Responding to China’s New Silk Roads Initiative

Originally published as ‘China’s New Silk Road Diplomacy’The Organiser (Delhi), Vol. 66, No. 46, 17 May 2015.

Launched in 2013, the so-called ‘new Silk Roads’ trace both land and sea routes from China to Europe and Africa respectively, and form an ambitious Chinese project to win friends and influence people. Where a section of India’s China analysts and policymakers across two different political dispensations have been remiss, is in anticipating the ambition and scale of the Chinese initiative. It goes without saying therefore, that devising a suitable response has been accordingly wanting.

OBOR – What India Should Know

One, the OBOR is a project to transfer China’s excess capital, infrastructure capacity, and polluting industries abroad. China, of course, does not have a choice in the matter given the problems of local government debt due to unsustainable GDP-boosting infrastructure development over the decades and the huge environmental crisis it faces today. However, Beijing does have a choice about how and where it will employ its capital and capacity, for there is simultaneously also a demand across Asia that only China at the moment appears both willing and able to meet.

New Delhi need only contrast the US$20 billion that Chinese President Xi Jinping promised India during his September 2014 visit with the US$46 billion that has been promised to Pakistan during his visit there last month over the same approximately five-year period. The fact that Xi chose Pakistan for this largesse despite its economic weaknesses and political uncertainties suggests that China is confident that it can make a difference to Pakistan’s economic development.

Two, the OBOR is not simply economic in nature but about converting Chinese economic might into diplomatic and political advantages. Thus, even as China faces international heat on a number of territorial disputes, it has simultaneously tried to engage with its neighbourhood and overcome suspicions by promoting people-to-people contacts and media management. Beijing is providing hundreds of thousands of scholarships to foreign students and sending its reporters and scholars across the world to learn what it can do better and to construct positive narratives about China.

Three, the OBOR is not a short-term policy but designed to be the overarching framework of Chinese foreign policy under the Xi Jinping leadership. It builds on the economic reforms and opening up legacy of Deng Xiaoping and the military modernization, indigenous technological development and strengthening of strategic sectors and enterprises in the economy under his successors. The OBOR is a legacy issue for Xi that will be relentlessly promoted by the Chinese leadership with all instruments at its command. Indifference or opposition will be viewed in Beijing as an unfriendly act.

However, four, what exactly is defined as a success under the OBOR and how exactly it will go about achieving it is probably not clear even to the Chinese. In other words, the OBOR is not exactly a grand Chinese strategy though it comes pretty close. What the Chinese have done – pushed by structural economic imbalances at home and the need to take charge of reshaping their external environment – is simply displayed greater spunk, creativity and a willingness to take risks by wrapping its national interests in the form of a grand economic plan for its wider neighbourhood. This is a plan that can and will change and adapt to the circumstances. Thus, participation in the OBOR also offers opportunities for other countries to themselves shape Chinese actions and narratives.


China's 'belt road initiative' - still under construction
China’s ‘belt road initiative’ – still under construction

India’s Response

However, for India to be able to shape the Chinese agenda through its participation in the OBOR, it will need to be equally bold, creative and resourceful. At the moment, such qualities are far from visible. Take for instance, India’s widely differing responses to the OBOR and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) – a cold shoulder to the former and a founding member in the latter.

First, the justification given in New Delhi is that unlike the AIIB which displayed a specific purpose, utility and structure, the OBOR seemed to possess more form than substance or clear objectives, there was little against which it could be compared or measured. This distinction forgets, of course, the fact that even the AIIB appeared to not have been very warmly welcomed by New Delhi – it sent only a middle-ranking bureaucrat to the first meeting of the founding members which was otherwise attended by ministers and heads of state.

It also forgets that for the Chinese, the AIIB is very much part of their OBOR framework. Further, Indian policymakers might also ask themselves what is to become of the BRICS New Development Bank set up just last year and for which they fought long to create mechanisms to balance China in the decision-making process. The BRICS nations, including even far-away Brazil, are also members of the AIIB, possibly undercutting the relevance of the BRICS bank.

Next, waiting for greater clarity on an initiative that the Chinese have spared no effort to promote since 2013, speaks of laziness at best or an inability to comprehend the scale of Chinese ambitions at worst. If India’s diplomats and analysts were really watching closely and participating in the numerous conferences the Chinese themselves were organizing on the subject, they should have figured out sooner that the Chinese were not going to let the ball drop on OBOR. Indian indifference or churlishness should simply not have been an option.

Third, given how the Chinese were going about literally rewriting or modifying history to create a positive narrative about the new Silk Roads, Indian observers should have understood faster the seriousness of the Chinese project and the need to respond to it quickly. Coming from a great civilization themselves and as inheritors of long history of trade and cultural contact with the other countries, it is only India that can challenge the Chinese narrative of the ‘Silk Roads’ being exclusively Chinese and its ignoring of the contributions made by other ethnic groups and civilizations.

P50208-124158-seahorse spouting
careful what you spout

Correcting a Vicious Cycle

The Indian response can perhaps be explained as the result of a vicious cycle of its own making.

There simply are not enough Indian diplomats and analysts watching China full-time. Area and foreign language studies are famously underfunded in India. At least a decade’s worth of committees and plans to expand the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) have yielded little or no gains. India’s MEA is 4,000-odd strong of which only less than a quarter are actually of the IFS officer cadre. Lateral entry of experts from both within and outside the government remains limited or actively opposed. India is therefore, unable to act and respond quickly, leave alone come up with initiatives. This inability is then covered up by officials by suggesting that the Chinese are not to be trusted, that India has nothing to gain from their plans, and so on. In the process, India loses the opportunity to challenge and/or influence the Chinese agenda.

By contrast, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs which is presently some 6,000 strong has plans to expand to about 15,000 by 2020. It is also far more open to integrating military officers, scholars and other experts from outside into diplomatic activities and missions abroad.

What is worse, India’s current political leadership seems to have aped the sense of elitism and hierarchy that pervades the IFS and which allows it to neither expand nor perform to its full potential. Chinese leaders, today, have a busy, year-round calendar of foreign visits and hosting foreign leaders. This work is carried out not just by President Xi, Premier Li Keqiang, State Councillor Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi but also shared among other members of the CPC Politburo and its Standing Committee. Chinese diplomacy is also supported by the many provincial leaders who also travel abroad and host foreign leaders frequently. In India, Prime Minister Modi’s tendency to dominate the foreign travel headlines and to monopolize the foreign policy decision-making process stands in sharp contrast to the deeper, more sustainable process in China.

Fittingly enough, a year’s high degree of activity beyond India’s borders for the Prime Minister concluded in China. To the many lessons he learned from China on previous visits as a state chief minister, Prime Minister Modi will hopefully add a realization of the sheer inadequacy of current mechanisms and institutions in India in pursuing and fulfilling any of India’s grand initiatives from Project Mausam to ‘Make in India’. He should devote the next four years of his term to overhauling and massively expanding the numbers in India’s foreign policy establishment and bring in greater integration with the armed forces, universities and research institutes. Further, these reforms must move beyond New Delhi to both the rest of the country and missions abroad. Indeed, it is time that Indian states had their own foreign affairs departments and representations at embassies abroad.

Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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