Today's Editorial

29 August 2017

Road to strategic contest



Source: By Rajaram Panda: Deccan Herald



The rise of China with its aggressive intent manifested in many multi-purposes economic and military projects is not only threatening to rewrite the global order on its terms but also challenging the sole superpower, the United States, whose role in maintaining global stability remains unquestioned.


The series of territorial disputes it has with many neighbouring countries need not be repeated here. But, to flag a few, it has disputes with Japan over the Senkaku islands; makes claims to almost the whole of the resource-rich South China Sea, disregarding the claims of some of the Southeast Asian nations; threatens to integrate Taiwan, which it claims to be a breakaway province, with the mainland with force; maintains complicity with North Korea, known for its nuisance value, with its nuclear and missile programmes surging as never before.


How are India and Japan responding to China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, both of which have suspicions of China’s intentions and have decided not to join? China hosted an OBOR Forum in May 2017 with much fanfare, seeking multilateral cooperation for its flagship connectivity initiative for what Chinese President Xi Jinping called China’s objective to create “a big family of harmonious co-existence”. It managed to convince 29 states and governments to participate in the Beijing summit.


Like the much-touted “String of Pearls” strategy by which China plans to choke India by building port facilities in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Maldives and halt India’s naval domination in the maritime realm, the OBOR initiative is no different. India suspects China has hidden hegemonic designs in the initiative and has therefore refused to join it. The OBOR initiative has its historical narrative. China draws inspiration from the ancient Silk Road trade. Through the OBOR project, China hopes to link more than 65 countries, encompassing upto 40% of global GDP.


The scale and scope of the project is huge. President Xi Jinping proposed in 2013 an estimated $5 trillion investment in the connectivity corridor spanning over 60 countries across Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa. China’s aim is to revive the ancient Silk Road trade route with an ambitious network of infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges, gas pipelines, ports, railways and power plants, besides SEZs. Starting from Fujian, the projected Maritime Silk Route passes through the Malacca Strait to the Indian Ocean, moving along the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, ending in Venice.


In the May summit, China announced an additional $124 billion in funding, including $8.7 billion in assistance to developing countries. Though Beijing has been selling OBOR as a multilateral project, it is indeed a bilateral project hijacked by Chinese companies, which have used it as an excuse to evade capital controls by smuggling money out of the country by disguising it as international investments and partnerships. Chinese strategy falls well in line with Sun Tsu’s strategy of using diplomacy and military pressure, and therefore applying both soft and hard tools, to promote its global interests.


Why does India not endorse OBOR? India sees it as an opaque, neo-colonial enterprise seeking to ensnare smaller, cash-strapped states in a debt trap, wrote strategic affairs analyst Brahma Challaney in a recent post. For China, India swinging into the influence of the US is an uncomfortable situation, which it perceives to be undercutting its ambition to establish a Sino-centric Asia. India’s geographic location which gives it some strategic edge worries China.


As a counter to China’s OBOR initiative, India and Japan have joined together to launch a joint connectivity project linking Asia with Africa. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the announcement of the Asia Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) during the African Development Bank (AfDB) meet in Gandhinagar in May; days after China hosted the OBOR summit in Beijing. The venture is expected to get further impetus in September 2017 when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits India.


The involvement of both India and Japan in the development of Africa is nothing new. Both countries have their independent initiatives to engage Africa economically and culturally. In the cultural domain, for example, while India’s ICCR has special programmes for hosting a large number of African students in Indian academic institutions, Japan has similar programmes, known as the Abe Initiative, which welcomes a large number of African students every year to pursue different streams of study.


Mutually exclusive


India’s engagement with Africa and capacity-building activities has a strong historical background. Japan, too, is engaged in infrastructure projects in which its advanced technology and funds are useful for the AAGC. Japan has committed $200 billion for the proposed growth corridor.


The AAGC is not meant to counter OBOR; they are mutually exclusive. In fact, before China came up with its OBOR idea, both India and Japan were independently and economically engaged in Africa. Now, both find common synergy in cooperating over the AAGC. While China’s engagement in Africa through OBOR is intensive, the India-Japan collaboration in Africa is beyond their bilateral sphere.


India has reservations on China’s OBOR initiative as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) runs through Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir as a part of the connectivity aspect. India sees the project, therefore, as infringement of its sovereignty. CPEC passes through the disputed Gilgit-Baltistan region, thus undermining India’s sovereignty. China has little respect for India’s sensitivities.

Since both India and Japan opted not to join OBOR and have floated the AAGC, China sees the India-Japan initiative as aimed at counterbalancing its initiative. China needs to realise that the India-Japan AAGC initiative aims to embrace inclusive growth and promote joint prosperity and, therefore, there is no conflict of interest with OBOR. However, there could be tensions between the two as the route of the AAGC has an extensive geographic overlap with the route of OBOR. Greater cooperation between the two groups could not only prevent possible conflict but also contribute to the region’s prosperity.

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