Beijing is gaining allies in its campaign to build a new Silk Route. India will have to decide how to react, writes Humphrey Hawksley
China attempted to mark its role as leader of a new world order by hosting a summit in Beijing in May for its strangely-named Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the plan to create a network of new trade routes that link Asia to Europe. The hugely expensive and ambitious vision entails new roads, railways and shipping lanes, vast amounts of concrete and the blasting of tunnels through mountains.
With it comes Chinese-style development, which is pitting itself against the Western model that has dominated for so long, bringing infrastructure and connectivity to the heart of the debate between authoritarianism and democracy. Instead of the West’s development model of aid underpinned by democracy, in comes the Chinese model of trade underpinned by infrastructure.
President Xi Jinping, with his multi-trillion dollar war chest, is leading the charge, but Russia’s Vladimir Putin is keenly riding shotgun, as both leaders revel in what they see as the apparent chaos now enveloping the West and its values of liberal democracy.
But the two other two Asian giants, India and Japan, have kept their distance, wary of joining anything that resembles a Beijing-led strategic coalition. There are also growing claims of Chinese neo-colonialism. One often-cited criticism is that the main difference between the 19th century and the present is that countries are not invaded; they are bought.
Seen one way, a swathe of territory stretching between Moscow and Beijing may be coming under anti-American authoritarian control, conjuring up a spectre of the Cold War. An alternative view is that there are not many big international visions around at the moment, and this is one. The BRI talks up shared prosperity, open borders, free trade and glittering skyscrapers, all derived from legends of the ancient Silk Route that connected diverse civilisations.
Xi first launched the idea in 2013, bolstering a long-held ambition to shore up China’s supply routes and access to raw materials, thus guaranteeing Chinese security. It is seen as a new-style Great Wall by land and sea, part of which has been the building of contested military outposts in the South China Sea and of ports through the Indian Ocean, known as the ‘string of pearls’.
So far, some 50 Chinese companies have become involved in more than 1,700 Belt and Road projects, which include a Western Europe-Western China highway, thousands of miles of high-speed railways, and oil and gas pipelines across Asia. Key to its success, however, will be China’s ability to work with Russia, and the two governments have been busy forging joint projects.
Among them is a China-Russia Regional Co-operation Development Investment Fund; joint planning in the Arctic, including on the new shipping routes through the North-West Passage which have been opened up by climate change; and a China-Mongolia-Russia economic corridor to improve transport links in this remote Asian region. This deal combines China’s BRI, Russia’s Trans-Eurasian Belt Development and Mongolia’s Prairie Road programme.
Xi’s May summit was not lacking supporters. Dozens of governments attended, among them some of the world’s leading autocrats – Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Kazakhstan’s Nursaltan Nazarbayev. In all, there were 29 heads of government and 1,500 delegates, signing up to dozens of projects aimed at cutting customs red tape and building infrastructure among 70 per cent of the world’s population.
‘Opening up brings progress, while isolation results in backwardness,’ declared Xi. ‘Global growth requires new drivers, development needs to be more inclusive and balanced, and the gap between the rich and the poor needs to be narrowed.’ Close behind came Putin’s endorsement. ‘It is important to create convenient, clear and predictable conditions for investors and to establish the smooth exchange of best practices,’ he said, taking a swipe at the American-led world order, which in his view is on its way out.
For Xi and Putin, BRI and its related programmes are the ‘boots on the ground’ that will define their Asian century, even though it may well prove to be the biggest test ever of the Sino-Russian relationship. The BRI cuts straight through Russia’s embryonic Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), a Moscow-dominated grouping that is barely two years old. The idea, which has been around almost 20 years, was to mirror the European Union, with its own courts, rule of law, and financial and customs regulations.
But as of now the EAEU has only five members, far fewer than Moscow would like, and China will have to be careful to avoid upsetting Russian sensibilities. It was revealing that Putin felt a need to justify his enthusiasm at the Beijing summit by saying there were no grounds for fears about Chinese business ‘taking over the Russian economy’.
China and Russia have many common interests, but there is little real warmth between them. Bad feeling lingers from the rupturing of their alliance during the Cold War, and even as far back as 1949: China has never forgotten Stalin’s off-hand treatment of Mao Tse-tung during his visit to Moscow that year.
Beijing may have to adjust its manner of doing business, or risk alienating India and other countries reluctant to choose sides in these global power shifts. Take the disputes over the South China Sea, where Beijing insists on dealing bilaterally with individual governments, not the regional Association of South East Asian Nations. Its purpose there is to diminish US involvement, but similar behaviour in Central Asia will not go down well in Moscow.
‘These problems could affect the realisation of Beijing’s grand vision,’ says Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Moscow Center. ‘They could lead to increased tension between Russia and China over influence in Central Asia.’
Against this backdrop, India could use its long-standing relationship with Moscow to try to ensure a more compliant China in South Asia, persuading it not to cross unacceptable lines, such as building roads through what Delhi considers sovereign territory, or controlling ports in areas it regards as its own backyard.
By forging closer Russian ties on regional infrastructure programmes, India would also dilute its growing reliance on the United States, whose relations with both Moscow and Beijing are likely to become more confrontational in future.
India has boycotted the BRI so far because a $46 billion China-Pakistan trade corridor goes through Kashmir. ‘No country can accept a project that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity,’ said the Foreign Ministry in Delhi. But India does not have an alternative compelling vision of its own for the Asian century, and development will forge ahead regardless.
Rather than being forced to react to the BRI vision, India could find an acceptable, face-saving way of becoming a substantive player within it. As the positions of Russia, China, the US and Japan become more entrenched, India could act as wise counsel to them all, while exploiting the programme to achieve much-needed development and poverty alleviation.
The alternative would be to continue playing third fiddle in America’s alliance with Japan and, with that, the increasing likelihood that Delhi at some stage would have to choose among global powers. With its long history of independent thinking and non-alignment, that is not a preferred place for India to be.