China has been eyeing South Asia for its economic endeavors for a long time. With the motivation to check India’s power status in the region, coupled with intentions to assert socio-economic and political influence in the region, the Belt and Road Initiative, designed from Chinese heritage and ancient past, has created a shining path for just that. Described as ‘China’s grand connectivity project’, the BRI looks to foster greater international trade, more cooperation and, of course, increased connectivity among states. However, many analysts have cited the project as Chinese ambitions for economic statecraft and influence over the states, setting for itself a neo-colonial paradigm. With Africa potentially completely within its grasps, and the controversy over the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota, the rising power has set its aim to target South Asia, for a similar fate that has met its neighboring continent, Africa. However, all is not in vain, as South Asian countries, too, look exploit the maximum benefits from the BRI projects invested by Chinese authorities, while looking to avoid debt-traps as in Africa and Sri Lanka. With these crucial aspects in mind, this article intends to shed light on the impact of the BRI on South Asia. The author employs a comparative case study analysis, as well as descriptive methods to analyze the implications of coupling of the dynamic region of South Asia, diverse by its own engagements, and the BRI, the 21st-century multifocal resurrection of the ancient Silk Route.
What is the BRI?
German modern geographer, Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen, was the one who first coined the terms ‘Seidenstrasse’ and ‘Seidenstrassen’, which stand for the singular and plural of Silk Road (Sidaway and Woon, 2017), in 1877. In his descriptions, he drew the vivid picture of an intricate web of connections linking Inner Asia, subsequently, the Han Dynasty led the Chinese Empire, to the Mediterranean World (Guan, 2016). The commercial road was of great importance for the trade of luxurious silk to Egypt, Greece and, especially Rome, from China. The trade between China and the West were marred when with the rise of the Ottoman Turks and severed the route and, thus, destroying the trade relations in the process.
China was the first to supply tea to South Asia as well. Tea was transported via what was called the ‘Tea Horse Road’, which extended from the Yunnan province, through Dali and Lijiang, to Lhasa and into Nepal and India. China. Another road connected China to the Arab world through much of Eastern Europe. The global circulation of Chinese silk led it to become “…..an international currency as well as a luxury product”, according to Frankopan (2015). However, as Hensen (2012) has made her argument, the Silk Roads were rarely only about trading silk—
“ ‘Silk’ is even more misleading than ‘road’, inasmuch as silk was only one among many Silk Road trade goods. Chemicals, spices, metals, saddles and leather products, glass, and paper were also common. Some cargo manifests list ammonium chloride, used as a flux for metals and to treat leather, as the top trade good on certain routes”
The Silk Roads are, therefore, the real first beginning of the globalization of the contemporary world, as it connected major civilization and cities recognized today to the considered center of the world by the Chinese, China, and to one another (Loria, 2017). Cultural and religious exchanges among a great diversity of ethnic and linguistic communities via the Silk Road were also prevalent, as documented by archeological research, thus making it a web of intricate sectors of relations among ancient communities of the time ( Waugh, 2010).
At the opening of the Belt and Road Forum in 2017, President Xi Jinping asserted that the guiding ideals of the ambitious 21st century Belt and Road Initiative followed the principles of the historic Silk Road – peace and development, openness and inclusivity, cooperation and mutual benefits, and lastly, trade and connecting the world as one (Yamei, 2017).The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was first unveiled by the Chinese President in September 2013, at Astana, Kazakhstan, and then at the Indonesian Parliament the following month. The following year, projects for Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Road were confirmed at the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. The projects emphasized the construction of development and cross-connecting infrastructure, creating connectivity among the East and the West, to enhance unimpeded trade (Hung, 2016). The BRI is an ambitious program to connect Asia to Africa and Europe through four separate mediums – the land, the sea, through digital connectivity and through the air. It consists of six main cross-connecting infrastructural projects, which is China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor, New Eurasia Land Bridge Economic Corridor, Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor, and the China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor (Hillman, 2018).
It is expected that the project will involve 70 countries, 65% of the world population and over USD$ 1 trillion. The initiative has five defining principles (National Development and Reform Commission, 2015), as demonstrated by the illustration given below(Dayaratna-Banda and Dharmadasa, 2019):
The unveiling of the BRI immediately brought fore some intriguing questions that demanded immediate and detailed attention: “Why has China launched the BRI? What are Beijing’s motivations? What consequences—geo-economic and geo-political—will it have on the neighborhood and beyond? How have other states reacted to the BRI? What challenges will China confront to implement the BRI? What impact, if any, will it have on the existing systemic structure?” (Chakma, 2019)
The BRI has been described as “China’s grand connectivity project” (Chung, 2017), and a project to foster international cooperation (Liu and Dunford, 2016). Alternatively, the BRI has been identiﬁed as a means for China to act within the region(Wang,2016), which may be interpreted as a process of geopolitical competition with the United States (Ploberger, 2017). It has also been described as China’s “grand strategy”, a set of articulated policy objectives and policy actions oriented to achieve specific national interests, which in China’s case, has been “[designed] to reclaim [China’s] geopolitical dominance in Asia … [challenge] US dominance and … create a Chinese-centered order” (Bhattacharya, 2016). The BRI is also referred to as a “geopolitical and diplomatic offensive” or “Chinese neo-imperialism”, aimed at “‘nothing less than rewriting the current geopolitical landscape” or even world dominance (Fasslabend, 2015). However, to counter such allegations and arguments, the BRI has also been evidenced a far looser policy platform, reflecting the ongoing transformation of China’s party-state and the emergence of regulatory-style governance. The BRI is economically dangerous and the possibility of such economical failure should not be misinterpreted as “geostrategic success”. The tendency of the BRI not necessarily unfolding as a top-down, high-level design also plays a part in countering the arguments of it being a geostrategic ploy aimed at competitive hegemony (Jones and Zeng, 2019).
The BRI in South Asia
The BRI, having two connectivity projects in South Asia, connects the region to Southeast Asia, via the BCIM Corridor, and to Central Asia via the CPEC. Apart from these mega-connectivity projects, the BRI is also projecting its ideals of development through the Chinese initiatives to develop infrastructure among the signatory and prospective signatory states. The Minister of Nepalese Foreign Affairs, Mr.Pradeep Kumar Gyawali, commented that the BRI is possible “the most important initiative of the world” (Liangya, 2019). The BRI will also benefit non-participating states, as it will enhance trade and greater transit trade opportunities.
China’s interests in Afghanistan include the restoration of political stability in order for greater opportunities for economic and developmental investments. It has already shown interest in copper extraction in the junction between the Middle East and South Asia and has also invested in the reconstruction of the infrastructure of the country. The BRI, through its opportunities of connectivity, promises Afghanistan greater economic opportunities, which can help in the development of the war-effected country (Das, 2017). However, given the significance of Indian and Chinese involvement in Afghanistan, the country needs to balance economic objectives and participation in other such parallel projects, alongside the internal stability of the country and of the regional security order. Assurance of security and stability is essential in order to create a status of trustworthiness in order to get nominations to participate in projects such as the BRI. Addressing the security and strategic dimensions of the country is especially important for a country like Afghanistan, ravaged by years-long terrorism and civil conflict. Therefore, the maintenance of security is important for further foreign investment and the inclusion of Afghanistan in mega economic and infrastructural projects.
Bangladesh has accepted the Chinese BRI positively and willingly, and especially as an open window to improve infrastructural development and economic enhancement. It has historically been a part of both the land-based Silk Road and the Maritime Silk Road of ancient times (Islam, 2015). It has become a signatory and a member state of the BRI as of October 2016. The Sino-Bangladesh cooperation around the BRI took place in the early stages of its planning process, when President Xi indicated to the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina about his thoughts to resurrect the former ancient Silk Road in the innovative forms of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, and invited Bangladesh to join. He further incorporated the concept of the former BCIM and transformed it into what is known now as the BCIM Economic Corridor (Wu, 2016). The two states have also signed deals totaling $21.5 billion for the infrastructural development of Bangladesh. Besides including Bangladesh as one of the countries for the BCIM-EC, China has also shown interest in developing a deep sea-port in Bangladesh under the 21st century maritime Silk Road initiative. Several Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) have also been signed with China to build several components of the Pyra deep sea-port. Within the larger framework of OBOR, economic integration between Bangladesh and China is expected to grow, China is of great significance to the country, which is displayed by the growing volume of trade along with other dimensions. Bangladesh can be benefitted strategically and economically by being a part of the BRI, as geographically, it serves a junction between Southeast Asia and the Westward economies. For China, Bangladesh is an equally important country, as its participation plays crucial roles in both the BCIM-EC and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, and connecting South and Southeast Asia to each other, and the rest of the world (Islam, 2017).
Bhutan and the Maldives
No concrete steps have been taken to include Bhutan in the BRI. The strained relations between the land-locked state and China, caused by the conundrum of occupation of Tibet and publication of Chinese maps that claimed territory in central and northwestern Bhutan, still looms a heavy dark shadow. However, Beijing’s new South Asia policy involves establishing diplomatic relations with Thimpu, giving it some hope for inclusion in the mega-economic activities that will take place around the BRI once it has been fully constructed. In that case, it is expected that new dynamics will also take place and will probably have an impact in the region (Das, 2017). The Maldives, the nation formed of islands, and a popular tourist destination, is willing to participate in the construction of the BRI and to enhance cooperation with China in fields like maritime affairs, maritime economy, and maritime safety. It also seeks to expand its opportunities in the field of tourism through the initiative and greater cooperation among all BRI signatories (Wu, 2016).
Nepal hopes to seize the opportunities that BCIM Economic Corridor and the Road initiative bring along so as to improve the well-being of the Nepalese (Wu, 2016). The land-locked country is in dire need of connectivity, and its unique position as a junction between India and China, with its dreams of becoming the “bridge” between the two countries, makes it a country with high potential value. Its ambitious dream of graduating from the ranks of the least developed countries and its desire to erase the curse of ‘land-lockedness’ hinge on it taking fundamental steps towards building up its infrastructure, and the BRI is a golden opportunity for achieving this objective (Ghimire and Singh, 2016). Perhaps that is one of the reasons why it was the first South Asian country to sign the deal to join the BRI (Kumar and Narayan, 2017).
As the world witnesses Sino-Pakistan relations reach higher peaks, the BRI has long been a prominent avenue of cooperation between the two states. The China-Pakistan relationship has been labeled by the leaders of both counties as an “all-weather friendship,” and described as “higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel and sweeter than honey.” Like Bangladesh, Pakistan plays a two-fold part in China’s ambitious BRI—via the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. The Gwadar deep-sea port is one of the most prominent infrastructural projects being carried out in Pakistan. It is a crucial part of China’s BRI and highlights the strength of the China-Pakistan relationship. It is expected to bring economic prosperity to the region and is debated to be an integral part of President Xi Jinping’s “dream of national rejuvenation.”The $62 billion projects will link Xinjiang Province of China with Gwadar port on the Makran Coast west of Karachi. There has also been much debate around linking the project to the so-called “Chinese string of pearls strategy” (Kanwal, 2018). Pakistan views the BRI and the CPEC very positively, while India believes it to be a breach of sovereignty as the corridor will run through the contested territories of Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). The CPEC and the Gwadar port are both very important to China as they will connect it to the Strait of Hormuz and onto Arabia, assisting its ambitions of greater access to energy and the assurance of higher energy security. One the other hand, Pakistan believes that its cooperation with China and support towards the BRI will help it achieve its own objectives progressing into the regional economic and military pivot in South Asia, hence overthrowing India (Wu, 2016). Thus, this cooperation by China and Pakistan is largely seen as a strategic one instead of a purely economic one (Das, 2017).
China’s current position in Sri Lanka is, indeed, a controversial one; it has spiraled debates around the debt sustainability of the BRI, as well as the intentions China aims to attain via the BRI, by linking it to the concept of neo-imperialism and neo-colonization (Tyagi, 2019). In 2014, the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, first suggested the inclusion of Sri Lanka into the 21st Century Belt and Road Initiative. In return, it received an enthusiastic response from Sri Lanka, as it believes that the initiative would naturally align with its goal of building the shipping center on the Indian Ocean. It has also been considered as an opportunity at development after decades of carnage and destruction triggered by the civil war (Wu, 2016). China provided extensive loans to Sri Lanka’s ambitious seaport project, the Hambantota seaport (Habib, 2018). Both agreed on further boosting maritime cooperation by increasing investment on the Hambantota port project, pushing ahead with the construction of Colombo as a port city and establishing a Joint Committee on Coastal Zone and Maritime Cooperation where maritime issues are to be addressed.
However, upon the island nation’s inability to repay the loans to China, the government of Sri Lanka formally handed over the strategic port of Hambantota to its creditors on a 99-year lease (Panda, 2017). Even though so, the BRI and connected private investment in Sri Lanka would be a catalyst for overcoming the low technology trap by contributing to productivity growth.
Challenges in South Asia
The CPEC and the BCIM-EC are crucial for the development of the Chinese BRI. The two initiatives connect China to the Middle East and the Indian Ocean, respectively. It is a strategic arrangement for constructing a trans-Himalaya economic and development zone. Hence, cooperation and stability in the region are essential for furthering of Chinese plans, whether they be that of fulfilling to achieve its so-called geostrategic objectives of neo-colonialism or neo-imperialism (Chakma, 2019), or economic integration.
The Dilemma of India
India and China have not necessarily enjoyed the sweetest relations among themselves. Especially after the military showdown between the two and the emergence of the border issues among them, India has considered China to be a threat. As a matter of fact, India largely believes the Chinese 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, which is essentially the linking of Chinese invested ports ranging from China to Europe via multiple ports on the way, to be a Chinese strategy to surround India and threaten it; this so-called strategy has been termed “The String of Pearls”. India also opposes the BRI and, specifically, the CPEC as it claims that the corridor will run over the contested territory of Kashmir, where both India and Pakistan have held territorial claims since their independence. The third concern of India with the BRI is arguably the contradiction of the project with the US, Japan, Australia and India-led initiative called the Indo-Pacific Strategy. As a result of the multitude of Indian contentions to the BRI, India has refused China’s offer to join in the grand initiative. As a result, the BCIM-EC is currently stuck in a sticky situation, as China continues to try and convince India to join; India has given positive indications on being a part of BCIM, but refuses to be a part of BCIM-EC. Hence, China either has to re-navigate the corridor around India, excluding it, or it has the alternate to rename and renegotiate BCIM-EC to BCIM. Generally speaking, the Belt and Road Initiative and the BCIM-EC are in need of support and coordination of India, so is promoting the CPEC with Pakistan. However, the level of mutual political trust between China and India leads to India’s concerns and hesitations and further prevents China from expanding its cooperation with South Asia in-depth and in scope (Das, 2017).
Contention and Lack of Cooperation Between States
The bilateral relations between states in the South Asia region remain contested. There have been multiple instances of bilateral contentions between South Asian countries. One of the most antagonistic bilateral relations is shared by India and Pakistan. The Indo-Pakistan relations have been bitter for decades, starting from 1948, when Pakistan first crossed the Indian border to extend its territory to include Kashmir (Johnson, 2005). Other than that, Indian intervention into the Sri Lankan civil war faced bitter consequences of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi (Mitra, 2018). The region also experienced three wars between India and Pakistan, one of which resulted in the independence of Bangladesh, and conflictual relations between Nepal and Bhutan over the expulsion of Lhotshampa people (Mørch, 2016). Other than this, the governments between the South Asian states have not always enjoyed the sweetest relations, and often the relations of states have been mired with blame-games between two or more governments. Such has been the case with India and Bangladesh in the past, and with Afghanistan and Pakistan for aiding US intervention into the prior by the latter. The lack of cooperation between South Asian states is also projected by the failure of the regional inter-governmental organization South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
To some extent, China needs an understanding from India to promoting the CPEC with Pakistan in the western district of South Asia. At the same time, China is in need of understanding and support from Pakistan to build the BCIM-EC in the eastern region of South Asia. However, given current relations between India and Pakistan, India suspects the political, military, and strategic intentions of China to advocate the CPEC, while Pakistan has misgivings towards China’s diplomatic practices that prefer India by promoting the BCIM Economic Corridor. Therefore, as China is emphasizing developing relations with South Asian countries as a whole and in a balanced manner, the tensions between India and Pakistan will definitely offset China’s diplomatic progress in the region (Das, 2017). Similarly, the contested relations based on mistrust and history of conflict between South Asian states are also projected to have a negative impact on Chinese plans of implementing the BRI in South Asia.
Terrorist and Security Concerns
South Asia has been a popular hub for terrorist activity for decades. Ranging from separatist terrorism induced by infamous groups such as LTTE in Sri Lanka, to state-supported terrorist organizations, such as Jaish-e-Mohammed in Pakistan, South Asia has experienced a myriad of terrorist instances. Recently, organizations such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda have developed bases and are influencing terrorist activities in the region. Even though the Bilateral Security Agreement signed between the US and Afghanistan in September 2014 has laid a legal foundation for combating terrorist forces in South Asia, there are still eminent concerns for terrorist threats in the region, due to the history of terrorist activity in the region. As such, the greatest terrorist threats are experienced in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The two countries, particularly the latter, are well known for Taliban bases and bases of Islamic extremist groups. Pakistan, in multiple occasions, has been blamed for harbor extremist groups and leaders. It has always been alleged by most, if not all, foreign terrorist attacks carried out on Indian soil.
The BCIM-EC, which passes through Bangladesh and Northeastern India, is one of the longitudinal corridors of BRI in a lot of uncertainty. While the Northeastern part of India was subject to a large number of terrorist acts ever since it obtained its ethnic independence, Bangladesh, since the 1990s, has seen greater emergence of radical extremist Islamic groups and higher numbers of acts of terror carried out by them. India has experienced the deaths of around 18.9 thousand people in terrorist attacks and turbulences across the country, of which 5761 people lost their lives in the rebellions and turbulences in the northeastern area of India, and 6588 people were dead from anti-government movements by Naxalites, a left-wing extremist organization that controls over 17 provinces and 92,000 sq. km, from 2005 to 2014. During the same period, 1206 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Bangladesh. And as many as 111.9 thousand people were killed in terrorist activities from 2003 to 2014 across South Asia (Das, 2017).
Under such terrorist threats, South Asia is a vulnerable region and a risky investment for China. At the same time, it poses serious negative implications on the plans of China for establishing its two-front BRI, and has the ability to possibly offset the benefits it expects from the region via its initiative, and vice-versa.
Threat of Debt
The South Asian region is a developing region, as it consists of countries that the United Nations has identified as developing states. The countries of South Asia are characterized by low per capita income, high population growth rates, coupled with high unemployment rates, and greater dependence on primary commodities for economic growth. Even though a few of the countries in the region are experiencing exponential levels of growth, namely India and Bangladesh, other characteristics hold back significant levels of development. In the face of such slow economic progress, there is a continual fear of debt crisis by both China and the South Asian countries.
The Chinese acquisition of the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota is the first example in South Asia of the debt trap due to the BRI. With an economy worth $93.45 billion, $298.310 billion PPP, and a per capita GDP of about $4,310,as of 2018(International Monetary Fund), the Sri Lankan government formally handed over the port to China Merchant Port Holdings Limited (CM Port)over its inability to pay back the loans for the port. The strategic port has been acquired on a 99-year lease, for $1.12 billion in 2017 (Moramudali, 2019).
The $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor linking Kashgar in North West China with Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea coastline in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province has resulted in the debt crisis arising in the country. Pakistan’s external debt is already more than $99 billion, of which a significant portion is owed to China. Growing indebtedness comes at a time when the country is already living beyond its means, as evidenced by persistent current account deficits, government debt, and external debt. Just as the infamous Hambantota port’s debates were beginning to slowly disperse, new ones are starting to emerge around the CPEC. Both of the Chinese funded projects are projects that had been funded for the BRI. China converted its credit to equity when Sri Lanka was unable to pay back its loans for the construction of the port, and many analysts believe Pakistan is headed for the same route (Mourdoukoutas, 2019).
BRI: Chinese Grand Strategy in South Asia?
Traditionally, a grand strategy has been defined as“how best to mobilize and coordinate forces and resources to attain the political objective of war,” as defined by Liddell Hart. However, Morgenthau describes the concept to be the maximum furthering of a state’s own national interest in a particular international situation through the coordination of instruments of national power. While the traditional definition focuses on a larger extent on the employment of military aspects of achieving national objectives, the latter deals with all possible military and non-military elements of achieving national interests of a state (Ploberger, 2017).
In context of China and its BRI policy, fueled by motive of “create a ‘community of destiny’ of mutual beneﬁt and win-win, and ‘community of interests’ of shared development and prosperity” (Wang, 2016), or so as per Chinese narratives, the debate around its actual policy implications and possible benefits for China are still under fierce debate, whether they are actually for “mutual benefit” or a grand strategy of China designed to counter the US and to achieve world dominance. While the likes of Jones and Zeng (2019) like to contend that the Chinese BRI, ridden with as many possibilities of failure and lack of an actual proper ‘top-down’ design, as a grand strategy should have, is anything less than one, this following section will look into the possibility of the BRI is a grand strategy in the context of the developing South Asian region.
A Chinese grand strategy would require it to manage a range of regional and international economic, political and military situations in its favor. Being a country bordering a variety of states, indeed, achieving this is a challenging task, as both opportunities and obstructions come with the characteristic of bearing boundaries with multiple countries. Of this list of states that share a border with China are two of the largest South Asian regional powers—India and Pakistan. While having maintained tender relations with one, the only antagonism defines relations with another. As India believes, China’s strategy is to garner better relations with the smaller states of the region and, as a result, lobby them to take up policies that do not align with Indian national interests, it emphasizes the BRI as a possible instrument to remove Indian regional hegemony in South Asia. It also largely views the development and acquisition of the Sri Lankan Hambantota port, as well as the development of the Gwadar port in Pakistan and the Chittagong sea-port and Pyraseaport in Bangladesh, as Chinese attempts to surround India through the infamous ‘String of Pearls’. The term “String of Pearls” was first developed by Booz Allen in his report called “Energy Futures in Asia,” in 2005. He predicted that China would attempt to expand its naval presence throughout the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) by building infrastructures in friendly states in the region (Baker, 2015), as illustrated in Map 1 (Pejic, 2016).
It is an effective way of containing India, and its economic and naval power in the IOR, coupled with the support of the other South Asian states. It also counters the US influence in the region, which it exerts via India, and assists its ally’s aspirations of reducing the Indian threat of hegemony in the region.
In the context of being solely a policy to benefit the Chinese, it is argued that China will use its ‘debt trap diplomacy’ in the region, as it has employed in Africa (Green, 2019)—evidence of this is projected by the situation of Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and the ongoing threats of unrepayable Chinese debt in Pakistan. This is likely to be projected on a larger scale on the entire region, as the economic status of the South Asian countries do not permit them to be able to pay back such massive Chinese loans in the future. At the same time, the countries are also, to some extent, compelled to take up the Chinese loans in order to further economic and infrastructural development in their respective countries (DW Documentary, 2019). South Asia faces the threat of Chinese internal inference, should it fall under the ‘debt-trap diplomacy’, as occurring in most, if not all, of the African continent (Dahir, 2019).
Writer Nahian Salsabeel student, Bangladesh University of Professionals Research intern, Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS).
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