BELT AND ROAD GOING OFF-ROAD? PAKISTAN, NEPAL AND MYANMAR CANCEL AGREEMENTS WITH CHINA

Though reports made headlines yesterday that China had stopped funding of three major China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) road projects in Pakistan citing corruption as the reason, there are more worrying signs ahead for whole One Belt, One Road initiative (OBOR), also known as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s ambitious plan to establish global hegemony by building economic corridors linking Asia, Europe and Africa. The CPEC, a long term $75 billion project from Gwadar port in Balochistan to Kashgar China’s Xinjiang province, is just a part of it.

According to a report in Voice of America (VOA), in recent weeks, Pakistan, Nepal and Myanmar have either put on hold or cancelled major hydroelectric projects worth $20 Billion.

Last month, Pakistan withdrew Diamer-Bhasha Dam project from the CPEC as it found the lending conditions imposed by the Chinese consortium too tough. The dam is a $14 Billion project to be built on the Indus River in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir and Pakistan has now decided to fund it through local resources.

The proposed Daimer-Bhasha dam is a controversial project as it lies in Gilgit-Baltistan, part of PoK that India considers its own and for that very reason, agencies like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have refused to fund it. India is also opposed to the CPEC for the very same reason as it passes through PoK. For strategic reasons also, India doesn’t welcome a Chinese presence just across the border in a disputed territory that is legally India’s.

Similarly Nepal, on November 13, cancelled the agreement with a Chinese state firm for the Budhi Gandaki hydropower project citing corruption. The $2.5 Billion project was signed recklessly and shadily, Nepal said while cancelling the deal that was supposed to make it a BRI project. Nepal too, like Pakistan, is going to fund the project internally.

In case of Myanmar, the Myitsone dam project is a classic example to see China’s hegemonic designs.

The $3.6 billion dam project was financed by China. Built on the Irrawaddy River, the project was doomed from the beginning. After being in making for years, the project was suspended in September 2011 amid democratic reforms as the Burmese Junta government had taken a unilateral decision to allow the controversial project that was expected to bring cultural, environmental and sociological disaster for Myanmar and its people. The ethnic Burman majority of Myanmar is against any dam on the Irrawaddy River as it traces its roots of civilization there.

Add to it the cunning Chinese business model. The project was sold saying the electricity it would produce, 90 per cent of it would be sold to China while 10 per cent was to be given free to Myanmar. Being a power starved country, protests were held against it in Myanmar. Under pressure, China later said Myanmar was the primary market and rest was to be exported. That was when Myanmar is among the countries with lowest electrification rate and no grid structure to connect its cities and town. A World Bank report says only 33 per cent of the country’s population has an electricity connection.

And China has tried this junked project that has displaced thousands of people to leverage its position in Myanmar or we can say, to blackmail the Myanmarese government as it would have to give China back a huge compensation, or the way China wants it, i.e., “concessions on other strategic opportunities in Myanmar”, Reuters report says. The Myanmarese experience has been so bad here that the country has declared that it would not go for big hydroelectric dams in future even if it is power starved.

PUMPING MONEY THE CHINESE WAY

China is pumping huge sums of money in projects that fit in the Chinese narrative of its ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative albeit, at much higher interest rates. Critics of the BRI say the Chinese design is simple, lend in huge sums to the financially weaker countries in need and then blackmail them when they fail to pay back.

If the international line of credit by different organizations or countries for soft loans ranges from 0.1 per cent to 3 per cent, the Chinese lenders charge anything above 6 per cent. In 2015, Japan sanctioned a loan amount of $50 billion with interest rate of 0.1 per cent and a repayment period of 50 years for India’s Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train corridor.

India’s neighbourhood countries that China is eyeing through BRI are Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Myanmar. Having a strong Chinese presence in these countries would give China strategic advantage over India. So, China, in the name of building economic corridors, is offering these countries huge loans for infrastructural projects at higher interest rates and when these economically poor countries are not able to repay the loans, China goes on to acquire controlling stakes in them, as high as 85 per cent.

The growing consensus about Chinese designs on the BRI was aptly summed up in a Quartz analysis, “While most countries along the Belt and Road initiative welcome foreign investment and assistance in building modern infrastructure, the pressure being exercised by Beijing doesn’t always go down well. Countries on the receiving end of Chinese cash are starting to realize that when all is done and dusted, the infrastructure that is built is likely to end up controlled by China.”

©SantoshChaubey

HOW CHINESE HEGEMONY IS SHAPING UNDER XI JINPING

The article originally appeared on India Today.

This time, it was the turn of China’s defence ministry to warn India. Its defence ministry spokesperson Wu Qian said China would go to any extent to protect its sovereignty and India’s should have ‘no illusion about China’s military strength’. It added to the long list of warnings and threats made by China’s foreign ministry, its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its official media that began unfolding a month ago with Chinese transgression of the disputed Bhutanese tri-junction near Doklam in the Sikkim Sector.

The Chinese action on border is a sudden change in its stand when we see it in the context of India-China border negotiations as recent as April 2016 when both countries held the 19th Round of negotiations emphasizing on maintaining peace and tranquillity.

But when we see these developments in a wide perspective of Xi Jinping’s global ambitions, it seems well timed. Xi Jinping after emerging as an undisputed supreme leader of China, ruthlessly crushing any rival voice in the name of anti-corruption purge that has swept China, has declared himself a ‘Core Leader’ like Mao Zedong.

And as his China imprint is almost finished, he has turned his gauge take it outside China. And from his acts in last few years, it is quite clear that he seems in a hurry and he is exploiting both, China’s military might and its economic prowess to push the agenda of his power projection.

BORDER HOSTILITY WITH INDIA – SUDDEN CHANGE IN TONE AND RHETORIC

In May 2014, China had congratulated Modi on his victory. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was in India in June 2014 and Chinese President Xi Jiping in September 2014. Indian Army Chief Bikram Singh visited China in July 2014 while Modi met Jinping for the first time in the same month on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit in Brazil. The meeting between them lasted for 80 minutes and Jinping remarked about the meeting, “When India and China meet, the world watches us.”

In February 2015, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited China. Xi Jinping then had this to say, “I have full confidence on the future of China and India relations and I believe that good progress will be achieved in the growth of bilateral relations this year.”

In March 2015, India and China held 18th Round border talks in Delhi. India was represented by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. China had sent its State Councillor and Special Representative Yang Jiechi. The Ministry of External Affairs release on the talks says, “The talks were marked by cordiality and candour and were held in a constructive and forward looking atmosphere.”

From the language of the MEA release, it is quite clear that India and China were on the same platform to settle the border issue, “The Special Representatives expressed satisfaction on the progress made in the negotiations and emphasized commitment to the three-step process to seek a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable resolution of the border question at an early date.”

In April 2016, India and China held 19th Round of border talks in Beijing between Ajit Doval and Yang Jiechi. While Doval didn’t share details of the meeting, he did say that the talks were held in a good atmosphere. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson echoed, “The two sides enhanced mutual trust and expanded consensus through this meeting which is of great significance in promoting settlement of the boundary question, maintaining peace and tranquillity of the border areas and securing sound and stable development of bilateral relations.”

In the light of these developments, just a year after, this sudden change in the stand of China is surprising and tells us about the hegemonic designs of China. China is behaving like a power-blinded imperialist regime hell-bent on its territorial expansion, something that it has been known historically – be in Tibet or Aksai Chin or South China Sea or Taiwan.

ECONOMIC IMPERIALISM

China is known for territorial expansionism and autocratic rule but its increasing economic prowess has added another dimension to its clout – the economic imperialism. It is now financially big enough to first pump its money in small, poor nations and then acquire controlling stakes in organizations as the nations fail to repay, be it the poor or financially weaker nations of Asia or Africa.

ONE BELT ONE ROAD (OBOR): India’s neighbourhood countries that China is eyeing are Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Myanmar. Having a strong Chinese presence in these countries would give China strategic advantage over India. So, China, in the name of building economic corridors linking Asia, Africa and Europe, is offering these countries huge loans for infrastructural projects at higher interest rates and when these economically poor countries are not able to repay the loans, China goes on to acquire controlling stakes in them, as high as 85 per cent.

THE AFRICAN BLUEPRINT: There has been consensus among experts that China, that has ramped its ties with African nations significantly in the last 15 years, has used Africa as ‘testing ground’ for its global ambitions. African countries are rich in oil and minerals and some one million Chinese entrepreneurs have settled there. “Africa has been a workshop of ideas that now have a much bigger scale and strategic significance,” writes a Financial Times commentary quoting Howard French, journalist, Columbia University professor and author of “China’s Second Continent: How A Million Migrants Are Building A New Empire in Africa “.

China-Africa trade rose to $220 billion in 2014 from mere $10 billion in 2000 according to Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and is investing $60 billion to develop infrastructure in different African countries but there are valid questions on this humongous rise, “Many are suspicious of what they see as a neocolonial land grab, in which companies acting as proxies for the Chinese state extract minerals in return for infrastructure and finance that will saddle governments with large debts. There have been legitimate complaints about Chinese companies employing few locals, mistreating those it has and paying scant regard to the environment,” the Financial Times commentary further writes.

Though there are African experts like Horace Campbell, a Syracuse University professor and renowned international scholar, who question this stand, calling them western afterthoughts on increasing Chinese footprints in Africa, going by China’s history and its recent acts of imposing itself on some South Asian countries where it invested heavily, we have reasons to think otherwise.

GLOBAL LEADERSHIP OR HEGEMONIC PROJECTIONS?

China has been more than eager to represent itself as the new world leader that is going to replace America. Reportedly, China is eyeing to replace America in the proposed 12-member trading bloc of Pacific-rim counties, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) after US President Donald Trump withdrew US from the treaty in January this year. The other members of the proposed trading bloc are Japan, Canada, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, New Zealand, Mexico, Chile and Peru and after American withdrawal they have warmed up for a Chinese prospect.

Then China, the largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world according to the Global Carbon Project, portrayed itself as an environment crusader after Donald Trump withdrew the US from the global climate agreement in June, i.e., Paris Climate Accord of 2015, to reduce the emission level of the greenhouse gases to check global warming. Rejecting the Paris Accord was one the main campaign themes of Trump in the US presidential election, something that would have appealed Jinping’s designs to pitch in on a global stage. So, in May, before Trump had even officially announced his decision, Jinping declared that he would ‘protect the Paris climate deal’, pledged his commitment to the pact after the formal US withdrawal and China held a meeting of energy ministers to find ways to push clean energy.

OVERSEAS NAVAL BASES: Earlier this month, China sent its troops to Djibouti, its first overseas military base. China has entered into an agreement with Djibouti which allows it to station its 10,000 troops in the country till 2026, much higher than 4000 US soldiers stationed at Camp Lemonnier, also in Djibouti, America’s largest permanent base in Africa. And experts say its second overseas naval base is going to come up in India’s backyard, at Pakistan’s Gwadar Port in the Arabian Sea.

This is quite contrary to the earlier Chinese stand when it didn’t want to have overseas military presence. “China has previously been very reluctant even to contemplate a serious overseas military presence,”, the India Today magazine writes quoting Andrew Small, author of The China Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics.

Clearly, Xi Jinping, the only second Core Leader of China after Mao Zedong, wants to go beyond Mao. Mao had an absolute power grip over a China that was not in the global mainstream and was not a military and economic superpower. Jinping’s China is both now. It is an economic powerhouse and a global manufacturing hub with a military might that is probably next only to US and Russia. Something that has, probably, given Xi Jinping wings to fly far and wide. Under Mao, China was inward looking and protectionist. Under Jinping, China is trying to become the leader of the world, but probably with a more protectionist streak of its national interests that are no longer limited to China.

©SantoshChaubey