Vol. XLII No. 50 December 16, 2018

BRI and the Indo-Pacific Clash

B Arjun

THE Indo-Pacific has emerged as the centre of gravity of global geopolitics. This year’s APEC conference in Papua New Guinea did not produce a joint communique because of the growing Sino-US tensions. The Trump administration is pressurising China on trade and technology issues. The United States is relentlessly pursuing its strategic agenda to retain its dominance of the Indo-Pacific region and ensure that the Chinese growing economic power does not catapult it to command the region. Both the Chinese developments in the maritime arena, and its investments in different regions of the world, is a cause of concern for the Americans.  Many Americans fear that the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) is undermining the postwar security and economic architecture through its trillion-dollar investments. However, paradoxically, it not the Chinese communists, but the America conservatives, that are destroying the postwar liberal order.

If the Chinese are investing in building a deep-water commercial port at Koh Kong in Cambodia, the America-Australia combine is building a naval base on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. Besides Australia, Japan and India are also being incorporated into the American strategic game plan. In order to match the Chinese investments in the Indo-Pacific, Australia, Japan and the US have launched a trilateral investment initiative to build infrastructure in the region.

Besides Chinese navy and credit, America is also worried about the rise of strategic will in Beijing to export its model of development to other areas of the world. The Chinese intent to reach out to the world is important mainly because culturally they are less flamboyant in comparison to the Western powers. They prefer to “feel the pebbles while crossing the river” rather than plunging into it without adequate safety backing. They know to keep their ambitions subdued and wait for an opportune moment to unfold them. The sense of timing, therefore, forms an important element in Chinese strategic culture.

However, the speed and the manner in which the Chinese launched the Belt and Road initiative (BRI) in 2013 has left many in the world perplexed. The idea of Chinese investments in Eurasia, Africa and south-east Asia caught the imagination of the world at an unprecedented pace. The Chinese “companies have established more than 50 economic cooperation zones in more than 20 countries, generating 180,000 jobs and over $1 billion in tax revenues.” One of the best projects under the BRI scheme is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which connects China’s westernmost city Kashgar with Gwadar, 2,000 kilometres away on the Arabian Sea. This connectivity helps China reduce its dependence on shipping via Singapore and the Melaka Straits and in return, Pakistan gets infrastructural and industrial development, including telecommunications network.

After the movement of President Trump to White House and the implementation of his “America first”, China began projecting itself as an ascendant power. This ascendance was visible in the manner in which the Chinese sold BRI to the world through a massive public diplomacy campaign. According to Japan Times, a video of an American father telling his daughter bedtime stories about the Chinese president’s signature project was released by Beijing. In the first episode, the father uses maps and Lego blocks to explain how goods will ply across the world on belt and road. Another video that is being widely discussed abroad is a music clip where children from different nationalities are found singing in a chorus, “The future’s coming now, the Belt and Road is how; we’ll share the goodness now, the Belt and Road”. The third Chinese propaganda product that Japan Times describes is a cartoon depicting the 20-day freight train journey of a whisky bottle from Britain to China. The cartoon is titled “Bon Voyage, Whisky.”  The video, music clip and the cartoon are all a part of the BRI propaganda blitzkrieg. Since the project directly involves 60 countries, it was extensively pushed on social media websites like Facebook and Twitter. 

BRI and the West

The Anglo-Americans have always been uncomfortable with China. When the Chinese began spreading their wings in the wake of 2008 financial crises, the Americans blamed it for being a mercantilist power devoid of any ideas to reform the world. In 2014, Obama blamed China as the ‘free-rider’ that had gained tremendously from the global order without taking any responsibility for running it. However, when Beijing started accepting the responsibility by investing in areas across the globe that had been seeking investments and development funds for decades, the Western media is quick to use the “colonial” and the “debt trap” logic to show that the Chinese have imperial designs. These arguments are intriguing, because they are being used mainly by the same United States that continues to use force and ‘economic hitmen’ to maintain dollar-hegemony across the globe.

That the Chinese investments under the BRI plan are not backed by any sound financial or business logic and are merely a by-product of President Xi Jinping’s personal ambition is another unconvincing argument given by the Anglo-American media outlets. They blame President Xi for making the idea of a ‘Community of Common Destiny’ as the bedrock of Chinese diplomatic engagements. Such arguments are completely devoid of the fact that the CPC is driven by principles of collective leadership. It is almost naive to believe that the CPC will let President Xi indulge in extravagance at the expense of the party and the nation. In October 2017, the Party Congress approved the inclusion of BRI into the Communist Party’s constitution.

It is true that the BRI investments are yet to bear fruit. But five-years is too short a period to pass any verdict on the viability of such massive investments spread over vast areas of the world. According to industry experts, “BRI is a journey, not a series of one-off infrastructure projects; and secondly, it is much more than an outbound investment program. Indeed, BRI’s ambition is to improve connectivity between Asia, Europe and Africa, and in that way to increase trade, development and prosperity – a new Silk Road for the 21st century and beyond.”

China wants its multinational companies should be able to mingle, into local environments, as easily as the American giants like Coca cola, Google or Facebook do. However, despite spending huge amount of money to build its soft power, Beijing has not been very successful in achieving these objectives. One of the reasons that the Chinese overseas investments are being categorised as “junk” is its inability to penetrate the well-entrenched elite networks erected by Anglo-Americans in various countries. China is still far from matching the American capacity for regime change. Currently, the Chinese are concentrating on economic and spiritual well-being to establish themselves. They are not exporting any political ideology. They have experienced that transporting ideology without economic and cultural stuffing has a short shelf life.