Latter-day Silk Route~I

Source: By Saurav Pahari: The Statesman

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), or what was previously called the ‘One Belt One Road’ concept, is the idea of the Chinese President, Xi Jinping. Enunciated in 2013, it is intended to harness the collaborative trade, infrastructure, development and cultural potential of the historic Silk Route.

The objective is to enhance regional connectivity and bring about large-scale infrastructure development, which will translate into increased trade within Asia as well as promote political and economic intermeshing with Europe, Africa and Oceania. Along with the historical overland links, the proposal seeks to unveil a 21st century version of the Silk Route over maritime lanes, connecting the coastlines of China with all major ports of South-east Asia, Oceania and North Africa.

The BRI seeks to tap the unrealised potential of the Central Asian, North African and South-east Asian economies by creating a unified and integrated network of physical infrastructure, intellectual capital and digital connectivity, which will facilitate seamless trading relations, cultural exchange and political coordination in an area which straddles across 60 countries, with nearly 70 per cent of the world’s population and a third of the global GDP.

With such a colossal critical mass, the BRI seeks to leverage the inherent strength of these areas and bring about regional economic prosperity and political stability. The initiative is embedded in the perception that development in its true sense has eluded these regions for many decades due to shortsighted and fractious worldviews, combative politics and a woeful lack of hard infrastructure.

It has been argued that the countries of the global North, represented by the US and the EU, have moved forward thanks to a sense of shared purpose, history and a common vision of the future, which have synergized the respective prowess of the different nations. It is precisely that objective, indeed to harness the different strengths of the Asian, African and Oceanic area towards a shared vision of a prosperous future that animates the BRI idea.

The other complementary aim is to invest substantially in building physical infrastructure, such as highways, railroads and digital networks that span across the regions. This will provide connectivity between peoples, cultures and economies, and promote cross-border and cross-region interconnectivity of interests. When prosperity becomes a shared interest, nations cooperate.

They don’t when interests are viewed in isolation. And in the era of globalisation, shared prosperity, development and quality of life are the defining interests, rather than an isolationist sense of sovereignty. Towards that end, BRI envisions a corpus of almost $1trillion initially, to build roads, ports, railway networks and digital highways across nations and regions.

While most of this investment will be backstopped with funds from governments and multilateral agencies, the BRI initiative hopes to encourage massive private investments, which will be attracted by the potential of sustained business interests. It hopes to buttress the entrepreneurial potential of the region, which will profit from mutual partnerships from across borders.

While the stated aims of BRI seem laudable and correspond to any number of prevalent commentaries on increasing the scope of international cooperation, it has its share of detractors who see the real animation behind the idea to be born out of the time-honored tradition of ‘Machtpolitik’. These concerns will be elucidated in the later sections, as also how the initiative is seen from a uniquely Indian perspective.

The issues that BRI brings to the fore are:

  1. Whether BRI has been conceptualised as a framework of regional cooperation, or as a means to attain the end of establishing Chinese hegemony in the region;
  2. Whether, even accepting the fact that China is positing BRI with the ulterior motive of establishing itself as a regional hegemon, the initiative will be able to bring about the desired benefits of improved infrastructure, open trade and regional cooperation to the countries signing up for the initiative;
  3. Whether BRI’s success is underpinned or contingent on China’s unilateral drive and funding;
  4. Whether BRI is intended ultimately to establish‘debttrap’ subservience for ‘client’ nations to Chinese power in the region;
  5. Whether India should stand aloof from the initiative or join with sufficient caveats that will ensue that its sovereign interests are not compromised;
  6. Whether India should actively collaborate with China to promote the BRI as the second most influential power in the region and thereby increase its own influence in the area.

It is imperative that the issues raised thus should be assessed and answered by looking at them through the prism of national interest and without jingoistic bias and domestic political expediency. It has often been alleged that India’s foreign policy decisions are contingent on internal political dynamics and not, as it should be, on the rigours of our external national interests.

While such a charge might be in the nature of a crude generalisation, our policymakers would do well to bear in mind that the BRI, if it does materialise, will usher in a paradigm shift in the regional power dynamics for a long time to come. Whether India stands on the right side of that shift will depend entirely on how we as a nation are able to comprehend, visualise and position ourselves in the whole matrix of competitive and cooperative interactions with China.

It can hardly be denied that China has over the past decade successfully projected itself as the pre-eminent regional power, riding on its burgeoning economy, technological prowess, an overwhelming superiority in defence capabilities and its massive involvement in all the major economies of the world, including the US. It is but natural that a country enjoying such a natural preponderance will try and shape the region it is situated in, and most definitely will try and influence the course of events around it in a way that it deems favourable. Thus to wax indignant about the ‘expansionist tendencies’ of China will lead nowhere.

There is little doubt that the BRI initiative is a gambit by China not merely to radiate its political, economic, diplomatic and strategic influence across the whole of Asia, and very forcefully up to North Africa and Oceania, but also to give a boost to its recently flagging economy. It will receive a shot in the arm with the massive infrastructure projects being thought of for the initiative.

It will be naïve to imagine that as the major single funder of BRI, China will not insist on extracting the maximum economic, commercial and strategic benefit from the implementation of the plan. And since the basic plan to which many countries have already signed up is the one projected by China, it is palpably clear that Chinese interests will be accorded priority.

That said it will also be extremely cynical and simplistic to believe that BRI will not actually benefit the countries concerned in terms of what has been stated as the overt aim of the exercise. Many of the countries which have joined require a massive infrastructure initiative, something their own resources will not be able to provide. These countries will benefit immensely from the ease of cross-border trade, movement of people and exchange of information that the BRI promises.

With such a huge swathe of the world’s population involved, the spillover effects of BRI in terms of development and economic uplift for the entire world economy will be substantial. One major advantage is the access to sea routes for landlocked Central Asian countries, which they have not been able to exploit due to restrictive pass-through barriers and thick borders. It is an acknowledged fact that access to sea routes has a major impact on foreign, and sometimes even domestic, trade.

Thus the 21st Century Silk Route over the seas will contribute substantially to the trading potential of these countries. The necessary corollary would be that the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean, South China Sea, and Arabian Ocean will also develop. They can hope to convey the huge traffic load that the well-developed sea routes of the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans carry.


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