Geo-politics of BRI and China’s quest to become a ‘Superpower’

Summary: The BRI initiated by China was portrayed as a challenge to a unipolar world in favor of multi-polarity, non-intervention in internal matters of other countries, egalitarian and fairer financial structures and institutions along with lasting partnerships for mutual development marked by cooperation not domination. However, BRI has morphed into anything but these objectives.

From forcing countries with much smaller economies into a debt-trap to imposing its imperial dictum on other nations in the name of connectivity, the BRI has evolved into a mechanism for China to portray itself as a ‘Superpower’. The dip in the global economy and the stress on countries is only working out in the favor of China. Though few countries like India have resisted and avoided falling into the trap, the world is wary of the initiative and alternate global alliances are being formed to take on China.  (Part one of two part series)

China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) is simultaneously viewed as a project that can harmonize national interests by facilitating trade and communication, and as a project that furthers Chinese agenda at the cost of other states’ interests. Despite arguments in favor of the economic benefits that can be accrued from the project and China’s repeated invitations, India has refused participation in BRI. Even a cursory glance at the map for proposed corridors, both in sea and overland, is sufficient to conclude that the BRI has obvious implications for India.

Despite the corona pandemic, new agreements have been signed with countries such as Iran, and work on stalled projects has resumed. If anything, China has utilized this as an opportunity to strengthen support for the initiative through supply of medical assistance.

What is the Belt & Road Initiative?

Initially known as ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR), BRI has two main components – the overland Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road (MSR). First introduced by President of People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping in Kazakhstan in 2013, the BRI is an ambitious connectivity project which seeks to connect China with Europe through Central Asia, Africa, South Asia, and South-east Asia by building a network of roads, railways, power grids, pipelines, ports, and paraphernalia of related infrastructure. It has continuously expanded and evolved since, and now it also covers South America, cyber space and outer space.

BRI as actualization of an alternative narrative

In challenging the west’s ideological dominance in international relations, China has created a narrative that its own guiding principles are unlike the current western model of hierarchies, unending expansionism and domination-subjugation. The departures portrayed in this new narrative are- first, challenging status quo in favor of multi-polarity; second, non-intervention in internal matters of other countries and respecting their sovereignty; third, egalitarian and fairer financial structures and institutions; fourth, partnerships for mutual development which are marked by cooperation not domination.

BRI is supposed to showcase all this and represent the beginning of a new chapter in international relations which is marked by trust, cooperation, meaningful partnerships and mutual development. It is this consideration that made Beijing change the initiative’s name from ‘One Belt, One Road’ to ‘Belt & Road’ as the former was interpreted as being one country’s (China) belt and road.  

As the centerpiece of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy, China presents BRI as the actualization of ‘a new kind of international relations’ underpinned by win-win cooperation – a giant step to common development based on free will and partnership on equal footing. Beijing repeatedly marks the BRI as ‘community of common destiny’. This new kind of international relations, as stated by Xi, involves concepts such as ‘diplomacy with Chinese characteristics for a new era’ and a ‘global community of common destiny’. However, as the project is being implemented on ground, an increasing number of observers are pointing to the discrepancy between what Beijing says and does.

Debt-Trap Diplomacy and BRI

BRI covers Mackinder’s ‘heartland’, effectively leaving the USA sidelined, through its corridors. China seeks to secure an uninterrupted inflow of energy and other resources from the Middle East and Africa. The current route through the Indian Ocean isn’t conducive enough due to the presence of US military bases, Japan and of course, India. China’s domestic energy is going to treble by 2030. High levels of population and pollution with rising living standards makes them seek food and water security beyond their boundaries in the long run.

Unfolding reality contradicts China’s stated principles of ‘win-win cooperation’ and respecting sovereignty. For instance, Sri Lanka had to hand over the Hambantota port to China for ninety-nine years due to the burgeoning burden of debt from China. As per reports from the Centre for Global Development Maldives, Pakistan, Djibouti, Kyrgyzstan, and some others owe more than half of their foreign debt to China. This has been dubbed as China’s ‘debt-trap diplomacy’. Djibouti owes debt more than 70 per cent of its GDP. Tajikistan owes half of its external debt to China, and Pakistan owes approximately one-fifth of its external debt to China due to CPEC. Maldives owes an estimate of 3 billion dollars when its GDP is approximated at 5.7 billion dollars in 2019. Almost seven years since the launch of the initiative, the geo-strategic agenda is evident now. Investments are being made in projects that make no financial sense but are driven by geopolitical needs, especially when it comes to the Indian Ocean port projects (String of pearls theory must be kept in mind here). 

Imperialism disguised as connectivity

Connectivity has long been recognized as an integral element of global politics as well as a reflection of new political and economic realities. The relationship between trade routes and imperialist expansion is historically known. Vasco de Gama’s discovery of sea route to India paved the way for European colonialism, as did Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. The fundamentals of China’s emergence as a contender for superpower status are similar to the European imperialism. It is characterized by expansion with no definite limit, becomes a matter of national prestige, fueled by economic motive, dominating the weaker players, and guising of this hegemony as humanitarian or civilizing effort.

BRI started out as a revival of the ancient Silk Road connecting Asia and Europe in the form of Euro-Asia Continental Bridge. Now it has expanded to include Africa, Latin America and even outer space. The ancient Silk Road thrived during the Han and Tang dynasties which the Chinese view as the period of their strength, territorial unity, flourishing trade and cultural inclusiveness. The BRI is therefore perceived as expansion of the Chinese civilization and China’s return to the prosperity, strength, and outwardly orientation associated with that period.

The economic motives are manifold. Chinese economy is facing the problem of surplus capital and relatively low domestic demands. The BRI provides fresh markets as well as new sources of raw material, and avenues for new investments. This is remarkably similar to the colonial railways built to extract raw material for industries from the interiors of the colonies and flood their markets with final goods industrially produced. There is no responsibility towards the adverse impact on the environment, human rights and corruption.

It is being argued now that unlike the ancient Silk Road which brought benefits to all the regions along it, the BRI is primarily geared towards Chinese interests and falls much short of its claim of mutual benefits. Chinese companies are the main beneficiaries as they bag the major construction projects. The work is carried out not through local workers but Chinese labor.  

Countries with much smaller economies, in need of capital are being trapped using unsustainable debts. It has a direct impact on decision making by the governments in these countries. For instance, post the inflow of Chinese capital, the Dalai Lama was not allowed to visit South Africa. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed has openly called the BRI as ‘a new version of colonialism’ and has compared deals with China with unequal treaties forced by Britain on China after the opium war.

All this while, China continues to stress the benevolence of the initiative. The Chinese diplomats try to dismiss suspicions by saying that China does not play ‘little geopolitical games’. Much like the Europeans shouldered the White man’s burden the Chinese want to share the benefits of their development with their lesser fortunate neighbors and benefit the entire human community.   

Superpower Syndrome

All of China’s current efforts are geared towards becoming the dominant player in the world, second to none. BRI is another step towards returning China to its former glory of being the most powerful kingdom in the world. Of course, this has brought it in direct confrontation with the current superpower USA. The basic components of superpower stature are generally measured along four axes of power: military, economic, political, and cultural.

The BRI helps propel China to the superpower status on all these four counts as discussed above. The extent of China’s influence upon decision making in international bodies and other sovereign countries has been brought to fore by the Corona pandemic. Through a combination of economics and soft power, China has been able to steer clear of any major backlash so far, and has even started calling upon countries to collaborate for working on developing health corridors aspect of the BRI.   

(The author is a political science research scholar. This is part one of the two-part series)

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By Isha Tripathi

Political Science research scholar

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