At a time when gains from globalisation are in doubt and globalisation per se from the West appears to be in retreat, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) seems to be emerging as a potent symbol of the rise of China-based globalisation. BRI, part of current ‘China dream’ spearheaded by Xi Jinping to revitalise the Chinese nation, is a two-fold project. It is the belt to link the great Eurasian continent with overland railways, highways, pipelines and other infrastructure, and a road to link China with Southeast Asia and even Africa through ports and other maritime linkages. Collectively, it was known as the ‘One Belt, One Road (OBOR)’ but is now usually referred to as BRI.
BRI comes at a time when regional and global divisions are intensifying. Diverse nationalisms with the potential for serious conflict are becoming more apparent. Economic globalisation and free-trade once seemed so eminently desirable that few dared go against them. Yet there is now less consensus about such benefits.
The primary aim of BRI is economic. The major objective is to minimise disparities in China by spurring growth in the underdeveloped hinterland and rust-belt of China. At the World Economic Forum 2017, Xi—the first Chinese President to attend—openly supported globalisation and opposed protectionism.
During the later part of 2014, the Chinese government set up the New Silk Road Fund and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to promote infrastructure that would support trade and other economic linkages involved in BRI. Around the same time, the initiative to create the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor was considered a major development in South Asia to provide China substantial access to the region. Through such penetration, China is trying to establish its economic suzerainty over the countries of Central Asia and elsewhere.
In May 2017, Xi took the initiative to sponsor the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. More than 30 heads of organisations and heads of states such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Indonesian President Joko Widodo, as well as the then Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took part actively. Such a meeting was only aimed at capturing international support and recognition as well as legitimising BRI as an important governmental priority.
Of all these developments, one country that is definitely not enthusiastic and forthcoming about BRI is India, wary about China’s deepening ties with Pakistan and Russia. There were no Indian representatives at the forum in May. The advance of Indian troops in June to stop China building a road in Bhutan resulted in a serious face-off, although a solution came late in August. Along with several other countries, India is nervous about the strategic implications of China’s access to Pakistan’s deep-water port of Gwadar, which would open China and its land-locked territory of Xinjiang to the Persian Gulf.
In some respect, India and China are trying to cooperate, but India-Pakistan equation casts a shadow. BRICS could be a great cementing factor to promote the interests of emerging market economies vis-à-vis the West, but long-term rivalry and hostility between China and India makes sustained cooperation difficult.
While governments are mostly keen on BRI, viewing it as a source of economic expansion and prosperity, many ordinary people are less convinced. China’s image in Central Asia is mixed, and some view China’s economic expansion as inevitable but pernicious. They resent the fact that Chinese companies bring their own workers with them, so opportunity for local people to gain employment is remote. The opinion in the West is also divided. While many observers see opportunities in BRI for profits and growth, others doubt project viability and feasibility. Sceptics doubt whether countries involved are technically and economically competent enough to make it work. Many suspect the motive of China, counting it as a plot to regain China’s traditional power over Central Asian countries and some African countries.
It is too early to state if BRI will succeed in the short run. But looking at the Chinese tenacity and perseverance, it is a project that China will not give up at all. In the event of retreat of globalisation, China will push its own mandate of globalisation through BRI. In all likelihood, the impact of BRI over the next several decades could be huge and be a major driver of China’s global economic and strategic influence.
Anil K Kanungo, Professor, Lal Bahadur Shastri Institute of Management, New Delhi