avenue of development and prosperity will be opened to South Asia. But, it’s already too late. South Asia, today, is trapped in the vortex of politics. Although politics cannot be divorced from economics and vice versa. However, it’s a time to put politics aside for some time and give the prominence to economic development. For instance, China-Japan’s economic relation is moving ahead despite geo-political hurdles over the issue of South China Sea and so as to the case of East Asian countries.  Therefore, similar approach of status quo in relation to boarder disputes can be maintained in order to create mutual trust and foster deep economic relations with South Asian countries. Similarly, there exists ample of possibilities for over all development because of adequate untapped natural resources and human resources (huge population). No doubt, it just requires to exploit those resources for the improvement of wellbeing. There are some key areas like agriculture, tourism, education, hydro-power, infrastructure, trade, investment, policy, technology, and innovation.

Belt and Road Initiative: a narrative of win-win?

Given to the situation, South Asia badly needs huge investment and Beijing is willing to offer greater assistance to the developing world by promoting mutual beneficial cooperation in various fields as mentioned above. However, Dai Changzheng, Professor at School of International Relations, Beijing, says that Belt and Road Initiative is ‘not a zero-sum game, but a win-win scheme’.  But, Brahama Chellaney, in his article ” Sri Lanka the Latest Victim of China’s debt-trap diplomacy’ says that Sri Lanka, unable to pay the onerous debt to China it has accumulated, formally handed over its strategically located Hambantota port to the Asian giant. It was a major acquisition for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – which President Xi Jinping calls the “project of the century” – and proof of just how effective China’s debt-trap diplomacy can be. Despite those arguments, Chinese President Xi Jinping has reiterated in many official occasions that the Initiative is an open, diversified and win-win project poised to bring huge opportunities for the development of China and many other countries. But, we have to see how China is going to fit its self- proclaimed ‘win-win’ narrative in South Asia.

Belt and Road Initiative: Cooperation or Competition?

In South Asia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal, and Pakistan have extended their support to the initiative except India and Bhutan. The two Asian giants: China and India’s relationship has been marked by competition rather than cooperation in the region. The relationship is largely constrained by and embedded in security dilemma at the present time.  From the realism perspective, the nature of Beijing’s links with New Delhi is in conflict. India intends to build its great power status in the Indo Asia Pacific region, and compete with China in the fields of energy, trade and investment.  India has been worried about the rising of Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean, as well as China’s plans to build ports in Pakistan and Sri Lanka.  As a response to the initiative the Indian government in June 2014 launched its own Silk Road Program – “Mausam”, trying to take advantage of its leadership role in security and trade issues in the Indian Ocean, formidable naval strength, favorable geographical location, as well as a historical and cultural advantages, in order to lead the strategy. Moreover, India also tries to intervene in the political situation of the neighboring countries to weaken China’s presence because India want to hold its sphere of influence in South Asia under the Narendra Modi’s ‘neighborhood first policy’.

Despite competition, there is also a cooperation. India is one of the first countries to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB, besides that, they are part of the BRICS, and Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor. It shows that India intends to strength the relations with China. Some argue that India is effectively depriving itself of an opportunity to shape the transforming landscape of Asia. But the reality is different, New Delhi has not only been facing huge trade but also deep trust deficits despite growing economic and strategic ties with Beijing. As C. Raja Mohan, in his article “India and China-Rebuild the trust” says, “If 2016 was marked by China’s decision to block India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, 2017 was defined by an extended military confrontation in the Doklam plateau”. This reality is rooted into the Sino-Indian war in 1962 thatcolors the Indian attitude towards China and vice versa even today.

The concern of India is also over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which has been deemed the “flagship” initiative passes through Gilgit-Baltistan, a disputed region that India continues to claim as part of its territory. And, the concern of building port complex at the naval base of Gadara, located in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan has been surfaced because of strategic importance. Pakistan is not an easy country. The threat of terrorism represents another political risk along the route.

China’s fundamental aspects “no hegemony, no power politics, no military alliances and no arms racing” contrast to the ‘theory of opportunity’ put forward by former Chinese president Hu Jintao. It suggests that Beijing should improve its security and its strategic policies by continuing its good-neighbor policies while expanding them beyond Asia. Again, China’s ‘commitment to a more active role in the international regime’ is more assertive than never before in the region. And it is likely continue on this path given its growing economic and military power.

Conclusion

Although, Belt and Road Initiative is a long-term economic grand strategy, but it is still in initial stage of implementation. China intends to support the countries of South Asia under the rubric of this initiative. China’s economic growth, together with the impact that this growth has on its neighbors, will necessarily influence the internal political dynamics of these countries. In this situation, there could be a strained relationship with China. And, it is difficult to say that China can address these problems tactfully under this framework. To prevent the problems, China should understand and mitigate the underlying differences in South Asia. Otherwise, there will be clash of interests for sure. At the same time, there exists ‘China threat’ in the world today. Many fear that the initiative is a veiled attempt by China to dominate its neighboring regions. In this critical juncture, the cautious approach to foreign policy development and recalling also Deng Xiaoping’s saying of ‘crossing the river by feeling the stones’, still matters for Beijing while implementing this initiative.

(This article is based on research paper at Institute of South Asian Studies, Sichuan University, China.)

 

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