The just concluded Third China-South Asia Think-Tank Conference at Kunming, China (12-13 June) marked an important step for China&’s forward “Belt and Road’ (BAR) diplomacy. The conference, which coincides with the impressive China and South Asia Expo, is regarded as a major event for the organisers the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences. This year,. India had a sizeable representation at the Think-Tank Forum. The other countries that were represented from the region were Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Myanmar, Maldives and Singapore in addition to a very large representation from different parts of China.
Economic Belt and Silk Road has been a pet idea of Xi Jinping ever since he took over as China&’s President. He first mooted the proposal in Kazakhstan in September 2013 and since then he has been discussing, even promoting, the plan in course of his visits to Central and South Asia. The earlier idea of a BCIM-Economic Corridor appears to have been subsumed by it. In this diplomatic blitzkrieg into South Asia, China looks upon the Think-Tanks in the region as important instruments for generating consensus on the issue not only among top-level leaders and policy-makers but also among the common people. China regards the Belt and the Road project as capable of generating common benefits for the whole region so that countries in the region could go forward ‘neck by neck’ in ensuring infrastructure, industries and economic development.
China&’s representatives have agreed that BAR is ‘the most complex’ concept that Beijing has ever projected. A lot remains to be done before BAR attains fruition. For instance, the points to be connected on the BCIM route need to be discussed among the countries concerned. The route may have to pass through regions of natural disasters and terrorist activities. The feasibility of the methods will determine the sustainability of the projects to be undertaken. There is also the issue of financial assessment which, if not done in a pragmatic manner, will result in half-finished projects. Raising money for the projects is another vital area of concern. Obviously, funds from the Asian Development Bank will be inadequate. AIIB (China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) funds as well as market borrowing would have to be accessed. An information data-base through micro-research is imperative.
Representatives of South Asian think-tanks have generally welcomed BAR as a laudable idea even though they have expressed certain apprehensions. A particular cavil was that the idea was both ‘under-explained and oversold’. The Chinese side needed to explain it further. The perspectives of individual countries needed to be understood and appreciated. It was pointed out that the ‘dispute in the South China Sea’ raised the issue of ‘one country doing something not acceptable to another country’ and it was important to know how BAR would deal with similar situations. Some described it as a ‘grand strategy’ and a ‘bold initiative’ though not historically a new concept. It needs to be a ‘shared concept’ taking everybody on board. The concept of “Mausam’, advanced by India and endorsed by a number of South Asian representatives, also calls for reflection.
The general view was that BAR should not be ‘thrust upon’ any country. Some argued there was scope for bringing together the silk route and the spice route.
While Chinese and Pakistani representatives emphasised that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor was a ‘bilateral issue’, some others, including the Indian think-tank representatives, felt that it raised several controversial issues. Both Chinese and South Asian speakers agreed that to make BAR a success, greater mutual trust was necessary. Although the idea had the potentiality, its effectiveness would depend on how China&’s national interest and common interests converge. This is not easy to achieve in an era of nation-states.
Of course, over the past three decades China has strengthened cooperation with South Asian countries. Its bilateral relations in the spheres of energy, transportation and trade have achieved considerable headway in recent times. China&’s imports play a beneficial role for the economy of its neighbouring countries. At the same time it cannot be denied that it has registered a downward trend. It is time that China, instead of looking towards the USA and Europe as export targets, should attempt to redirect her exports and infrastructural investment to her Asian neighbours. For China, the significance of the BAR initiative lies in its promise to bolster its own sluggish growth through integrating its domestic economy with that of regional economies. The regional countries will have to carefully scrutinize whether it will be the most efficient way to benefit, keeping both short and long-term interests in mind.
The ancient silk route connected China with Central and Western Europe… up to Rome. The southern silk route and the maritime silk route connected China with South and South-East Asia. These were two-way trade routes which were also used by itinerant pilgrims and religious preachers.
Today, to draw lines on the map along these ancient trade routes and to claim that they marked an exclusive zone of trade and dense economic relationship centering around and led by China will beg a number of questions. Does it mean that countries within the zone will sever their trade and economic relations with countries outside the zone? Would, for instance, China terminate its robust trade relations with the USA which will be outside the zone? If it only means an assertion that countries within the zone will try to develop closer economic relations with each other, then it is redundant because trade relations will develop whenever and wherever there are opportunities. Or does it mean a covert attempt by China to mark a sphere of influence for herself in which case it would be dangerous? The scholars representing the Think-Tanks at the Forum will certainly have to ponder over these issues.