M K Bhadrakumar |
Over the past 24 hours, the narrative by India’s self-styled “China watchers” regarding the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been shown to be quixotic. The Pakistani media has carried speculative reports that China is holding up the funding for certain road projects coming within the orbit of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) due to a revision of financial rules.
So, the BRI, after all, is not a devious geopolitical strategy but is also about money. And money doesn’t grow on trees even yuan. Clearly, BRI is expected to be cost-effective and self-financing. And it is not about investing in unsustainable projects in basket economies with an ulterior agenda to surreptitiously acquire ‘equity’ or to entice those moth-eaten countries into a “debt trap” that eventually forces them to pawn their national sovereignty to the pawnbroker in Beijing which is what our China watchers have been propagating.
Indeed, trust the Chinese to put money only where the mouth is. The BRI is, after all, far more profound than a theatrical imperialist adventure in foreign lands. It’s about money, a creation of wealth, primarily. Read up China’s current history to understand that China’s priority has never been any different.
For sure, China has an excess industrial capacity and needs to export. But as with any complex architecture, it is impossible to distinguish one thread in the BRI matrix as pre-eminent. If at all, the core element of BRI is about galvanizing the “backward” regions of China. It doesn’t need the explanation that China’s economic miracle has created regional imbalances in development.
In a bold statement at the party congress, Xi Jinping pledged to remove poverty from the face of China by 2020, which means lifting 70 million people above the poverty line. The CPEC focuses on the development of Xinjiang (spanning a mind-boggling landmass of 1.6 million square kilometers endowed with vast mineral resources but sparsely populated.) China has been encouraging foreign investment in that region. With greater connectivity and market access, Xinjiang can be yet another locomotive of growth for the Chinese economy. Equally, the CPEC is also about creating an access route to the world market that is far more economical than the sea route.
Meanwhile, the CPEC’s second phase is about to begin, which concerns the setting up of special economic zones along the newly-laid infrastructural grid. Again, trust the Chinese to make investments that guarantee returns. That is one thing. China is open to inviting partners from third countries. Pakistan is also an increasingly attractive investment destination for western countries. General Electric is showing interest in power projects in the CPEC.
Make no mistake that Pakistan too is eager to attract US investments. During an animated discussion, yesterday at the Carnegie in Washington, Pakistan’s ambassador Aitzaz Ahmad Chaudhry highlighted this aspect. He said:
- Pakistan’s relationship with China is not at the expense of its relations with the US.
- The US still remains Pakistan’s single most important country. It stood by Pakistan for 6 decades and is perceived as a highly benevolent country.
- The US involvement in CPEC not only brings in technology but will also “balance out” Pakistan’s relations with China.
On the other hand, China to hopes to make the BRI a template of its relations with western countries. The Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang held a brainstorming session with 250 top Japanese business executives two weeks ago in Beijing to flesh out ideas. Japan anticipates the Chinese motivations, which explains the plan it has drawn up to support participation by Japanese companies and funding for BRI projects.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made a dramatic announcement on this in Tokyo on Monday at a 2-day gathering of Japanese and Chinese business executives. “Meeting robust infrastructure demand in Asia through cooperation between Japan and China will contribute greatly to the prosperity of Asian people, in addition to the economic development of the two countries,” Abe said. He added that he hoped that Xi will visit Japan “as early as possible.” (Straits Times, South China Morning Post)
Clearly, time is not far off when China becomes the “co-investor” – rather than the sole investor – in BRI projects. Therefore, China will continuously upgrade the BRI concept and its rules and regulations with a view to ensure conformity with high western standards. If the Pakistani reports are accurate, a major revision of the financial rules of CPEC projects is already going on.
China takes immense pride in the BRI. It is enshrined in China’s constitution now. The bottom line is that BRI enhances China’ stature as the flag-carrier of globalization. China hopes to create a new supply chain where its standards get global acceptability. Which means that the BRI needs to be transparent and accountable and is on par with (or even excel) western financial and banking norms and business practices.
Time is running out for our pundits who spite the BRI out of Sinophobia and keep making apocalyptic predictions. But the tragedy is that they have done immense damage to India’s interests already by propagating falsehoods and prejudices. The BRI cold has been — and should have been — a template of PM Modi’s development agenda. The residual hope now will be: “When Abe goes, can Modi be far behind?”
M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline.