China’s One Belt, One Road policy picks up pace

Hong Kong (China), Mar. 28 : China's One Belt, One Road is the brainchild of President Xi Jinping, a concept he floated in 2013.

It includes the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. China definitely has the wherewithal to make a huge splash. It is now the world's second largest cross-border investor, having overtaken Japan. According to Chinese data, it contributed 9.9 percent of global direct investment in 2015, an annual increase of 18.3 percent, to reach USD145.7 billion.

Arguably, the Belt can be viewed as China's most ambitious foreign policy program since the country was formed in 1949.

Even the Asian Infrastructure International Bank (AIIB) launched by China is an arm of this initiative.

The Belt is framed as an altruistic endeavour based on the principles of mutual benefit and win-win. However, is that the case? There is little discourse on the geopolitical drivers behind it, all of which emanate from China.

One of those drivers was greater friction with neighbours on China's eastern periphery, including Japan and the U.S.

pivot. This encouraged China to look west, where there was more strategic space to boost ties, especially as the USA does not have as much influence in Central Asia.

It is difficult to keep track of the Belt's many tentacles, but undeniably its reach is spreading. On March 27, New Zealand became the first Western country to get on board when it signed a cooperative memorandum of understanding in the presence of visiting Premier Li Keqiang.

As another example, a USD9.8 billion harbor in Malacca, Malaysia, aims to overtake Singapore as the largest port in the region.

China is backing this Melaka Gateway joint venture, and the entire project is due for completion in 2025 although a deep-water port should be operational by 2019.

With Chinese money flowing into this venture, it is likely the majority of Chinese-flagged vessels that ply the Malacca Strait will be encouraged to call into the Melaka Gateway.

Beijing has long been concerned that most of its trade passes through the Malacca Strait chokepoint, including 80 percent of its energy needs.

Kuala Lumpur has already granted the port a generous 99-year concession. Elsewhere, after travelling through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, a Chinese train loaded with freight arrived in Afghanistan last August.

China's ambassador to Afghanistan was there to greet it, describing its symbolic 13-day journey as reflecting Beijing's and Kabul's goal to deepen their "strategic" partnership.

Railway lines, roads and pipelines are all tools to bring countries into security and economic dependence upon China.

Pipelines are reducing Chinese dependence on traditional energy suppliers too. The construction of pipelines carrying oil from Kazakhstan and natural gas from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan over the past few years has, in relative terms, reduced Beijing's dependence on maritime imports.

Yet another project is the Myanmar-China pipeline. Set to open soon, it will deliver 23 million tons of oil and 12 billion cubic meters of gas to China annually.

Pakistan is a major recipient of Chinese attention, including a USD5.5 billion concessionary loan to expand and refurbish the country's main north-south rail linkfrom Peshawar to Karachi.

This project, due for completion in the next five to six years, will double rail traffic speed to some 180km/h.

Further line extensions will follow. China's USD46 billion investment in Pakistan falls under the banner of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Pakistan is a key ally in Beijing's plan to grow strategically, for Beijing covets the access it affords to the Indian Ocean via the port of Gwadar.

Roads and railways provide a direct link to China's own Xinjiang Province. It will be all too easy for money-starved countries to fall under China's orbit. While it may seem cynical, a readily apparent pattern is emerging as follows in many places. Beijing loans money to a foreign government and Chinese firms perform the infrastructure work. However, the new asset may prove unprofitable, leaving the host country unable to pay its debt. As a result, the debtor nation agrees to an equity swap to escape its financial debt. China then agrees to forgive the debt, gratuitouslyending up with a strategically located outpost somewhere in Asia.

One very example of this is in Sri Lanka, where a Chinese state-owned enterprise received a 99-year port lease and 15,000 acres of land at Hambantota.

China likes to trumpet that it does not attach political conditions to its investments, but this is patently untrue.

Just look at China's treatment of the Lotte retail group within its own borders after Seoul decided to allow deployment of the THAAD missile system on South Korean territory.

Incidentally, the dangers with which the initiative is fraught were recently revealed at the Mongolian border.

China closed a key border crossing in retaliation for the Dalai Lama's visit to Ulaan Bator, causing hundreds of trucks to back up for miles in overnight temperatures as low as -20C.

This shows the danger for countries signing up for One Belt, One Road. If they anger China, they face retaliation. China will willingly bring economic and diplomatic pressure to bear so that others act as Beijing desires.

Make no mistake, if China refuses to grant true freedom to its own citizens, it certainly will not do so to others outside its borders.

The Belt is a way for China to dominate regionalism, as opposed to being forced to align with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) grouping instigated by the USA in 1989, and the ASEAN Regional Forum established by Southeast Asia in 1994.

This scheme will make Chinese influence stronger within a region dominated by geostrategic competition.

It also made a viable alternative to the now effectively defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). A new report entitled 'The Silk Road Economic Belt: Considering Security Implications and EU-China Cooperation Prospects', by Richard Ghiasy and JiayiZhou from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), discussed the initiative in some depth.

The authors said, ".China's expanding overseas economic footprint through the Belt will, over the long term, serve as additional impetus for it to take leadership in global governance and regional and local state security affairs.

Indeed, the Belt corresponds with China's increasingly proactive security concepts, which stress common security through development and economic cooperation.

The initiative may become one of the cornerstones of Asian economic growth and integration, and eventually of closer political and security cooperation among states, but the pathway to this scenario is long and fraught with obstacles.

Without clearly defined targets it is difficult to assess the Belt in terms of success, or failure, over time." Chinese scholars and think tanks made the scheme the most studied subject in 2015 amidst an enthusiastic wave of euphoria when Xi launched it.

However, as with external countries, a number in China itself are now displaying skepticism. Even until now, there has been little serious study about the benefits and viability of the scheme. Indeed, China may well have overestimated its institutional and economic governance and clout. At the same time it may have underestimated the geopolitical difficulties it is encountering in diverse countries, including looming security threats and political turmoil in participating states.

The SIPRI report noted that, in Central Asia and Pakistan, the Belt could, if not used to foster economic growth, "exacerbate governance problems, primarily economic accountability and corruption.

It could also potentially help to keep regimes in place that have a poor democratic or developmental track record and exacerbate structural elements of instability".

It particularly noted: "In South Asia, the Belt's CPEC has raised political temperatures between India and Pakistan.

India strictly opposes CPEC, and while the Belt is not a harbinger of new conflict, it has so far intensified historic competition over influence in South Asia.

Furthermore, at this stage, the Belt has little potential to help thaw relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but there may be prospects for this over the medium to long term.

On the other hand, in Central Asia, the Belt "could potentially stimulate greater cooperative efforts and political will among states to effectively address underlying regional hazards in the interest of mutual economic benefit".

Certainly the scheme has the potential to improve local security. The authors added this caveat though: "However, positive developmental spillovers of the Belt will also very much depend on the practical details of implementation: the distribution of spoils and benefits, both between Chinese stakeholders and local states, as well as between the ruling elite in those states and other sections of the population.

It will require a more comprehensive commitment to policies that foster human security, rather than only regime- and state-centric security, both by China and, particularly, local actors." China remains very concerned about security of its investments in places like Pakistan, despite the latter setting up a dedicated Special Security Division of some 15,000 personnel.

Indeed, such far-flung interests increase the risk that Chinese people and investments are exposed to, especially since they are in some of the most turbulent places in the world.

This concern is already seen in therecently revealed decision to enlarge the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy Marine Corps to four or five times its current size.

Such an expeditionary force would be the first to defend Chinese interests under threat overseas. The report muses that "there remains a lack of clarity over whether the Belt falls into China's evolving security frameworks more by accident than design".

Nevertheless, the One Belt, One Road will inevitably form an impetus of its own to reform security thinking and activity.

China is already adopting a more holistic national security approach, which embraces non-traditional threats such as crime and terrorism.

The SIPRI report speculated that "the Belt may force unprecedented activities from China's security apparatus, which to date remains relatively limited in its experience of either targeted military or complex operations abroad.

That China is already preparing for contingencies can be seen in its 2015 Counterterrorism Law, Article 71 of which allows overseas counterterrorism missions to be conducted by the PLA and People's Armed Police force".

Xi announced Beijing will host a forum regarding international cooperation in May, over which the Chinese president will officiate.

Despite misgivings, numerous countries are expected to flock there in a case of "belting up"..

Source: ANI