One Belt one Road and its Strategic Implications
By Major General (ret.) Ashok Hukku, former Chief Military Intelligence Advisor in the Cabinet Secretariat at New Delhi, India
On 1stOct 1949 the People’s Republic of China was officially established. “Chinese people have stood up” declared Mao Zedong. Following Mao came Deng Xiaoping and the first glimpse into China’s future strategy became evident when the CCP announced “The fundamental task of the party is to build China into a modern, powerful and socialist country by the end of the 20thcentury”.
China’s national aims and objectives, it’s foreign and defence policies are aimed to achieve that end state. These policies continue along the same lines even today well into the 21stcentury.
With a GDP around $8.227 Trillion and a growth rate around 7%, it is the world’s second biggest economy. Focussing its sights on well-defined objectives and impelled by a powerful economic upsurge, China continues to build the second most formidable military in the world, and follow an aggressive foreign policy.
An integral part of its overall strategy is the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. To appreciate the implications of this initiative, it is necessary to review China’s strategic thought based upon which the initiative is being launched.
Chinese leaders have decided to create a militarily and economically powerful and united country that will be able to transform the existing world’s power structure into a bipolar one. One pole of which will be China. National security interests encompassing interstate relations, global power balance, bold economic initiatives and internal stability have become the primary determinant of national strategy. Conventional ideology has been given a back seat, the only exception being centralized political control.
Initially Chinese military doctrine was based on the concept of mass armies fighting a war of attrition on homeland China. It subsequently shifted from a policy of “strategic counter attack” to “strategic projection operations”.
This shift merits attention as in the decades to come the reach of Chinese military power will extend globally and in outer space. This could open up new possibilities in the domain of interstate affiliations and power structures.
Based on its military and economic strength China has formulated its strategic priorities that could have the potential to re-shape the power balance which has existed since the end of the Second World War. Some of these priorities are:
(a) China sees 21stcentury as a strategic window of opportunity to become a global power.
(b) It intends to change the present unipolar structure to a multi polar one.
(c) Globalization and opening up of China.
(d) Internal cohesion and economic development are necessary to maintain national security in China.
To achieve its main objectives China has decided to follow a combination of aggressive diplomacy and a well defined power projection strategy by undertaking the following measures:
(a) Keep sufficient control over four non Han buffer states of Manchuria, Mongolia, Xinjiang and Tibet. If these regions are kept under control by China, it would ensure security from threats that could develop from Russia in the North, and India in the SW.
(b) Ensure that the Sea Lanes of Communication are secure and fully under its control. Towards this end it has been taking action for domination of the South China Sea and island territories.
(c) China views India as its only regional rival, so it keeps her under military and diplomatic pressure by continued development of infrastructure, air and missile bases in Tibet; surrounding India by the string of pearls policy and building strategic collaboration with Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. It also ensures slow movement in the resolution of border problems with India.
On China’s SW flank lies the highly unstable region of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Its relations with Pakistan continue to enjoy the highest priority and are driven by a strong strategic calculus. That calculus arises from its perceived need for a second front to keep India preoccupied.
In China’s strategic calculation, its ability to prevent a military conflict with India depends on a strong Chinese military capability in Tibet and a strong Pakistani military capability in the nuclear and conventional fields on India’s western front.
In Afghanistan it looks forward to great economic possibilities but is wary of extremist’s influence spreading into Xingjian. Consequently, China is keen to see peace and stability in Afghanistan so that its ambitious OBOR project can be successful.
On the basis of its strategic thought and national priorities, China has come up with the idea of OBOR, reminiscent of the ancient Silk Road along which trade and cultural exchange with central Asia and the Indian subcontinent was undertaken.
Historically Xi’an was the starting point of the ancient Silk Road. It is now being revived through the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB). The SREB, along with the proposed Maritime Silk Road (MSR) connecting ports of various countries in China’s extended neighbourhood, are collectively termed as the OBOR initiative.
According to Chinese expectations the proposed OBOR initiatives could impact 4.4 billion people and within a decade generate trade above 2.5 trillion USD.
These ambitious plans, launched by Xi in 2014 to connect China with its neighbours in Asia and beyond, involve more than 60 countries. China plans to finance OBOR projects through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the $40 billion Silk Road Fund.
Chinese president Xi Jinping has made the program the main pillar of his foreign policy and the force multiplier of his domestic economic strategy. In March 2016, China’s top economic planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), released a new action plan outlining key details of the OBOR initiative.
Initially described as a network of regional infrastructure projects along a trade route, this latest release indicates that the scope of OBOR initiative has continued to expand and will now include promotion of enhanced policy coordination across the Asian continent, financial integration, trade liberalization, and people-to-people connectivity.
China’s efforts to implement this initiative will have an important effect on the region’s economic architecture, patterns of regional trade, investment and infrastructure development.
If the initiative succeeds as per the plans, then it will have strategic implications for China, the United States, and other major powers including India and regional countries.
A vision document jointly prepared by a composite team from the Ministries of Commerce, Foreign Affairs and the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) revealed the geographic parameters of OBOR. It will have two components:
- Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB)will be established along the Eurasian land corridor from the Pacific coast to the Baltic Sea.
- Maritime Silk Road (MSR) will compriseports & coastal infrastructure from China, South Asia, East Africa all the way to Northern Mediterranean region.
The “belt and road” running through the continents of Asia, Europe and Africa are expected to connect East Asia economies and European economies.
The most vital strategic implication of the OBOR initiative backed by an extensive China-led funding of infrastructure is: it could shift the centre of geo-economic power towards Eurasia and have direct impact on the US strategy of “Rebalancing”.
Specifically, the OBOR focuses on bringing together China, Asia, Russia and Europe and hopes to extend on to the Baltics. It will link China with the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea through Central Asia and West Asia. It will also connect China with Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Indian Ocean. By this process China hopes to gain access to immense natural resources in Central Asia.
The Central Asian States have a huge reservoir of natural gas and oil.With the US-Russia stand off continuing, Moscow is looking forward to new customers in the East and specifically at China, which happens to be an energy hungry nation. So are all regional countries for that matter. Towards that end OBOR holds promise for many stake holders in many ways.
Afghanistan is blessed with untapped mineral deposits of gold, lithium, and hydrocarbons worth around $1 Trillion. That is enough attraction for continued involvement with Afghanistan by western and regional countries and China.
Kazakhstan is known as the “Buckle” of OBOR initiative. It is the largest land locked country in the world. Surrounded by Russia and China it has huge oil and mineral deposits. It is also the gateway to the Caspian Sea and Europe.
The Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) and Corridor Investment Programs, multilateral institutions and development banks have funneled billions of dollars in loans and grants to fund an international corridor that will connect China to Western Europe.
This, along with other international infrastructure initiatives, is a part of China’s economic strategy to utilize its excess industrial capacity and workers. Along these routes will move Chinese exports to the west, while energy imports will move eastwards to China.
The details released so far indicate that the Belt part of the OBOR will be a planned network of overland road and rail routes, oil and natural gas pipelines, and other infrastructure projects that will stretch from Xi’an in central China, through Central Asia, and ultimately reach as far as Moscow, Rotterdam, and Venice.
The “Road” is actually the maritime part of the initiative encompassing port and other coastal infrastructure projects that dot the map from South and Southeast Asia to East Africa and the northern Mediterranean Sea.
The new Belt and Road plan jointly released by the NDRC and the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Commerce, highlights that the scope of the initiative will extend well beyond infrastructure construction. The program will also include efforts to promote greater financial integration and use of the Renminbi by other countries, create an “Information Silk Road” linking regional information and communications technology networks, and lower barriers to cross-border trade and investment in the region.
New regional financial institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and New Silk Road Fund (NSRF), are designed in part to complement and support the OBOR initiative.
The Parallel Belt
On 9 July 2015, Xi Jinping held his second summit with Russia and Mongolia. Both President Vladimir Putin and President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj of Mongolia participated in the meeting in Ufa, Russia.
The meeting resulted in formal approval of the Mid-term Roadmap for the Development of Trilateral Co-operation between China, Russia and Mongolia. It was also agreed that the Planning Outline of China-Russia-Mongolia Economic Corridor Co-operationis to be formulated to align the SREB with the Eurasia Economic Union and the Steppe Road Initiative.
In order to further enhance trilateral trade facilitation, the three parties decided to look into the possibility of setting up a co-operative mechanism for their respective economic and trade departments. It was also agreed that efforts will be made to improve co-operation between industrial associations and chambers of commerce in the three countries.
Further, it was decided that consideration will be given to advancing customs co-operation, exploring the possibility of establishing a joint company for China-Russia-Mongolia rail transport and logistics, strengthening co-operation in the technological sector, and promoting investment in infrastructure projects.
This would be the Parallel Belt to the OBOR, reinforcing the strength of the latter.
The Chinese Angle
It is well known that China is currently experiencing economic slowdown. To give its economy a boost, it needs to improve connectivity between under developed southern and western provinces, its rich coast line, as also the countries along its periphery. The OBOR project can help to achieve these objectives.
The system of ports, railways and roads which have either been completed or are under construction or being proposed will enable China to diversify the routes by which it can secure the transport of oil and gas and other essential goods needed to sustain its economy. This will enhance China’s energy and economic security and mitigate the risks attendant to transporting fuel and goods through unstable, unsecured or unfriendly sea lanes of communication that could be interdicted in a conflict scenario.
In recent years China has also started to use regional financial institutions as a counter to USA’s similar initiatives. China backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), established in 2013 to assist regional countries in infrastructure development and support the OBOR initiative, is an example of China’s efforts towards that end. The financial initiatives of these institutions could impact on America’s “rebalance to Asia” policy.
China’s initiatives linked to OBOR have the potential to change the entire global power structure by producing new dynamics in interstate relations and military alliances.
OBOR and Indian Security Concerns
Both OBOR and AIIB are China’s bold new ventures and Beijing wants India to participate in them. However, Indian response is guided by a complex set of factors centering on its security concerns thatare influenced by geo-political compulsions.
The main problem is an unresolved border dispute with China. To keep the issue alive, Chinese troops frequently carry out incursions across the Line of Actual Control which demarcates the Indian and Chinese held territories.
Another matter of concern for India is the military and political backing that Pakistan receives from China. The situation is further aggravated by the continued development of civilian and military infrastructure in Tibet and in Pakistan occupied Kashmir by China, giving it enormous capability to carry out a military build up against India. OBOR infrastructures will act as force multipliers for China and Pakistan against India.
While China claims that OBOR is essentially an economic and trade oriented project, its obvious military dimensions cannot be ignored by India under the existing circumstances.
Indian hesitation in embracing the China-led OBOR is increased by the proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which will become an integral part of OBOR. China has declared a 46 Billion USD support to Pakistan for the CPEC project.
The CPEC is expected to connect Kashgar in China’s restive province of Xinjiang with the Gwadar port in the volatile Baluchistan province of Pakistan. It will pass through Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Gilgit-Baltistan. India claims these territories but they are occupied by Pakistan.
In the Gilgit Baltistan segment the CPEC project includes a major expansion of the Karakoram Highway, establishment of industrial parks in special economic zones, construction of hydropower projects, railway lines and roads.
The project also entails building hydropower projects and highways in Pakistan occupied Kashmir which assumes an interstate political dimension. Consequently, India has raised objections to Chinese projects in this region.
The Karakoram Highway(KKH) connects the Gilgit–Baltistan region of Pakistan to the ancient Silk Road. It runs approximately 1,300 km from Kashgar in the Xinjiang region of China to Abbottabad in Pakistan. China and Pakistan are planning to link the Karakoram Highway to the southern port of Gwadar in Balochistan through the Chinese aided Gwadar Dalbad in railway line which extends to Rawalpindi. Eventually all these projects are expected to become apart of the OBOR initiative.
As Kashmir continues to be a very sensitive region, construction of infrastructures that have a strategic bearing on Indian security are viewed with grave concern by the Indian government. Therefore, India has to be very cautious in its approach to OBOR and allied projects.
Indian concerns with the China Pakistan military ties are exacerbated by growing presence and influence of China in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region. OBOR, with its network of China sponsored infrastructure projects in and around Indian neighbourhood amplify Indian anxieties.
India has repeatedly drawn China’s attention to these issues. But China remains seemingly indifferent to Indian apprehensions. China has emphasised that its involvement in PoK and Gilgit-Baltistan is for economic reasons, and should not be seen as supportive of Pakistan’s position on the Kashmir issue.
China further professes that socio-economic development is the key to resolving regional security problems. In fact, the consensus in China seems to be that the root cause of terrorism in Pakistan is poverty and unemployment, and that infrastructure development will stabilize the country. Therefore, OBOR and CPEC are projects that will bring stability to the region, claims China.
While this may be true to a limited extent, it is certainly not the magic solution to resolve terrorism problems that have been the scourge of the region. In fact, Chinese projects and labourers in Gilgit Baltistan and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir have faced violent attacks by Xinjiang origin militants.
Similar security problems could surface in Pakistan as far as OBOR is concerned. Extremist organizations like the TTP are likely to leave no stone unturned to inflict damage on the CPEC. In Baluchistan groups that are fighting against the Pakistan State will do the same. It is not surprising therefore that Pakistan army has announced the creation of a division sized force exclusively for guarding the CPEC infrastructures throughout the country. This force may find its task difficult and quite unmanageable.
As far as India is concerned, it too wants better connectivity with Afghanistan, the rest of Central Asia and beyond, and also with Myanmar and South East Asia eastwards. Both regions suffer from disrupted connectivity due to rampant insurgencies. Undoubtedly OBOR will help in improving regional connectivity and socio-economic conditions.
Traditionally India enjoys goodwill in South Asia, West Asia and South East Asia. Under the circumstances an India China partnership will benefit both countries. It will add an impetus to the implementation of China’s OBOR initiative. China is aware of this fact. Therefore, it looks forward to Indian support for the OBOR initiative, but is not dependent on it.
Strategic Implications of OBOR
India, the US, Japan and Russia are concerned by the possible geopolitical impact of OBOR even though China has tried to allay their apprehensions. There is no doubt that OBOR could lead to greater Chinese influence in Central Asia and beyond.
Viewed from the context of String of Pearls policy of China, Indian concerns go beyond the economic impact of OBOR. They extend to strategic implications of unprecedented Sino Pak military collaboration in a conflict scenario.
From the Indian point of view participation in the OBOR project would also require a major change in its political stand on Kashmir. If India acquiesces to the construction of OBOR through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, it could be seen as a massive climb down from its stated position. This will not be acceptable to any political party in India.
OBOR therefore become a contentious issue for India. On the one hand it raises the possibility of an increased military threat, while on the other hand it promises economic benefits that could transform the entire region dramatically. India has to play its part with great care and maturity.
As far as Russia is concerned it has always viewed Central Asia as its southern backyard. Chinese influence in that region is a matter of concern for it. However, recent developments as a result of NATO expansion and sanctions have restricted Russian economic growth. This has helped to bring Russia and China closer together, including on the issue of OBOR.
If the OBOR initiative achieves its economic goals it could make China the dominating economic power. Backed by its military strength and technological advancement, in the decades ahead China could be placed on the threshold of becoming the leading global super power. This would be a tremendous set back for the strategic superiority exclusively enjoyed by the US. The dominant role played by NATO could also come under severe stress triggering a discussion in the Alliance and with in Europe on the relevance of NATO and indeed on the need for towing the US foreign policy line.
Undoubtedly OBOR is an initiative that could change the face of Asia. It can help countries recover from poverty and under developed conditions by bring about socio- economic prosperity.
According to some experts, the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative will be a reality with more and more countries joining the bandwagon. If India remains isolated, it can lose a great opportunity for socio economic progress. This could prove to be a strategic set back. Instead, if it decides to cooperate, it can work out a plan beneficial for all.
At the same time India cannot rush to embrace the OBOR initiative overlooking its military dimension. That remains the stumbling block. Ultimately India will have to think out its response one way or the other; it cannot for ever remain on the fence.
With the US economy yet to recover fully from the global economic crisis, Russia struggling from sanctions and European Union weakened with its inherent economic and political issues, China is set to fill the global power vacuum. OBOR initiative could be the key to Chinese ambitions.
On the other hand, China has to be more reassuring of its intentions globally.
It must move ahead on the resolution of the border problems with India.
China has to resolve problems in South China Sea more amicably. So far it has it has not done so.
In the year 2017 the issues related to the Chinese project of One Belt One Road and China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) were complicated by several developments even though China and Pakistan continued to move the project forward.
The first serious development came about when PLA began to construct a road in a disputed region on the border of Bhutan. The alignment of the proposed road was also directed towards a very sensitive point in India. The road, if built, would bring within the artillery range of Chinese guns a narrow stretch of land in Indian territory which connects eastern India with its western part. In other words, China could pose a severe threat of interdiction from the proposed road head.
Incidentally the region through which the road was being constructed is barren and at an altitude of 11000 feet. There are no towns or villages which the road could connect. Chinese activity left little doubt in the minds of Indian officials that the road would pose a strategic threat to India.
It is also important to note that Bhutan has an agreement with India which places the responsibility for its security on the latter. The area is also under dispute, and by an earlier agreement China and Bhutan were to maintain status quo on the issue. Now China was arbitrarily changing status quo.
Consequently, in consultation with the government of Bhutan the Indian army stepped in and physically prevented the road construction. Though no firing incident took place, the two armies remained in a tense face off situation for three months. Chinese media and official commentary derided and threatened India with a view to make it step back. From the Indian side there was calculated calm but no stepping back. Ultimately by end August both sides agreed mutually withdraw, the face off thus ended. However, Indian position on the issue remained unchanged.
Among a number of reasons why China initiated the road construction in a disputed area, was its intention to provoke Indian reaction hoping to highlight Indian inability to take any meaningful action against China. This was to be Chinese display of displeasure about India’s objections to the OBOR and CPEC project. However, the entire exercise failed to go the way China had wanted. India’s position on the OBOR and CPEC remain unchanged.
The second development interestingly took place in Pakistan and related to the objectives of the OBOR and CPEC projects. While the Chinese government had been harping on the benefits of trade and development that OBOR and CPEC would bring to the region, particularly to Pakistan, there remained an element of secrecy about the projects which slowly began to emerge.
A Pakistan daily Dawn, revealed some parts of the master plan of OBOR/CPEC that were generally not known. For instance agriculture was one of the biggest priority of CPEC which would enable the entry of Chinese enterprises into Pakistan with the agricultural production finding its way back to China. The absence of these details in the web site of OBOR/CPEC raised suspicion in Pakistan. The Dawn wrote “This suggests that a policy framework is being built, under the guise of a ‘national food security policy’, that, in reality, is designed to lay the groundwork to advance the agriculture-related priorities of Chinese enterprises, as the master plan document revealed in the Dawn report clearly stated.”
Similarly, in the financial sector China is trying to promote Yuan for payment purposes.
China also visualizes that OBOR will promote cultural exchanges
These examples are being processed behind the scenes between the two governments, it is not known if there are other proposals that have not been made public. Consequent to the disclosure by the Pakistani news paper, doubts have arisen as to what are the hidden objectives of China under the banner of OBOR/CPEC. Would it one day so dominate that Pakistan is reduced to a status of a Chinese colony deeply indebted by the supply of billions of Dollars and a strangle hold on its economy. Pakistani citizens have begun to think on these lines. A gigantic and ambitious project like OBOR cannot succeed on the basis of secret provisions and hidden objectives.
On the other hand, the strategic threat faced by these projects and the recent developments in Sino-Indian relations do not inspire confidence in India.
With the new political dispensation in the US shying away from its commitments in South East Asia, a power vacuum has been created in the entire region. China is striving hard to step into this space thus leading to a drastic change in the strategic environment of Asia. This could result in new alignments and changed power equations.
These developments have only served to harden the Indian objections to OBOR and CPEC project.
The project itself has huge security obstacles in its path, its success cannot be guaranteed unless those hurdles are overcome. Where the ambitious Chinese project will ultimately lead the region only time will tell.