Geopolitics

China’s One Belt One Road: Challenge To India’s Security
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 27 Feb , 2019

The idea of One Belt One Road (OBOR) is based on the old idea of the silk route with a difference. Earlier it grew out of the exigencies of trade, now, as part of China’s peripheral diplomacy and ‘Theory of Boundless National Interest’, it is China’s game plan for getting fifty-seven or more nations on board for the OBOR. There is both fear and excitement connected to this.

China’s rising supremacy and tenacious strategic planning instigates a sense of caution and vigilance on the part of India while it still needs and wants to be integrated with OBOR. Other nations too feel the same.

One Belt One Road was good until it turned into a colossal foreign policy initiative of China, one where it reminded nations of China’s throwback to an “Empire status”. OBOR triggered anti-China sentiments from Australia to Europe. There was a growing fear that Beijing would adopt colonial like ambitions over most countries around it.

In fact, Australian Financial Review reported Australia setting up “joint regional infrastructural scheme” to come up with an alternative to China’s OBOR initiative. Australia seemed concerned and wanted to inhibit China’s further influence. Australia’s plan involves India, USA and Japan. It is much too nascent right now to consider it.

Even Europe became more negative toward OBOR, so why not India? Eleven countries in the “16+1” are EU members and there is rising apprehension that the attempt to have bilateral relations in this framework could affect the internal cohesion and risk divisions among members that compete for Chinese attention. Germany too, according to analysts is preparing a legislation to check the drain of technological know-how which Chinese items are bringing in as substitutes. Ironically, there are trains which have already begun transferring goods from China to Germany.

Sigmar Gabriel, the former Foreign Policy Minister of Germany flagged a substantive problematic and rejected OBOR. In his view, China was against democracy and freedom. Further, he emphasized that it would promote a new value system different from the West.

The opposite viewpoint is that OBOR is a feasible project, a geo-functionalist one, a futuristic one which may yield results.

China truly organizes itself as an agenda entrepreneur whether in an institutional or functional strategic way.

China’s institutionalization attempt might be isomorphic with the existing Western dominated system. In terms of hegemonic structure due to the cognitive limitations in finding alternatives, China might ruin its own feasibility initiative.

Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the OBOR initiative as promoting global connectivity as well as infrastructure construction. This was in 2013.

The project aims to connect China to Europe via Eurasia in the ongoing 21st century and linking Asia with Africa and Europe.

One has to wonder that even with the ongoing Chinese led industrialization process, OBOR initiative is feasible but fragile.

It is almost a dream framework of cooperation among nation states being possible via interdependence as an outcome of international institutions without the need for a hegemon almost decrying the hegemonic stability theory, (Robert Keohane, 1984) and therefore the point is made in supporting China’s initiative.

Yet China is trying to achieve parallel insularization in the establishment of Asia Infrastructural Investment Bank (AIIB) which is in essence a hierarchic structure. This would place China at the center of geo-economic and geo-political landscape in the region and beyond. Moreover, China also created the Silk Road Fund with capital of US$ 40 billion as a long-term medium development investment fund. All this of course, generates the fear of Sino centrism as part of OBOR concept. 

It is important to note that China is a deliberative actor in the investment dominated international system. This is truly a case of Keohanian interdependence between international politics and economics. Taking it further, it will definitely impact India’s strategic mapping with China.

The frightening aspect is that the US taking a dig at China’s OBOR emphasized that connectivity projects in India-Pacific could compromise nations security. This, though a bit exaggerated is a matter of deep concern to India’s strategic perception too.

India has two major fears. Firstly, OBOR initiative is mainly about building up and strengthening cooperation among the countries along the Silk Road. This has become China’s major foreign policy initiative, in a sense cautioning India about her own expanding military ambitions.

Secondly, China’s own notion of being flexible, inclusive and open may be China’s own rendering of her foreign policy aim of comprehensive building of political network that promotes connectivity. Connectivity at this level also frightens the nations around fearing for their own safety and security. India too belongs to the same cluster.

OBOR is China’s most ambitious and visible foreign policy initiative of the last about six years. Of course, there are hindrances to Xi Jinping’s policy. There are major dissenting opinions within the party, getting more vociferous.

There is an emerging Chinese alternative concept of an international order. China under Xi Jinping’s regime is questionably getting more ambitious. Is this the analysis or is there something more to it is an important question. The Belt and Road Initiative, a broad canvas involving more than 60 countries; is hailed by Chinese officials and academics as an unprecedented panacea for global needs, a multilateral proposal to upgrade infrastructure, improve China’s bilateral and international ties, as well as drive much needed global development.

Yet, the spectrum of Western thinking is suspicious and mistrustful, thinking of the Chinese BRI as debt diplomacy, a new Marshall Plan. Chinese government opposes these claims.

Further, some analysts raise concerns that China’s global awareness is as of now inadequate to understand the operation in different countries and manage them. The huge question is one of global competitive awareness and the inevitable geopolitical competition. It is argued that the Belt and Road Initiative must align more closely with localized needs and conditions in order to create a sustainable strategy.

It is ironic that while Western analysts may fear that BRI is China’s strategy for world dominance, some Chinese analysts have the opposite opinion that the BRI is blindly operating in regions without a long-term vision or careful preparation.

Therefore, the US, Japan and India will continue to challenge the Chinese position in the Indo-Pacific.

There is the deeper aspect of China’s global hegemony, making China a victim of its own “empire building”. Thus,Chinese policy making needs to harmonize domestic voices and international opinions.

One opinion is that the balance of risks and benefits of the BRI is related to America’s commitment to Asia. If the US is engaged, the world can mitigate the dangers of BRI and reap its rewards. If not, the risks will outweigh the benefits. The BRI is yet one more argument for America to stay in Asia. Or is it?

There is a huge asymmetry between China and India. China’s GDP is nearly five times that of India’s and it is investing power projection capabilities.In contrast to India which has neglected its investment in the military. India’s defence expenditure is not as high as to reflect its aspiring strategic position.

National self interest in economics and geopolitics can also bolster stable relations. For an underperforming Indian economy facing “jobless growth”, China offers perhaps the largest source of new foreign direct investment (FDI) to India, totaling US$ 8 billion last year. Recently, China has appeared willing to drop barriers to reduce the trade deficit with India. It will further stimulate Indian manufacturing. And in the Indian election year give India a better profile vis-à-vis China, incentivizing conflict that can be avoided.

It is interesting to note that engagement with China, rather than a conflictual attitude may lead to geopolitical bargaining. A senior official remarked privately that India could have leveraged approval of China’s Belt and Road Initiative for Chinese backing of India overland access to Afghanistan. Similarly, China could benefit strategically from leveraging concessions in India’s neighbourhood to subvert Indian integration into US led alliance systems in Asia.

Since the mid-2000s China-India relations are growing competitive with an exponentially higher number of conflictual issues, it becomes imperative for India to especially now, work with China and others to develop a plausible and sustainable strategic ideology and dialogue.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Veena Ravikumar

was a senior faculty member at Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University. She taught international relations, India’s foreign policy and comparative politics. 

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