OBOR and China’s attempts at bringing India under its yoke

Instead of joining schemes like OBOR, we’re better off following the Chinese proverb that says, “If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by”.

WrittenBy:Sushant Sareen
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After ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, followed by what may be called ‘capitalism with Chinese characteristics’, China is now unveiling its policy of ‘neo-colonialism with Chinese characteristics’. The manifestations of this strategy that aims to expand the Chinese footprint around the globe and alongside increase China’s influence and ensure its dominance at the global level are slowly becoming visible in Latin America, Africa, Central Asia, South East Asia and South Asia. The rubric under which this strategy is unfolding is the ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) initiative. One of the flagship projects of OBOR is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which runs through a part of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and connects western China to the Gwadar port. Another proposed spur of the OBOR is the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor. But India has not shown much interest in becoming part of BCIM. While the government of India has made clear its objections and concerns regarding CPEC, other projects like the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka are also causing enormous disquiet in India which sees these as part of an encirclement strategy of China.

Despite the very valid concerns and objections of India to CPEC in particular and OBOR in general, in recent weeks many Indian academics and analysts have been pleading China’s cause. They have warned India against “underestimating the transformative potential of the enterprise [OBOR]” and to be “mindful of the risks of having no stake in a transformative enterprise that most countries in the neighbourhood will inevitably be drawn into.” Other have cautioned that by not jumping on to the Chinese bandwagon, India would be “depriving itself of an opportunity to shape the transforming landscape of Asia”. There are also politicians like Jammu and Kashmir’s chief minister Mehbooba Mufti who have asked “Why can’t we [J&K] be partners in economic growth and share the benefits of projects like the CPEC”? It is probably too much of a coincidence that many of the voices seeking India’s kow-towing to the Chinese strategic game-plan are being raised at a time when the Chinese are desperately trying to get some sort of an endorsement from India on their OBOR plan and want India to participate at the highest level in the international conference on OBOR in May in Beijing. As an aside, it would be interesting to see how many of those who are towing the Chinese line in the media actually go for a fully paid (by the Chinese?) junket to Beijing in May this year.

In all the hype and hoopla surrounding the ‘Belt and Road initiative’, what has been conveniently glossed over is the fact that its economics is very dodgy, not so much for the Chinese as it is for the countries falling over themselves to partake in the project. Ideally, countries should look the Chinese gift horse in the mouth to know what they are getting, as well as what they are getting into. But perhaps the lure of money coming in is so attractive to the rulers of the day that they prefer to ignore the problems associated with payback in the future. This is standard operating procedure for politicians – grab what is coming in, use it for political advantage, and cross the bridge of payback when you come to it. Chances are that payback will come on someone else’s watch and at that time, you can spin the whole thing in a way that both sides of your bread get buttered. The prime example of this is the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka.

The then Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapakse went overboard in seeking Chinese investment in the Hambantota port and its related projects without bothering about the economic viability of these projects. By the time payback came, Rajapakse had lost the election and his successors are now having to carry the can with Rajapakse accusing them of selling out Sri Lanka’s interests by agreeing to give thousands of acres of land to the Chinese as part of a debt-equity swap because the Lankans were unable to service the debt they had taken for the port project. In Tajikistan, something similar happened. Unable to pay back the Chinese, the Tajiks were forced to part with more than a 1,000 square kilometres of land under the garb of settling a border dispute. The fear is that if the Pakistanis are unable to service the enormous debt they have taken, there could be a trade-off in land both in Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (through which the CPEC road runs) as well as handing over the Gwadar port to China.

Clearly, for all intents and purposes, the Chinese seem to be throwing their money on economically unviable and illogical projects as part of a larger strategic gameplan. The Chinese model of colonisation is that they extract huge strategic benefits and concessions from smaller countries which are first given loans they can’t service and then are made to not just return the money but also part with territory. The small countries can neither resist the temptation of ostensibly easy money (which isn’t coming from elsewhere whether in the form of loans or foreign direct investment) that they think will put them on a high growth trajectory, nor can they resist the arm twisting that inevitably follows from a China that uses both its economic and military power to extract its money as well as attain its strategic objectives. Using their influence, the Chinese ensure they get virtually captive markets and really attractive terms for their investments – the CPEC is a prime example where the Chinese dictate all terms and conditions to the Pakistanis, including tariffs, taxes, duties, repayment guarantees and what have you. While the Chinese go blue in the face insisting that OBOR projects (including ports, many of which are becoming their exclusive property) are purely commercial in nature, a few hundred years back, the ‘factories’ that the Europeans set up in India were also purely commercial in nature. But as time passed, the interests changed as did the nature and character of these ‘factories’. The same is likely to happen with the Chinese run ports that are likely to double up as naval bases. Add to this the increasing assertiveness and aggressiveness of the Chinese, and their proclivity to use strong arm tactics, it should be clear that the Chinese intentions are not as benign as they are being made out to be.

Therefore, for anyone to advocate India becoming part of this neo-colonial Chinese model is really to advocate putting the noose of the ‘Belt’ around India’s neck and becoming part of a ‘Road’ to subjugation. Quite frankly, the entire concept of OBOR is quite flaky. It talks of connectivity, cooperation and infrastructure development but when you start to breaking down the concept into its component pieces, it really doesn’t add up to anything in terms of a win-win for any country other than China.

Take the case of Pakistan. Despite its ‘higher than mountains, deeper than the oceans, sweeter than honey and stronger than steel’ relationship with China, the Chinese are not willing to give them the slightest concessions in the Free Trade Agreement that the two countries are negotiating. In fact, for all the talk of markets that connectivity and cooperation will promote, the Chinese allow extremely limited access to other countries to their markets.

What is more, the Chinese keep pontificating that business and politics shouldn’t be mixed, but that is precisely what they do to browbeat their neighbours. For instance, after a spat with Japan, the Chinese blocked all exports of rare metals to Japan and created an environment of hate against Japanese products. A similar action has been taken against South Korea after it decided to deploy the THAAD missile defence system. And if economic powerhouses like Japan and South Korea can be pushed around in this manner, what are the chances that smaller countries like Pakistan (okay, they are a different case because they revel in becoming underlings of a Great Power) or Sri Lanka, Philippines, Malaysia, Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh etc. can protect their political and economic interests with China?

Why then should India acquiesce to the Chinese game-plan? In any case, what do the Indians who counsel joining OBOR or even CPEC even mean when they advocate this line of action? Clearly, people like Mufti haven’t thought through OBOR or even CPEC, both of which make little sense for India as they are currently structured. What sense is there for J&K to use Gwadar to access world markets when it has access to world class ports on both western and eastern coasts of India? If CPEC will give access to the Pakistani market (for whatever that is worth), then this access is possible even without becoming part of CPEC. Gaining access to Xinjiang is neither here nor there, and gaining access to eastern or even to central China makes more sense by sea than by CPEC. In any case, even if India were to decide becoming part of OBOR (whatever that means, because no one really knows what that means) then perhaps the BCIM or some other variant of that makes greater sense than the CPEC. But ultimately connectivity has to be a two-way street and until now, all that the OBOR promises is a one-way street that serves only China’s economic, strategic and political interest. If the idea of CPEC is that it will provide access to Afghanistan and Central Asia, then it will be dependent on Pakistan’s munificence, which in itself is a mugs game for India. In the face of Pakistan’s irredentism and bloody-mindedness, how can India ever allow its economic and energy security and its trade routes to be held hostage by the Islamic State of Pakistan?

The Chinese are slowly but surely becoming the regional hegemon. Given the size and power differential (both economic and military) between China and the other countries in the region (except for Russia, India and to an extent the Japanese), it is difficult for the smaller countries to stand up to China. Using both threats, blandishments and bribery, the Chinese are making forcing themselves on these countries which as mentioned earlier are not in a position to either resist the temptation of Chinese investments nor have the power to resist Chinese impositions. What the Chinese have also managed to do is take out the countries one by one and not allowing them to forge a common front to block the Chinese advance. The South East Asian example is quite instructive in this regard and the Chinese have managed to dent the ASEAN unity and in the process started to unravel the regional construct set up by the Americans to face up to the Chinese. Alongside, the Chinese are challenging the rules-based system, and forging new rules that serve their interests, something they are able to do quite brazenly because those who framed the earlier rules are not willing to or ready to enforce them.

To be fair to the Chinese, what they are doing is nothing new nor anything extraordinary. Everything that the Chinese are doing is dictated by the logic of power and has been done by earlier rising powers. But it is a logic that doesn’t gel well with India. Merely 70 years after shaking off the yoke of Western colonialism, for anyone to think that India will be ready to now go under the yoke of Eastern colonialism is really to live in cloud cuckoo land. For China’s advocates in India to say that India need not acquiesce with all of China’s plans or that it should seek greater clarity from Beijing about its plans smacks of journalistic ignorance. What are the Chinese plans that India can refuse to acquiesce to and still join OBOR? As for seeking clarity, that is exactly what India has been doing, but there is virtually no clarity coming from the Chinese side to India’s queries.

While it is true that India might not be able to stand in the way of China’s plans in the extended neighbourhood, it doesn’t mean that India has no options left. The Chinese know it and that is the reason why they are so desperate to rope in India and get its endorsement. Instead of succumbing to China’s pressure and proposition on OBOR, India should build its economic and military strength, forge diplomatic alliances and take diplomatic initiatives that protect its interests, and bide its time following the old Chinese proverb that says, “If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by”.


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