In the interregnum between the publication of “Pax Sinica” by Samir Saran and Akhil Deo and the crushing second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic that has brought many countries, down to their collective knees, China has managed to weave together a fabric of sorts – of ignominy, suspicion, and controversy. The largest authoritarian economy has engaged in obtrusive and unwarranted incursions in the disputed territory forming part of the Aksai Chin region straddling India and China, engaged Indian armed forces in fatal combat, and has gone the whole hog in dismissing all calls for instituting a probe into the ‘origin’ of the insidious novel Corona virus amidst a rousing clamour that puts the controversial Wuhan Institute of Virology at front and centre of the epidemic.
“Pax Sinica” is a nuanced, measured, meticulous and methodical dissection of the geopolitical travails and turbulence that stares India in the face as its most formidable neighbour attempts to rebalance diplomacy and reimagine territorial boundaries. The book is relevant from both an economic as well as a political perspective. Xi Jinping, one of the most influential leaders to have led his nation, has in an astonishing display of audacity, or impunity even, offered a novel proposition to the world. This proposition has at its nub the humongous “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) programme. Also known as the Belt and Road Initiative (“BRI”), this phenomenon envisages the birthing of a staggering network of infrastructure projects encompassing highways, railways, energy pipelines and everything in between. The driving motive behind such a multi- trillion dollars initiative being the unlocking of a regional thoroughfare from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea, gradually moving towards the establishment of a transportation network that would connect Eastern, Western and Southern Asia. As Saran and Deo write, from Xi’s perspective this ambitious move represents ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’. What Xi is doing is merely resurrected a famous and ancient Chinese dream. A dream dating back to at least the Han dynasty, that places China at the top of the world. A pinnacle that is popularly referred to in the Chinese vernacular as “tian xia” literally meaning “everything under heaven”. As the journalist Howard French informs his readers, in a book titled “Everything Under Heaven”, “for the better part of two millennia, the norm for China, from its own perspective, was a natural dominion over everything under heaven, a concept known in the Chinese language as tian xia. It is not a term to be taken too literally. From very early times, China had an awareness of faraway places, including other great empires, like Rome, but contact with such distant regions of the world was tenuous at best and hence both economically and politically marginal.”
Saran and Deo highlight in an engrossing vein the rapacious measures promulgated by Xi in taking the concept of tian xia to a degree hitherto envisaged. Departing from the cautious mores of his illustrious predecessor Deng Xiaoping who exhorted his nation to “observe calmly, secure its position; cope with affairs calmly; hide its capacities and bide its time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership”, Xi has upped the ante both economically and politically. The BRI not just proposes to provide easy access to financial resources and technological capabilities to countries that are cash starved, but also envisages exercising an element of strategic control and grip over the borrowers. As Bruno Macaes in his rousing book “Belt and Road, A Chinese World Order”, writes, ‘“In December 2017, Sri Lanka formally handed control of Hambantota port to China in exchange for writing down the country’s debt. Under a $1.1 billion deal, Chinese firms now hold a 70 percent stake in the port and a 99 year lease agreement to operate it.” China itself has acknowledged this fact. “In April 2018, Li Ruogu, the former president of the Export-Import Bank of China, argued publicly that most of the countries along the routes of the BRI did not have the money to pay for the projects for which they were involved…..the countries’ average liability and debt rates had reached 35 and 126 percent respectively, far above the globally recognized warning lines.” With the Export-Import Bank (Exim Bank) of China, for example, holding nearly 41 per cent and 53 per cent of all government debt in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, respectively, it wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone if the Hambantota fiasco was to be replicated and repeated many times over. Different terrain, same play book, and identical consequences.
However, it does not take one to be weary to spot the murkiness attached to the BRI programme. As Saran and Deo enlighten their readers, Oxford’s Saïd Business School opines that “nearly 55 per cent of the projects that China had invested in were economically unviable at the outset, and another 17 per cent generated lower-than-forecasted benefit-to-cost ratio.” So why is it that China perseveres with such uneconomical and seemingly unviable ventures? The answer has a strategic dimension to it. “In the year the PLAN’s Naval Research Institute recommended that China build replenishment and logistics points at key ports to better protect its energy supply lines. According to the report, the Kyaukpyu Port in Myanmar, the Chittagong Port in Bangladesh, the Colombo Harbour in Sri Lanka, the Aden Port in Yemen, and ports in the Maldives were potential locations where the Chinese government could work to create industrial hubs to support military operations.”
As the authors articulate in an erudite manner the import and importance of China making an indelible mark in the Asian continent. A multi-pronged strategy permeates China’s bold forays in attracting countries in the Asian continent. The primary reason for such diplomatic courting is an imperative to secure energy and resource routes from countries in Africa and provide the most direct land routes to Europe. “One of the biggest reasons for Chinese overseas investments is to gain access to raw materials and new trade routes.” Next comes a necessity for broadening the ‘sphere of influence’. The burgeoning ‘no strings attached’ investments offered by China enable it to enjoy a ‘block’ of support from the unlikeliest of allies. “China has used infrastructure loans and investments, for example, to persuade countries like the Philippines and Cambodia to re-evaluate their ties with the US, while its investments in Pakistan help keep India occupied.” China creates global supply chains extrication from which comes at a great and at times unaffordable costs to companies and countries forming an integral part of such supply chains.
The extent to which China is ready to go to scuttle India’s ambitions and scupper its ambitions can be gauged from the blitzkrieg investments and populist engagements doled out to nations otherwise enjoying a good rapport with India. Such attempts to ‘wean’ loyalties and relationships away seem to have borne more than just a mere modicum of fruition for the behemoth. As Saran and Deo illustrate, until 2012, Beijing didn’t even have an embassy in the Maldives. BRI however put an end to this ‘lacuna’. After concentrating on the nations of Bangladesh and Pakistan, recipients of infrastructure funding to the tune of $21.5 billion and over $62 billion respectively, China focused its attention on the island nation. “By 2018, China was responsible for significant infrastructure development projects in the country, including an $800-million airport and a $400-million bridge to connect it with the capital city, Male. A Free Trade Agreement (FTA), signed amidst much controversy about its opacity, leased Maldivian islands to China for redevelopment and tourism for fifty years. At the same time, India’s strategic and commercial interests were gradually sidelined, much to the displeasure of New Delhi, which was increasingly uncertain about how to manage China’s rise in its neighbourhood.”
Nepal has also displayed disturbing tendencies of shifting allegiances. In a move smacking of cock a snook attitude, the mountain kingdom ended up granting development rights for the $2.5-billion Budhi Gandaki hydropower project to China. Astonishingly this came even after the previous government had cancelled such a grant. Nepal also heartily participated in the second joint military exercise with China in September 2018.
If it is India, over whose ambitions China seeks to keep a tight rein on in the Asian continent, it is the American influence which Xi seeks to thwart in the global scheme of things. While China acknowledges that it would be a bruising task to take the world’s greatest superpower head on, strategic and diplomatic overtures would provide China the much needed heft to derail the American gravy train. Hence an untrammeled investment in the one region that promises to be of extraordinary importance in the geopolitical shift of things – Europe. Chinese FDI in Europe ballooned 77 per cent, from £23 billion to £35 billion between 2015 and 2016. The fact that China has been investing in key ports across the Mediterranean (Piraeus in Greece being one if biggest investments in port infrastructure) as a means to create new trade routes into Europe and to gain influence with European states that are at the periphery of the EU speaks a lot about the intentions of Xi and China. China reaped the rewards of such investments when Hungary and Greece remained steadfast in their resolve not to support a European Union statement on the South China Sea.
Complementing such economic and political initiatives are suave and targeted media policies that eulogies the “China story” across geographies. China’s official state broadcaster CCTV, after being rebranded into the China Global Television Network (CGTN) in 2017 was tasked with giving thrust to a much-vaunted Chinese philosophy ‘borrow a boat to go out on the ocean’. This strategy has as its bailiwick, strategic partnerships with foreign media to pay for CCP authorized content. “Several prominent European newspapers, such as Germany’s Handelsblatt and the UK’s Telegraph and Daily Mail, now carry paid media inserts. In the US, reports indicate that the Party now provides paid advertisements in major newspapers like the Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. These efforts only represent China’s intent to amplify its voice in major democracies. A Financial Times investigation suggests that at least two hundred Chinese language publications were now broadcasting content to millions of readers globally.”
To India’s credit, it is being neither lethargic nor laconic in perceiving this very real threat to its economic and political future. Even though dwarfed in terms of economic and military might, India has more than merely stood up to the shenanigans and proclivities of its eccentric and untrustworthy neighbour. While the Doklam standoff proved that India could not be muscled out of its resolve, the prolonged stalemate at Galwan that threatened to escalate into a full blown border skirmish just strengthened the perception that the resolve of India would take more than just 20 fatalities suffered by its brave heart soldiers to weaken if not crumble downright. India has also cemented its relationship with democratically inclined nations such as America, Australia, and Japan. The fact of India being an integral part of the Quad speaks volumes about the faith reposed in the world’s biggest democracies by some of the most relevant nations on the Planet. India is also upping the ante in terms of attracting countries with its own connectivity projects. Examples being the India–Myanmar–Thailand Trilateral Highway and the International North South Transportation Corridor (INSTC) with Russia. Further, India is partnering with Japan to launch the Asia Africa Growth Corridor, which seeks to propel growth, investment, and connectivity between the two regions. Similarly, in December 2017, India hosted the ASEAN–India Connectivity Summit (AICS) in a bid to offer alternatives to Chinese investments in the region.
As the authors opine, India and China are presided over by charismatic, nationalist and strong leaders, both of whom nurse lofty visions for their respective nations. While Xi has self-proclaimed himself to be a “core leader”, a prestige accorded only to Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin before him, Modi typifies a no nonsense approach refusing to be either cowed down by threats or cowered by intimidations. It is not just the Asian sub-continent that will experience the convulsions if a Teutonic power struggle was to ensue between these two tousling gladiators. By the year 2050, both India and China are expected to be two of the three biggest economies in the world. The centre of gravity in terms of economic might and influence is slowing but interminably shifting from the West to the East. While political scientists and commentators such as Graham Allison talk about the grave possibilities of a Thucydides Trap (an apparent tendency towards war when an emerging power threatens to displace an existing great power as a regional or international hegemon) that might see the United States and China engaging one another in a full blown calamitous war, the dynamics of the rise of India as a force to be reckoned with, would also significantly alter the geopolitical balance. In fact, as the authors illustrate, following the election of Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister, Modi visited each of India’s immediate neighbours, beginning with Bhutan and going on to countries like Sri Lanka and the Seychelles, which saw the first bilateral visit from an Indian Prime Minister in over two decades.
The United States also recognises this inevitable place that the future has for India. It is more of an inevitability than just a reluctant accommodation. Former US Defence secretary Panetta, holding forth at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), termed India ‘the linchpin for America’s new defense strategy for rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific.’
The stage is set for two economies each having a teeming population exceeding a billion to make a defining and indelible mark in world affairs. It would be in the interests and well being of humanity if Coopetition was to outshine and outwit competition in the process. However, considering the current state of affairs that sees both India and China walking the tightrope in terms of maintaining peace and stability, a cohesive and cordial co-operation seems to be a pipe dream.