During the last three years, President Xi has taken many strategic initiatives to realise the ‘Chinese dream.’ While attending an exhibition on “Road to revival” in November 2012, Xi Jinping explained what the amorphous term ‘Chinese dream’ meant to him. He said, “Every person has ideals they pursue, their own dreams. Right now, everyone is discussing the Chinese dream. I think that the realisation of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people is the modern era great dream of the Chinese people.”
A whole range of analysts have tried to understand President Xi’s “China Dream.” Some of them like Kim Dramer have even discussed its impact as China’s effort to create a new world order. Probably, as Professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom says, “Xi’s Chinese Dream is protean. He associates it with different things at different times in different places.” But China assuming a position of international centrality as well as reverting to its classical traditions is central to his visualisation of the Chinese Dream. At the same time, President Xi would like the Communist Party of China (CPC) to complete “a surge to global prominence and strength.”
Since he came to power in 2013, President Xi has been hard selling the gigantic One Belt One Road (OBOR) infrastructure project to revive the historic Silk Road link from China to Asia and Europe. This has been on the top of his agenda to every country he visited since 2013, including India. Reviving the ancient silk route from China to Europe through Central and West Asia as the OBOR, along with its subsidiaries to populous South Asia is at the heart of the project. The two South Asian projects – the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) multimodal project and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor project – have strong economic and strategic connotations for India.The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR), promoted as part of the OBOR, aims at reviving the maritime links of the 14th Century Chinese Admiral Zheng He across Indian Ocean Region (IOR), where India continues to be a dominant naval power.
Apart from these influences at work, President Xi also has been facing enormous economic pressures to get the OBOR functional as part of the strategy to control the rapid erosion of China’s economic power with the steady fall of its double digit growth rate since 2012. According to a Bloomberg report of 23 December 2016, President Xi seems to be reconciled to a growth rate even less than the benchmark average rate of 6.5 percent for five years promised by policy makers in 2015 to build a “modestly prosperous society” by 2020.
The OBOR-MSR initiative across Eurasia can fulfil many of these needs because it is valuable strategic vehicle to achieve China’s “surge to global prominence”. President Xi mooted the idea of jointly building the infrastructure initiative, for the first time while visiting Central Asia in September 2013. Since then, the OBOR has come to dominate China’s foreign policy discourse. President Xi has taken personal interest in promoting the OBOR whichever country he visited including India. In 2014, he pledged a sum of $40 billion to support the initiative. As Christopher K. Johnson observes “the OBOR is comprehensive, focused and personal to President Xi. As with his rapid consolidation of political power, the striking feature of Xi’s efforts in this area is the speed with which he is moving to put his own stamp on China’s foreign affairs.”
China had been promoting the OBOR as a development, rather than strategic, initiative. However “there is little doubt, that President Xi views OBOR as the signature foreign policy theme of his leadership tenure as the practical embodiment of his ‘China Dream’ for promoting national rejuvenation and cementing the country’s place as a leading world power.”The full text of the “Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Belt and Road” explains the global strategic context of the OBOR. It says the initiative to “jointly build” the OBOR “embracing the trend towards a multipolar world, economic globalisation, CHINA’S ONE BELT ONE ROAD: AN ANALYSIS Col R Hariharan OBOR cultural diversity and greater IT application, is designed to uphold the global free trade regime and the open world economy in the spirit of open regional cooperation.” Thus its scope is much more than building transcontinental infrastructure links. The objectives of OBOR are listed as:
regional cooperation of higher standards.
Conceptually this makes the OBOR initiative an attractive proposition for participating countries as smoother trans-Asia-Europe connectivity would open up backward areas for international investment, development and trade. Chinese funding, made available for the project, makes it even more attractive. On the flip side, the experience of some of the countries where China had aided and carried out projects has not been very pleasant. The Chinese have generally been seen as narrow and self-serving without prioritising the overall interest of the host nations. The experience of China’s trade and investment strategies in some of the countries like Myanmar and Sri Lanka have gained notoriety due to lack of transparency, back room deals with politicians and vested interests to the detriment of national economies, increasing their debt burden and creating environmental and political backlash.
Despite such adverse experiences, most of the participating nations in Asia have welcomed the OBOR as it would also promote people to people links to build bridges between nations to usher in peace, amity and prosperity. Moreover, the OBOR could kick start development and improve the quality of life of the people in these countries some of which are among the world’s poorest nations with very low HDI.
The text avers the OBOR “a positive endeavour to seek new models of international cooperation and global governance,” that would “inject new positive energy into world peace and development.”This has made the US and
its Western and Asian allies suspicious of the strategic objectives of OBOR as it has the potential to become an important part of China’s efforts to promote a new world order. Their fear seems to be justified as the OBOR would vastly improve China’s strategic access to promote its political, trade and economic interests in 64 countries, including oil-rich Central and Western countries and populous nations of South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) littorals.
The suspicions about China’s strategic intentions have been further reinforced by its aggressive stance to defend its territorial claims in South China Sea, even afterthe Permanent Court of Arbitration rejected China’s claims to a scattering of rocks and reefs in the South China Sea which were contested by Philippines.Many analysts consider China’s increased flexing of military muscles is due to its confidence in the modernised PLA’s capability to defend its strategic interests globally. President Xi is implementing a number of measures to modernise PLA’s command and control structure to improve its readiness and flexibility in decision making, prune PLA’s flab and recruit better educated soldiers and officers to be able to operate jointly with the air force, navy and missile forces in the modern battlefield. He has cleansed the Augean stables of corruption among the officer cadre to improve the PLA’s allegiance to the CPC and improved its grassroot linkages. Thus, PLA has greater capacity than ever before to defend China’s interests, not only on land, sea and air, but also probably in space as well. According to a March 2016 Peoples’ Daily report, China is well on track to building modern strong army. It has “rolled out measures to restructure the armed forces, increased civil-military integration and taken a zero-tolerance stance on corruption”.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense 2016 Annual Report to Congress on China, as China’s global presence and international interests grow, “its military modernisation program has become more focused on investments and infrastructure to support a range of missions beyond China’s periphery, including power projection, sea lane security, counter-piracy, peacekeeping, and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR).” The Report further states efforts are on to improve PLA’s “key capabilities that would be used in theatre contingencies, including cruise missiles; short, medium, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles; high performance aircraft; integrated air defence networks; information operations capabilities; and amphibious and airborne assault units.”
So it was not surprising when China made public its intention to build its overseas military support facility in Djibouti in November 2012. This signals the shift of China’s strategic military presence from regional to global space as it can sustain the PLA Navy’s operations far from home shores. A powerful PLA operating across the continents will become a reality during the next decade, enormously increasing not only China’s strategic interests and assets but prestige as well. Thus, the OBOR network is poised to become a game changer in the strategic equations between China and other nations. In China’s emerging strategic dynamics OBOR has as big a strategic role to play as its global economic assertion.
India’s Uncertainties about China’s role in South Asia
Ever since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has had four bilateral meetings with him, in which the central theme had been to build win-win relations between the two countries. The Indian Prime Minister himself raised the optimistic note by coining a new term “Inch (India and China) towards Miles (Millennium of Exceptional Energy)” to describe the potential of India-China relations.Since then, they have taken a number of measures to foster trade, investment, strategic cooperation on global issues and people to people relations between the two countries. China has also been actively involved in various projects in India i.e., industrial infrastructure and feasibility of high speed railway project etc.
Joining the OBOR would be a logical step for Prime Minister Modi to speed up the promotion of his national vision of “Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas”(Together with all, Development for all) for collective efforts for inclusive growth of every Indian. However, after all the bonhomie, India-China relations have entered a period of uncertainty due to China’s huge investment in building a multifaceted strategic relationship with Pakistan at a time when India was frustrated by Pakistan’s inaction to rein in Pakistan army-sponsored Jihadi terrorist operating from bases in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) infiltrating into Jammu and Kashmir state to carry out attacks and trigger unrest. In a bid to safeguard India’s interests in this worsening scene, Prime Minister Modi has strengthened strategic partnerships with the U.S., Japan and Vietnam to protect traditional areas of Indian influence in South Asia and the IOR that are being eroded by China’s increased presence. India’s public stand in support of the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea (SCS), which was similar to the stand of the U.S. and its Asia-Pacific allies, and the Indian navy conducting the 2016 Malabar trilateral joint naval exercises off Japanese coast in the vicinity of SCS have added to China’s suspicions about India’s intentions in respect of China.
China’s frustration with India probably explains its continued stand against India on some key issues like the denial of membership of the Nuclear Supply Group and opposition to the UN Security Council declaring Masood Azhar, the leader of the Jaish-e- Mohammad (JeM), a UN-listed terrorist. China’s stand on Azhar is an anachronism as the UN has already listed the JeM as a terrorist group.
Chinese foreign ministry’s frequent admonitions on Indian conduct over the Dalai Lama and ‘gross interference’ in the affairs of Arunachal Pradesh and frequent “warnings” as well as condescending advice from Chinese commentators to India probably reflect China’s overall frustration rather than animosity with India. Despite such periodic fulminations, both Indian and Chinese foreign ministries have maintained a level of equanimity in publicly expressing their views, by and large, to focus more on positive aspects of the relationship between the two countries.This would indicate further maturing of the relationship between the two countries to see each other’s differing views as part of a relationship building process. Both President Xi and Prime Minister Modi have continued to keep their communication links open to avoid minor misunderstandings snowballing into conflicts. This augurs well for both India and China as they need each other’s support, cooperation and strength to further the development agenda and avoid conflict.
However, both the CPEC and the BCIM projects are central to China’s South Asia agenda. Both projects have their own implications for India in the emerging dynamics of South Asia. President Xi invited India to speed up the OBOR when he met the Indian Prime Minister for the first time on the sidelines of 6th BRICS summit at Fontaleza, Brazil in July 2014. He wanted India to speed up building the BCIM which would link up Kolkata with Kunming in Yunnan. Since then he has continued to maintain the same refrain on the project. He saw it as a part of the regional consensus to step up economic integration in the region while speaking at the recent BRICS summit in India.
Though India had been an active participant in the deliberations on the BCIM corridor project it seems to have reservations about the project. The project passes through an environmental and geo-strategically sensitive region involving five countries which have their own internal issues complications that could vitiate the full success of the project. These have the potential to go beyond control of both India and China particularly when there is a frustrating lack of a transparent process in place. Moreover, the waters of India-China relations have been turned murky by the CPEC infrastructure project promoted by China in Pakistan in utter disregard to India’s strong objection to it as it passes through PoK under Pakistan’s illegal occupation. This has probably made India cautious in dealing with China.
In conclusion, we can expect China along with Russia and some of the regional powers challenging the European-US combine, already struggling to retain their ability to dictate terms of global conduct. In this eye-ball to eye-ball confrontation between the two power-centres, India has a crucial role as a major Asian power bordering China with rapidly growing economic and military clout. Its huge underserviced markets and influence across Asia has the potential to make the OBOR a profitable proposition to China.
Though both President Xi and Prime Minister Modi are trying to set aside their age-old animosities and build a win-win relationship, China’s strategic sallies with India’s neighbours and building strategic bonding including promotion of the CPEC infrastructure project with Pakistan has made India suspicious of China’s intentions in South Asia. Similarly, China’s suspicion about India’s strategic intent regarding China has been tweaked by India’s growing bonhomie and strategic relationship with the U.S., Japan and Vietnam. However, China needs India’s participation to make the OBOR an economic reality just as it needs India to take active part in its effort to promote a new world order to break Western hold.
China also needs India’s underserviced market to further its investment and trade interests while India needs Chinese investment and entry into Chinese markets to fulfil its development goals faster. So India- China relations have entered a transitory stage under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi and President Xi; much would depend upon how the two charismatic leaders overcome their mutual suspicions and take forward the relationship.
For this to happen, the two nations should focus on each others’ strengths rather than weaknesses. Confidence building measures between them is going to be a difficult process with the entry of China in Pakistan in a big way as it gives an undue strategic advantage to both countries in their relation with India. Ideally, China could use its clout with Pakistan to give a positive turn to its relationship with India. As this is unlikely to happen, the India-China relation is likely to continue to be subjected to mutual suspicious, buffeted by global power realignments. India’s active participation in OBOR is hence likely to be limited to the BCIM corridor project.
CHINA’S FRUSTRATION WITH INDIA PROBABLY EXPLAINS ITS CONTINUED STAND AGAINST INDIA ON SOME KEY ISSUES LIKE THE DENIAL OF MEMBERSHIP OF THE NUCLEAR SUPPLY GROUP AND OPPOSITION TO THE UN SECURITY COUNCIL DECLARING MASOOD AZHAR, THE LEADER OF THE JAISH-E-MOHAMMAD (JEM), A UN-LISTED TERRORIST. CHINA’S STAND ON AZHAR IS AN ANACHRONISM AS THE UN HAS ALREADY LISTED THE JEM AS A TERRORIST GROUP.
Col R. Hariharan, a former MI officer, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), from 1987 to 90. A longer version of this article is available at Chennai Centre for China Studies C3S Paper No 0001/ 2017 http://www.c3sindia.org/india/ 5910.