OBOR: Asian Project or Pax Sinica?

Ritika Passi| Samir Saran

The central feature of United States’ external engagement — financial institutions, military posture, diplomatic overtures — for much of post-WWII twentieth century and beyond has been the security of its energy interests. Likewise, recent conversations with Chinese scholars, party members and officials indicate that the ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) initiative of Xi Jinxing’s government is likely to become the lynchpin of Chinese engagement with the world in the decades ahead. If to understand American foreign policy of the days past, many have ‘followed the oil,’ to decipher Chinese interests going forward, we may just have to ride the Belt and the Road.

At the third edition of the India-China Think-Tank Dialogue in Beijing, hosted in early January, a cross-section of Chinese scholars (from Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Yunnan) and personnel from the official machinery discussed India-China relations and prospects for regional cooperation. Unlike at previous meets, this time around the conversation cursorily engaged with old tensions, contests and irritants in the bilateral relationship; instead, the centerpiece of all discussion was the OBOR initiative. Be it matters of security, climate change and sustainability, or trade and economics, each Chinese intervention located OBOR as its locus, projecting it as the response to a multitude of challenges and opportunities. To some Chinese scholars, OBOR represented but the second act of their country’s opening up and reform process, no doubt intended to be the crowning feature of Xi Jinping’s Chinese dream.

A Mandarin Tale

Every project must have a compelling narrative. Towards this end, the Chinese have begun to weave new formulations that are giving shape to Beijing’s vision for OBOR and Asia. Some facets could be discerned at this recent interaction.

The first was the novel idea of ‘entity diplomacy’. This construction argues for engaging within and across regions to secure the best interests of an entity that is necessarily larger and with interests broader than those of any sovereign. This follows from the argument of a revival of ‘continentalism’ as the Eurasian landmass deepens linkages and ‘Asia’ emerges, OBOR segues perfectly into this framework. It becomes, for the Chinese, an Asian undertaking that needs to be evaluated on the gains it accrues to the entity, i.e., Asia, as opposed to China alone. It therefore follows, from Beijing’s perspective, that Indian and other Asian nations must support and work for the OBOR initiative.

Entity diplomacy also translates into the establishment of “one economic continent,” the second theme undergirding the conversation. OBOR, then, becomes a vehicle that promotes convergence and alignment of infrastructure, trade and economic strategies. Indeed, for some Chinese speakers, India is already part of the initiative, as its own projects like Project Mausam and economic initiatives such as Make in India and Digital India complement and complete OBOR. Indian participation in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and joint ownership of the New Development Bank only reaffirm India’s partnership in this Asian project for many in Beijing.

To counter popular allegations of OBOR being a “Chinese scheme” à la US Marshall Plan, the Chinese were quick to clarify that the original project is named the Belt and Road Initiative; the ‘One’ has been an English effect that has popularised a mien of exclusivity around OBOR, to the primary advantage of China, instead of an inclusive Asian economic project in which all participating nations would partake benefit.

The third formulation was that of a mutually beneficial ‘swap’ — India understanding and protecting Chinese interests in the Indian Ocean, and China securing India’s essential undertakings in their part of the waters, read the South and East China Seas. This was in the vein of prompting a “new thinking” of “inclusive collaboration” instead of “exclusive alliances.” However, there was unambiguous clarity that if India cannot assume more responsibility in the Indian Ocean, China will step in. (Coincidentally, this is telling of a Chinese Navy that is comfortable in securing its own extended waters.)

Core Conflicts

 There are some structural challenges that confront the Chinese formulations and the OBOR proposal.

First, the perception, process and implementation till date do not inspire trust in OBOR as a participatory and collaborative venture. The unilateral ideation and declaration — and the simultaneous lack of transparency — further weaken any sincerity towards an Asian entity and economic unity. When questioned, the Chinese recognised this lacuna and remained convinced that the regime in Beijing is committed to pursuing wide-ranging consultations with 60+ nations OBOR implicates. An ‘OBOR Think Tank’ is also being established to engage scholars from these countries.

The second poser for the Chinese is on the appetite in Beijing to commit its political capital to this project and to ensure the security of its economic interests. While for obvious reasons the Chinese would not want to be seen as projecting their military and political presence along OBOR, it was clear that China is willing to underwrite security through a collaborative framework, minimising the anxieties that are already palpable. The success of the OBOR initiative will depend on their ability to fashion such a new security arrangement.

The third challenge deals with the success of the ‘whole’ scheme. OBOR is a five-layered lattice that promotes regional integration — the Chinese vision document lays out five components of connectivity: policy, physical, economic, financial and human. While no developing country will turn away infrastructure development opportunities financed by the Chinese, they may not necessarily welcome a rules regime built on a Chinese ethos. Could the physical layer translate into a buy-in to a Chinese-led global economic and financial order or trade architecture?

Finally, how can this initiative navigate the irreconcilable geometries of South Asia that prevent India from providing full backing to OBOR? A formal nod to the project from India will serve as a de-facto legitimisation to Pakistan’s rights on Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that is “closely related” to OBOR.

Options for India

 The blueprint for OBOR remains fairly ambiguous as of now, and New Delhi does have options it can explore in the meantime. Fundamentally, it needs to resolve for itself whether OBOR represents a threat or an opportunity. The answer undoubtedly ticks both boxes. Chinese political expansion and economic ambitions, packaged as OBOR, are two sides of the same coin. To be firm while responding to one facet, while making use of the opportunities that become available from the other, will largely depend on the institutional agency and strategic imagination India is able to bring to the table.

First and foremost, India needs to match ambition with commensurate augmentation of its capacities that allows it to be a net security provider in the Indian Ocean region. This will require New Delhi to not only overcome its chronic inability to take speedy decisions with respect to defence partnerships and procurement deals, but will also necessitate a sustained period of predictable economic growth. OBOR can assist in the latter; in doing so, it becomes its own antidote that allows India’s political capacity to secure its strategic waters and territory.

Therefore, just as US trade and economic architecture underwrote the rise of China, Chinese railroads, highways, ports and other capacities can serve as catalysts and platforms for sustained Indian double-digit growth in the coming decades. Simultaneously, India can focus on developing last-mile connectivity in its own backyard linking to the OBOR — the slip roads to the highways, the sidetracks to the Iron Silk Roads. South Asia is among the fastest growing regions in the world. Such ‘niche’ infrastructure thus doubly makes sense, as India neither has the wherewithal to advance an alternate economic proposition nor the luxury to entirely shun OBOR.

Arguably, OBOR offers India another political opportunity. There seems to be a degree of Chinese eagerness to solicit Indian partnership, or at least a positive disposition; at the same time, the Chinese do realise that New Delhi is unlikely to endorse OBOR as long as CPEC remains part of the project. Can India, therefore, on its end, seek reworking of CPEC by Beijing in return for its active participation? It could, for instance, encourage progress in other regional connectivity offshoots of greater mutual interest — such as the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor — or incentivise Chinese participation in newer tangents, such as in the maritime sphere or transport corridor projects across India. Effectively, OBOR could allow India a new track to its own attempt to integrate South Asia.

Furthermore, for the stability of the South Asian arm of OBOR, can Beijing be motivated to become a meaningful interlocutor prompting rational behavior from Islamabad? A new China-Pakistan-India equation has the potential to ensure that development concerns are not sacrificed at the altar of security considerations.

This is a longer version of an article that appeared in The Hindu.

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