It is inevitable, isn’t it?
I am referring to the unstoppable rise of China as the new pivot in international relations, strongly positioning itself as a counter to U.S. interests in Asia-Pacific region. There is no competitor to China as such, with even Russia and Turkey vigourously supporting the rise of China as a strategic counterweight to the U.S. (even the U.K., France, and Germany seem to be drifting away from U.S. positions as witnessed recently in the Palestine vote in the U.N. General Assembly).
While no country would take an opposing view to China in global forums, given its economic and military might, a few countries are thinking aloud about the potential ramifications of what they consider as “influence-peddling” by China to gain global power, by lending billions of dollars to poor countries hungry for infrastructure investments. Thousands of Chinese workers have been deployed in scores of countries around Asia and Africa, with their visible presence communicating a sense of beholdenness on the part of the local populations who have to pay back the loans eventually to China, failing which China would demand a stronger involvement in more government and private sector projects in those countries, thereby making certain countries as its vassals. An extreme observation, but nevertheless likely to happen in the next 10 to 20 years, as part of China’s inevitable rise towards the #1 position in economic power. It is estimated that by 2032, China will match the U.S. in terms of GDP size.
Now, who are these few countries with doubts about China’s rise and influence-peddling? These are Japan, Australia, the European Union as a collective, and of course, India. For instance, the EU and India have raised objections to China’s OBOR (One Belt, One Road) initiative, which is mostly an economic exercise to spread China’s influence over 65 countries with USD 124B investment via loans which will eventually make most of those countries forever indebted to China. There is no transparency in the way China has promoted the OBOR initiative, which is mostly President Xi Jinping’s vision without a “hard” blueprint of planning and execution. It is touted as the world’s largest ever infrastructure investment, many times bigger than the U.S. Marshall Plan which was implemented in the aftermath of the Second World War. China will try to spread its political and military influence over many of these “poorer” countries, such as what it has been doing in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It will “buy” entire sea ports or towns and develop these as its own enclaves in those countries. Economic dominance will eventually impoverish these countries.
A lot of thought is required before nations can commit to OBOR. They have to seriously question China’s intentions, which cannot just be global trade and economic growth. There is a cost to everything, and nations have to understand the overall plan and their role in it. Further, all procurement cannot go only to China companies, there must be fair and transparent bidding processes. Land grabbing cannot be allowed in return for money, and human rights have to be respected (not in the way China does these things, however). There cannot be institutionalized corruption as part of the OBOR rollout in countries with weaker governance or authoritarian rulers. What is touted as a global initiative and vision, need to have global governance and a strong underlying framework, and cannot just be controlled entirely by one country (China).
The EU is likely to demand all of the above and more – it would like to have a say if China wishes to extend the OBOR initiative deep into the European heartland. We have seen that the EU is more balanced than the U.S. (or even the U.K.) when it comes to trade matters and human rights, and may be it will become the last bastion for fairness in all global matters of critical importance like this initiative.
I would like to complement President Xi Jinping for his vision of OBOR. It might become a much needed investment plan for most of the world in the coming decades. It might further China’s strategic interests and enhance its geopolitical influence against the U.S. It might even make China a well-accepted “partner” in many of the countries who are in the process of signing up for the OBOR program. All good, but the policy planners in these countries should carefully analyze the cost-benefits of participation in OBOR and advise their governments to seek responses from China in an appropriate manner, conducive to eventual participation.
My guess is that even India will eventually consider participation in OBOR, if its concerns are appropriately addressed by China. More importantly, China has the continuing habit of trying to “block” the world’s largest democracy from the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and acting against Pakistan’s terrorists in the U.N. Security Council – these things do not go down well in India for sure, and repeated needling at border locations like the recent skirmish at Doklam is not helpful at all. If China wants to defeat India economically, it needs to first understand that it has already achieved that objective couple of decades ago. If China wants to defeat India militarily, that goal has also been achieved 55 years ago (though that may not be possible again). However, if China wishes to “encircle” India in a strategic manner and constrict it from growth and multilateral participation, then India will retort by intensifying its strong strategic partnership with the U.S. and Japan. It will also bring in Australia and Israel into the equation. India has the advantage of “soft” power which China lacks. India is mostly trusted around the world and at the U.N., while China suffers from a strategic distrust about its territorial ambitions as evidenced in Asia by its claims on the South China Sea.
So, where are we? Where is the world? I mean, on the OBOR program? A lot of questions need to be clarified before it can make a big impact on the world.
I wish President Xi Jinping all the best in OBOR acceptance and rollout, but he better take actions to smoothen the rollout – otherwise it will be consigned to history as a program which was conceived well as a vision, but did not have the essential elements in place and the strategic concerns appropriately addressed.
14th January 2018