Belt and road forum: Return of the old world

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Jawad Falak |

The Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation took place in China on May 14–15, 2017 in Beijing, and hosted 29 foreign heads of state and government and representatives from more than 130 countries and 70 international organizations. It was one of the premier diplomatic events of the year and the highest profile international event promoting the Belt and Road Initiative.

Many observers assert it to be the first step to institutionalize the Belt and Road Forum (BRF), with President Xi Jinping announcing that the next edition of the conclave would be held in 2019. Mr. Xi said during an interaction with the media that the BRF would be held again after two years. The first Belt and Road forum are considered by many to be a great success with many terming it as a “mini UN”.

The Belt and Road are significant in many ways. Its reach extended to Fiji in Micronesia, Chile, and Argentina no longer making it a project just restricted to Eurasia. In many ways, it can be asserted to be the launch of a new world order which will have the Old World back to its preeminent position. The Old World is used in the West to refer to Africa, Europe, and Asia (Afro-Eurasia).

Much of human history has taken place in the Old World which was the center of power of human civilization since antiquity. Though great civilizations existed in the Americas and Australasia yet they could not impact the course of history as the cultures inhabiting the Old World did. Much of the sociocultural and sociopolitical trends prevalent today have their roots in the Old World. It was after the end of the Cold War that the center of power shifted completely to the New World i.e. Americas.

The Old World was labeled the World Island by famed British Academic Sir Halford John Mackinder in his Pivot of History theory or Heartland theory. He identified the World Island as having over 50% of the world’s resources leaving any power in control of the World Island as the dominant power of the world. Famed American former National Security Advisor Brzezinski was also appreciative of the Old World’s significance and formulated a Eurasian geostrategy for the United States. In his perception, it was vital that no Eurasian challenger should emerge capable of dominating Eurasia and thus also of challenging America’s global pre-eminence.

However, the rise of China and the resurgence of Russia have put paid to American supremacy. The emerging Russia-Iran-China nexus in the Middle East is overturning the pro-US order in the region.  Syria and Ukraine have become the main rally points that have turned back the unipolarity that favored the US. The tussle with China in the South China Sea is a direct impact on US hegemony in the Pacific region. The only last strength that the US enjoyed was the Bretton Woods system that prolonged its financial and economic hegemony on the entire world.

Now that last stronghold is being breached by multiple factors such as the waning US economy and the dissolving EU but the Belt and Road initiative is now the final straw. The rise of the BRI coupled with newer institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the BRICS Bank has given an alternative to the Bretton Woods system.

The Belt and Road Forum highlighted many beneficiaries as well as those that have lost out:

China

Without a doubt, China remains the greatest beneficiary of the Belt and Road Forum. Not only has it institutionalized its most ambitious and greatest project yet but has attained an important step in bringing forth the “Peaceful Rise of China”. China has started regaining its due importance and stature in the world without even firing a single bullet.

The Forum highlighted many important countries in the region which would cement China’s rise. It has integrated itself with Russia, its most powerful neighbor. It has acquired the shortest route to the much needed Middle East oil through its southern neighbor Pakistan bypassing the bottleneck of the Malacca Straits. It has managed to get the countries of Japan, South Korea, Philippines all hosting US military bases onboard the Belt & Road initiative. It has managed to find partners in South America otherwise known as America’s backyard.

The strong geopolitical imperative of the BRI could induce countries along the route such as the Central Asian states, and potentially even Turkey, to eventually align more closely with Beijing. The Central Asian states, except Turkmenistan, have been members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) security grouping since the 1990s, while Pakistan and Iran are observers. Two other countries along the BRI, namely Sri Lanka and Turkey, are dialogue partners of the SCO. Overall, the BRI represents China’s desire to project power westwards across Eurasia, and along the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean, as far as East Africa.

For the moment, it is vague how China means to physically defend OBOR, for it does not have a military presence outside its territory. Although China has since the 2000s been financing the construction of ports in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan (which have been dubbed the ‘string of pearls’ in some Western defense circles), none of them appear likely to be used as full-time Chinese naval bases. However, previous reports in May 2015 that China is exploring the establishment of a permanent base in Djibouti merit considerable attention. Djibouti sits at the intersection of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean and is thus part of OBOR. Djibouti already hosts US, French, and Japanese bases. A Chinese base in Djibouti could be the beginning of a more global Chinese military presence.

China now has become the leader of the second wave of Globalization. A type of globalization that will be more enriching and fulfilling for the countries that are financially and economically disadvantaged. Many countries and regions in Eurasia are unable to improve their local infrastructure and sharpen their industrial capacity by themselves using the current mechanism of international cooperation. In addition to providing financial support, the program fully taps the potential of these countries, enabling them to take action on their own initiative.

USA

The USA is still maybe the “superpower” of the world but it is one whose right has been moral, economically and now institutions challenged. Its presence in the forum in the shape of a delegation containing Matthew Pottinger, the Senior Director for Asia at the National Security Council, brings good news for Sino-US cooperation. It also shows that in the internal fighting between the US establishment and the Trump administration, Trump has triumphed in the case of OBOR at least. The Establishment’s attempts to contain China through tactics such as the rejected TPP agreement have been shattered.

The Trump administration seems to be following a pro-China stance as opposed to the previous anti-China trade rhetoric. While US companies can certainly profit by taking part in the establishment of the Belt and Road, ultimately it is China that will ultimately benefit from trade and business deals with the member nations.

It can be asserted that the US is trying to make the most out of a bad deal. Perhaps the greatest setback to the US establishment’s desires was the presence of Japan in the forum. Japan was considered the keenest opponent of China in Asia with its own version of the BRI in the 200bn $ Japan Infrastructure Initiative. It was designated to be a part of the US “pivot” policy to counter China. Likewise the presence of Germany the current head of the EU and Poland the predicted future leader of the EU is of no small concern to the US. Ultimately the joining of so many US allies in the BRI will be the death knell of American efforts to curtail the new emerging Order.

Russia

Russia also stands to gain the most from the BRI. It was represented at the Belt and Road forum by none other than the Russian President which was a cause of concern for some European countries. But ultimately it was the win-win situation for all. The Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) is Russia’s primary vehicle for regional economic integration, and officials have suggested it could be linked with the BRI. Reinforcing its economic and diplomatic pivot to the east, Russia is tapping into the Chinese energy market with a series of proposed natural gas pipelines. To its south, Russia aims to increase connectivity with Azerbaijan, Iran, and India through the North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC). To its north, Russia is planning additional projects to advance its energy and defense interests as the Arctic becomes more accessible.

Through BRI not only will Russia gain a foothold in the economic bloodline of the world but also integrate with its troubling neighbors in Western Europe. While it had the leverage to an extent through its energy exports, that leverage will be increased through the Eurasian Land Bridge that is set to drive European economic growth. In the end, modern Russia will gain what the Soviet Union and the Tsarist Empire’s did not have: economic muscle.

Pakistan

Pakistan is another major beneficiary of the BRI initiative. It contains the much prized China Pakistan Economic Corridor or CPEC for short. CPEC is to provide China with a logistical short-cut to the Arabian Sea and further to the Persian Gulf. This involves the building of north-south road and rail network that will join Pakistan’s Gwadar port with China’s Kashgar city. It’s a diverse project that involves investment in Energy, infrastructure, logistics and port development.

CPEC aims to heal Pakistan’s long-suffering economic woes and make full utilization of its geostrategic position. Pakistan aims to use China to make it economically more independent in a similar way China has made Pakistan’s defense more independent. The BRI will make Pakistan a vital part of the global economic order that will make its economic outlook much brighter than before.

India

India a major economic power and member of the BRICS was conspicuous because of its absence. Perhaps it has been the major loser in the whole exercise. It refused to attend the forum citing concerns that it was protesting over Chinese interference in Indian “sovereign territory” of Gilgit Baltistan which is a Pakistani administered region since the birth of both nations.

However, experts point to other issues which caused the Indian policy stance. India has a number of grievances against China(besides border issues) and Pakistan. China has always supported to block India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, although a majority of NSG members favor India’s inclusion. China has always argued that if India gets in then Pakistan should also be its member. Another is China’s favor to Pakistan at the UN Security Council has also produced anxiety for India. China has blocked India’s bid to get Masood Azhar, head of the Kashmiri pro-independence militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed, added to the international blacklist of terrorists.

Indian hegemonic desires have the most to lose due to the BRI. New Delhi is distrustful of how the project could massively increase Chinese influence and presence not just in Pakistan, but in other neighboring South Asian countries. The forum has shattered Indian hegemony in South Asia with the inclusion of Nepal, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. Last but not least, is India’s animosity with Pakistan which has been the greatest obstacle to Indian hegemonic desires in the South Asian region and India considers the gain of Pakistan as a loss to itself.

This has caused some analysts cautioned and questioned India on missing out on an ambitious initiative They contend that India risks being enclosed in a geographical cocoon if it spurns a multi-continent project for which everyone else has signed up. Some assert that India will join the project later on but on its own terms though it may not find the level of benefit.

Conclusion

It can be contended that the BRI Forum was a major step in the formation of a world order that will put the fulcrum of world economics back in the Old World. While there is still much ground to be covered but a foundation stone for a Eurasian century has been planted and the process is moving along fast with all stakeholders on board. It is much like what has been said by an analyst that If a “significant portion of this ambitious vision is accomplished; it will alter the logistics of commerce and cultural intercourse between half of human civilization.”

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