Opinion

China’s One Belt, One Road gamble

Raghu Dayal | Updated on January 11, 2018

Building a complex web of rail, road networks criss-crossing Asia, China is asserting its might as a civilisational power

To demonstrate the sweep and magnitude of its flagship, and historic, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China will play host to two score or more heads of government at a special conclave in Beijing this weekend.

With rare passion and tenacity, Chinese President Xi Jinping has pursued his vision of a new Silk Road with a network of high- speed rail, motorways, pipelines, ports, fibre optic cables, to “break the connectivity bottleneck” in Asia. In September 2013, he proposed a Silk Road Economic Belt, building a transport corridor connecting the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea, and linking East Asia to South Asia and West Asia.

The following month, he advocated the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. Eventually, a new term followed — Yidai Yilu, or One Belt, One Road. (The Road refers to ancient maritime routes between China and Europe; the Belt describes the Silk Road’s better-known trails overland).

Dream and revival

Hoping to create new markets for Chinese firms and a Eurasian trading bloc, besides new spheres of influence for his government, Xi has made OBOR a central part of his foreign policy. China’s FDI is increasingly going in to OBOR countries. Its OBOR contracts are now more likely to involve Chinese firms managing the infrastructure they build, rather than (as in the past) building them and handing them over.

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), stretching from China’s autonomous region of Xinjiang to Gwadar port in Balochistan, and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor, which stretches from Kolkata to Kunming, is closely related to China’s OBOR initiative.

China seems to demonstrate that infrastructure power is at the heart of economic power, and economic power at the heart of strategic power. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in their plans for trans-continental rail connectivity. At a pace unknown in history, China has channelled very large investments in the expansion and revitalisation of its railways.

Those many links

Although a pioneer to develop the concept and contours of the Trans Asian Railway (TAR) project under the aegis of the United Nations over 50 years ago, India lost the urge and will to help carry the project forward.

The TAR southern corridor linking Indonesia-Singapore-Malaysia-Thailand to the Indian sub-continent via Myanmar, onwards to Istanbul via Iran has remained consigned to oblivion. On the other hand, ever since China began a demonstration rail service in October 2011 between Chongqing and Antwerpen, it has operated more than 1,700 freight trains from mainland to Europe.

In close proximity, the Dragon ominously builds a web of rail around India. Its formidable presence in terms of rail projects in India’s north is typified by the world’s highest 1,142-km Golmud-Lhasa rail line, opened in July 2006, now extended westward by a 252-km link to Xigaze, Tibet’s second largest city. It is due to have a further 400 km extension not only to Kyirong (Chinese Gyirong), on the border with Nepal, and a probable further 120-km link to Kathmandu. It could also come to Yayung (Dromo in Tibetan), close to Bhutan and connected to Sikkim via the Nathula Pass, and yet further on to Nyingchi (Nyingtri) on the doorsteps of Arunachal Pradesh.

The Lhasa-Nyingtri railway would provide convenient access for China’s military in a region with extremely difficult terrain and limited road access.

On India’s eastern flank, Chinese rail and road connectivity knits south-east Asia. All around India, China shares land borders with five Saarc countries, looks over Chicken’s Neck at a sixth, and has a long border with Myanmar. From Kunming in Chinese Yunnan province, a network of road, rail and river links fork out to Sittwe in western Myanmar and Thilawa near Yangon on the Bay of Bengal.

Having feverishly built a 1,100-km long pipeline to tap the rich Shwe gas fields from the Kyaukpyu deepsea port on Myanmar’s Arakan coast to Kunming, also a multiple road, rail and pipeline link on its Rakhine coast, China accomplished “Yunnanisation” of northern Myanmar.

In the south, as a part of its “string of pearls” strategy of links with regional maritime nations, China has been financing nearly all of Sri Lanka’s biggest infrastructure projects.

Not an easy job

On India’s western flank, China has planned strategic linkages to Pakistan, Iran and all across Central Asia, incorporating the Gilgit-Baltistan tract in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) into its Xinjiang’s logistics grid, expanding the Karakoram highway, also planning a rail line from China-built and operated Gwadar port in Balochistan close to the Straits of Hormuz through Khunjerab Pass in the Karakoram to Kashgar, which is connected to Xigaze, already rail-linked to Lhasa.

As The Economist points out, China already faces resistance from locals in some countries who feel overwhelmed by China’s heavy-handedness. Recall how in 2011, Myanmar suspended work on a Chinese-financed dam at Myitsone, to popular acclaim, and the recent violent protests in Sri Lanka over Chinese-invested port at Hambantota.

While China itself is wary of escalating unease in Pakistan’s relations with neighbouring Afghanistan, India and Iran, its whopping CPEC investments have triggered protests in Pakistan who apprehend the project, involving a colossal challenge of repayment, will mortgage Pakistan’s future.

The $46-62-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, involving energy, roads, rail, mass transit, port and fibre optic projects, with already some 9,000 Chinese engineers and workers guarded by a 10,000-strong Pakistani army division, provides China a virtual colony.

Adept equally at flexing its soft power muscles, China has scattered roads and football stadiums across Africa. It has set up Confucius institutes around the world to spread Chinese language and culture. China now sprinkles Buddhist projects all across South and Southeast Asia, to usurp Buddha’s legacy in Asia. It plans to project Pakistan as a cradle of Buddhist culture and heritage, reviving ‘Gandhar Trail’, linking Lahore, Taxila and Peshawar, as it consolidates Buddhist sects across Southeast Asia to converge in World Buddhist Forum at Wuxi, near Shanghai, ostensibly to supplant Tibetan religious hierarchy.

While Prime Minister Modi and President Xi have stressed being sensitive to each other’s strategic concerns, for instance, when they met on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, and again in Goa in September 2016, India expected China to realise India’s serious concerns about the project running through Gilgit-Baltistan in POK. Paranoid about Dalai Lama, China remains adamant on blocking India’s membership of NSG and its pleas at UN to designate Jaish-e-Muhammad chief Maulana Masood Azhar as a “global terrorist”.

As Edward Wong wrote in New York Times, China looks like a giant that has every right to rise, yet why must it reject many values that many countries share? Imagine how the two leaders — President Xi and PM Modi sitting on a swing can swing the fate of billions for peaceful and prosperous Asia.

The writer was formerly CMD of Concor

Published on May 11, 2017

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