China’s OBOR Game: A Promise or Predicament?

[ Dr. Jajati K. Pattnaik ]
Beijing organised One Belt One Road (OBOR)/ Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Forum for international cooperation on 14-15 May 2017 to build the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) for expanding global trade and commerce. SREB thrusts upon six land corridors-that is- China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor (CMREC); New Eurasian Land Bridge (NELB); China-Central and West Asia Economic Corridor (CCWAEC); China-Indo-China Peninsula Economic Corridor (CICPEC); China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC); and Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIMEC) .The Maritime Silk Road (MSR) –that is- sea/ocean corridor connects China’s eastern ports with the ports of Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Africa, West Asia, Mediterranean and Netherlands in Europe.
It is pertinent to mention here that New Delhi skipped the meeting because the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which passes through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) violates the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India. The top leaders from US and Europe did not attend the summit; they sent their low key official representatives to the OBOR meet. However, a few world leaders like Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Ranil Wickramasinge, Russian President, Vladimir Putin and Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended the forum meet. Thus, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s address in the opening ceremony of OBOR forum has evoked mixed response among the academia, foreign policy watchers and the global media.
Civilisational Linkages
During the opening ceremony, President Jinping traced back the early civilizations and highlighted the role of ancient cities that strengthened cross country trade and cultural linkages flourishing free flow of knowledge, religion and philosophy beyond the geospatial boundaries. He said, “The ancient silk routes spanned the valleys of the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Indus and Ganges and the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. They connected the birthplaces of the Egyptian, Babylonian, Indian and Chinese civilizations as well as the lands of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam and homes of people of different nationalities and races. These routes enabled people of various civilizations, religions and races to interact with and embrace each other with open mind. Today, ancient cities of Jiuquan, Dunhuang, Tulufan, Kashi, Samarkand, Baghdad and Constantinople as well as ancient ports of Ningbo, Quanzhou, Guangzhou, Beihai, Colombo, Jeddah and Alexandria stand as living monuments to these past interactions.” He further added, “This part of history shows that civilization thrives with openness and nations prosper through exchange.”But in practice it is to be seen how far this religious syncretism spelt out by the Chinese President would pay off in securing free flow of trade and culture etc. given the nature of religio-cultural differences and the protectionist measures being adopted by the reactionary regimes in the contemporary international relations.
Panchsheel
President Jinping reintroduced Panchsheel to cement good and stable neighborhood. As he mentioned, “China will enhance friendship and cooperation with all countries involved in the Belt and Road Initiative on the basis of the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence. We are ready to share practices of development with other countries, but we have no intention to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs, export our own social system and model of development, or impose our own will on others. In pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative, we will not resort to outdated geopolitical maneuvering. What we hope to achieve is a new model of win-win cooperation. We have no intention to form a small group detrimental to stability, what we hope to create is a big family of harmonious co-existence.”  His idea is fine. But the China –Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which passes through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), which legally belongs to India, contradicts Xi’s calls for peaceful co-existence.
Inclusive Development
Beijing focused on free trade, technology – ridden development, financial investment, equity and inclusive development in the OBR meet. President Jinping said, “Trade is an important engine driving growth. We should embrace the outside world with an open mind, uphold the multilateral trading regime, advance the building of free trade areas and promote liberalization and facilitation of trade and investment. Of course, we should also focus on resolving issues such as imbalances in development, difficulties in governance, digital divide and income disparity and make economic globalization open, inclusive, balanced and beneficial to all.” But the ground reality is quite different. Most of the African and Asian countries clubbed in the OBOR project are not at par with China in terms of socio-economic development. Even, some of them are grappled with deep economic divides and huge social disparities. But joining OBOR means borrowing loans mostly from the China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China. So, the question arises here, will they able to repay the loans lend by those profiteering financial institutions? The answer is certainly ‘No’. As a consequence, the OBOR project would create space for market imperialism often forcing them to fall into a debt trap situation. In that case, China might use this geo -economic strategy for larger geo-political interests, even in terms of intervening in their domestic affairs in the long run perspective.
China is harping on ecological norms to control the environmental damage. In theoretical plenum, it sounds good. But in practice, the situation is quite different given the nature of global warming and associated ecological disasters are concerned. So, OBOR’s multilayered infrastructural projects and growth generating models might have serious environmental concerns and health hazards across the belt. For example, China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which passes through the sensitive mountainous terrain of Karakoram and other economic corridors which cross significant ecological zones raise several questions regarding our concerns towards sustainable development and the protection of planet earth. Besides this, the toxic materials and other hazardous wastes arising out of mining and allied industrial activities might have grievous impact upon the health and well being of the people across the economic corridors as well. Thus, the need of the hour is to rethink our future. As renowned British scientist, Stephen Hawking says “we have 100 years to colonize a new planet—or die. Could we do it?” (The writer is an Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Jomin Tayeng Government Model Degree College, Roing, Arunachal Pradesh. He was formerly a Visiting Scholar at the Gulf Studies Programme, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi).

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