One Belt, One Road and Geopolitics in the Indian Ocean Region

By Masood Khan

The full title of One Belt, One Road (OBOR) is the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st century Maritime Silk Road. These appellations manifest that One Belt, One Road is the revival and rejuvenation of the ancient Silk Road but the new routes are much larger in scale and outreach. Such a composite and, at the same time, sprawling initiative is unprecedented in the history of the world. It aims to connect Asia, Africa, Europe and the oceans and seas surrounding these continents, around China’s growing global economic clout. China would help finance and build infrastructure networks that would develop Eurasian land bridge, the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea as the connective nodes. This vision is couched in China’s overarching policy axiom “development equals security”. China estimates that once OBOR runs its full course it would bind 4.4 billion people in 65 countries in multiple, intricate and interdependent relationships.

The primary purpose of this initiative is to foster connectivity by strengthening and expanding trade and investment arteries, promoting financial integration and increasing Chinese people’s interactions with citizens of other countries. Highways, railways, ports, airports, pipelines, telecommunication hubs and industrial zones are being built all over the world with the Chinese help.

China has thus presented a new model in international relations for conducting business among major powers: cooperation and connectivity leading to a spillover of peace and prosperity; rather than competition, exclusion and confrontation.

The OBOR initiative is strong, robust and credible because it commits tangible resources to support and sustain it. China’s policy banks have announced that they would finance the projects whose initial cost is estimated to be at least one trillion dollars. China has already invested hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure projects in more than 60 countries. China’s economic geography is therefore trans-continental and transoceanic. The new OBOR is supported by China-led multilateral development banking system in the form of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Silk Road Fund. Chinese efforts to mainstream its currency, Renmenbi, as international currency are paying dividends, thanks to China’s well-woven web of currency swap arrangements with dozens of nations across continents. What is more, China has been succeeding in its efforts. This new architecture, however, overtime will compete with the Asian Development Bank and the Bretton Woods Institutions.

The question in the policy and academic circles is whether OBOR is a win-win, inclusive economic enterprise or China is seeking strategic influence through it. Both dimensions are relevant – the economic in the short-term and the strategic in the long run. The latter will be a product of the former. OBOR’s intent is geo-economic; its cumulative impact would be geo-strategic. Power configurations would alter!

OBOR will benefit China for sure. Since the turn of the century, the leadership of the Communist Party of China has been trying to spur economic growth in its western and southern provinces to bring them at par with the eastern provinces. This goal is now being pursued vigorously under the rubric of OBOR. It is also true that China over the years has accumulated excess capacity in industry, manufacturing, energy, and infrastructure that is going abroad. This is precisely what the western national and multinational corporations have been doing for years – taking their abundant expertise abroad for investment.

In the past decade, China has been deeply wary and concerned about its encirclement in the East Asia where it was constantly challenged by its neighbours in the north – Japan and ROK – and Vietnam and the Philippines and other ASEAN countries – in the south, all backed by the US. China would not cede its footprint in the Asia-Pacific region, and in fact has become more assertive on the disputed islands issue. It desperately needed to look for alternatives.

From 2008 to 2012, before the launch of OBOR, Chinese leaders and academics strongly hinted that they were working on conceptualizing a Go West policy, among others, to balance the United States’ pivot or rebalance to Asia. The U.S. influence in Central Asia was tenuous, Russia and China were bound together through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Europe was not overtly hostile to China, and Africa welcomed China’s investments. China had already constructed oil and gas pipelines originating from Central Asian states to China. Pakistan emerged as a strong, potential conduit for direct access to the Middle East through land route for developing a reliable, alternative corridor for energy security. During a crisis, these new routes would enable China to bypass the chokepoint of the Malacca Strait.

As the new Silk Road would pass straight through Central Asia, still considered by Russia as its sphere of influence, would China’s ingress into this region on this scale disrupt Russia’s arrangements and cause disaffection in Moscow? The answer is no. Russia sees clear advantages in China’s deeper economic and strategic ties in Central Asia which should help it deal more securely with the U.S. and Europe, stave off Western forays into Central Asia, and fight Islamic extremism in its own territory. Of course, as OBOR progresses, Russia’s influence in the region could be affected.

Does OBOR signal that China has unfurled its grand strategy to become world’s preeminent engine of growth and a new strategic kingpin? The answer is that China already is indispensable for world markets but its strategic influence is evolving and would be shaped in great part by a successful implementation of OBOR.

Europe welcomes OBOR as a whole but the European Union hopes that decisions would be taken by Brussels on behalf of the entire EU, and China would not transact with EU members bilaterally. The EU also fears that China’s inroads in the Central and East European nations under the framework of CEE + 1 would erode its own influence in the regions. In the years to come, the EU would try to persuade Beijing to assimilate OBOR into the framework of the EU-China Strategic Partnership and European Maritime Security, as an extension of its European Union Neighbourhood Policy. But it would have only limited success because many European countries like to deal with China individually and directly.

The U.S. would strive to slow down the juggernaut of OBOR by such instruments as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, but the tired and overstretched western economies, or their parliaments, will not be able to cough up critical amounts for new infrastructure projects in the three continents earmarked by China.

In the meantime, China would like to beef up supporting mechanisms of OBOR – the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures (CICA), as well as pare back opposition to Beijing within ASEAN.

Now let us turn to the Indian Ocean.
The most visible and palpable impact of the OBOR in regard to the Indian Ocean is the announcement to build the Gwadar Port as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). India is neuralgic about this development. Shayam Saran, India’s former Foreign Secretary wrote, if OBOR succeeded, India would be “consigned to the margins of both land and maritime Asia.” India’s worries stem from two sources: CPEC and the Maritime Road, and the latter, en route, projects its linkages to the ports of Chittagong, Kolkata, Colombo and Karachi. Sri Lanka has signed an agreement with China on Colombo Port City Project. China will build a deep-water port and a special economic zone in Kyauphyu in Myanmar. This perturbs India. For years, India has been considering the Indian Ocean as its exclusive backyard lake and considers that these developments would undercut its influence vis-a-vis other littoral states.

India has taken several steps to secure its position. To begin with, it has criticized China for launching OBOR as a unilateral, national initiative and urged it to transform it into a regional or international cooperative initiative to enhance connectivity. It has also objected to CPEC passing through the Gilgit-Baltistan territory. On the other hand, it has joined AIIB with a proviso inserted in its Charter requiring the agreement of the parties to the conflict in regard to projects in the disputed territories. India is also conveniently using Sri Lankan ports developed by China and has invested in Iranian Chabahar to counter Gwadar, and access Central Asia through Iran and Afghanistan. India has shown scant enthusiasm for the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor, the corridor being promoted by China, but has floated an idea for a direct India-China Silk Route Corridor (ICSRC) connecting Xinjiang with Ladakh. In fact, India would first try to develop its own geo-strategic, maritime realm and then absorb the BCIM in it. Its desired realm would include the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal, the Mekong-Ganga corridor, a prong passing through Myanmar’s Rakhine province, and connecting to the Sittwe port. This network could then be looped with Sri Lanka’s Trincomalee and Iran’s Chabahar.

This all looks good on paper and surely ambition permeates these aspirations but India does not have China’s ingenuity and resourcefulness to accomplish these goals. Since China’s Belt seemingly renders India helpless and China’s Road makes it insecure, India would invest even more heavily in its conventional and strategic military capabilities. Indian Navy will grow exponentially. Indian response to China also includes an attempt to rename Asia-Pacific as the Indo-Pacific region, among others, to create legitimacy for its presence in the South China Sea. India’s investment in armaments, with the backing of the U.S., would make the Indian Ocean much more unstable and volatile. This could also threaten to erode China’s vision of a global community of shared destiny.

India believes that it owns and dominates the Indian Ocean and that the United States’ naval presence at Diego Garcia is largely symbolic, leaving pretty much to India to patrol the high seas from the Gulf of Aden to the Malacca Strait. It only grudgingly recognizes the role and presence of other navies, including Pakistan’s.
But there is a new player in the Indian Ocean – China – which in 2008 dispatched its flotilla for UN Security Council-mandated anti-piracy operations off the Gulf of Aden. India has hyped Chinese submarines’ “visits” to the Indian Ocean and development of Hambantota and Gwadar worry India to create a justification for its tests of submarine launched, second strike capable, long range interceptor missiles in the Indian Ocean. Apparently, and disingenuously, India’s concerns extend to the eight Chinese Yuan-class conventional submarines for Pakistan, and nuclear armed missiles on Pakistan’s ships. Besides the US and India, Australia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa, France and the United Kingdom will have a role in the Indian Ocean, in varying degrees.

China would enter into the Indian Ocean slowly and steadily but in a self-effacing manner so that it is not perceived as an extra-regional power. But its real competition is with the United States’ world class navy, which China could outcompete in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, in the next two decades. Until that time, China would meticulously avoid gratuitous projection of its blue water strengths, though it has demonstrated them amply and credibly.

India would remain restive and the U.S. would continue to redeem it. As Economist, in its article “A Suitable Boy?” published in its April 16 issue, points out, the U.S.-India Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement opens up new avenues for cooperation between the two nations in the Indian Ocean and enables India to acquire U.S. made “long-range patrol aircraft and drones, maritime helicopters, aircraft carrier technology and anti-submarine gear.” This, the magazine argues, India needs in part to counter Chinese built “network of bases…. extending from Myanmar to Pakistan to Djibouti.”

Against this backdrop, Pakistan has some stark choices. I underline ten priorities.
First, Pakistan has to implement the CPEC as a strategic project. And this is already being done. Necessary measures are being taken to provide security to Chinese personnel, entities and assets. We have to continue to combat terrorism, because that too undercuts CPEC, and allay Chinese concerns regarding the activities of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). This is already being done quite effectively.

Second, the people of Pakistan have to give broad ownership of the CPEC. In that context, repeated attempts to build political consensus are a must, as we have seen in the recent past. The government and various political forces have crafted a semblance of consensus. And, as we know, consensus building is not a one-off exercise. It needs to be continuously nurtured. It requires constant engagement and endeavour. This too I believe is happening.

Third, by embracing the CPEC and Gwadar, Pakistan has also opted for its strong naval presence in the Indian Ocean. That necessitates a stronger Pakistan Navy for protection of the sea lanes carrying our as well as international merchandize and for general maritime security. This task, as Pakistan Navy knows, would require more naval assets and related infrastructure. While China would be there to safeguard its own interests in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, Pakistan, which up to now has been largely oriented as a land and air power, would have to build its conventional and strategic naval muscle proportionately. Pakistan’s full spectrum deterrence will not be complete without a triad vis-a-vis India, including a symmetric and credible naval component. The stronger a country’s economy is the stronger security cover it would need to protect and maintain it. Pakistan has a narrow window to buttress its naval capabilities. The opportunity will vaporize fast if we think that this task belongs to the distant future.

Fourth, Pakistan has to fight off a fierce battle against espionage and subversion on its soil. There would be a thick precipitation of spy networks, from friends and foes alike in varying degrees, along the coastline and Gwadar itself is a target. Indian commander Kulbhushan Yadav’s clones will continue to proliferate. Both Pakistan and China know that. Deeper cooperation and a more effective strategy are therefore required to combat this menace.

Fifth, a comprehensive mapping and oceanographic survey of our maritime sector and marine resources should be expedited to develop our coastal economy so that it can support the mega-project of CPEC. The National Institute of Oceanography should be activated and this kind of effort should be led by Pakistan Navy, with the full support of the concerned ministries and parliament. We have to think of Pakistan’s coastal economies supplementing and augmenting the land-based economy; and of weaving together the entire coast encompassing Gadani, Ormara, Pasni, and Jiwani.

Sixth, since 95% of Pakistan’s freight trade is seaborne, it is necessary to equip Karachi and Bin Qasim ports with modern technology, enhance dredging capacity, and improve their management to make them competitive regionally. This work is already being done in collaboration with China but it needs more emphasis, and a newer orientation.

Seventh, while Pakistan strives to create national harmony and a peaceful neigbourhood, it should lend a helping hand in stabilizing the situation in the Middle East and the Gulf Region. The old order is fragile and new levers for equilibrium have to be explored by regional states.

Eighth, one of the weakest point in Pakistan’s foreign policy today is limited exposure to Africa. To be a CPEC, OBOR and Indian Ocean nation, Pakistan should reach out to Africa, which is an upcoming continent, and set up common platforms with Africa’s emerging economies.

Ninth, Pakistan should further consolidate its all-weather friendship and strategic cooperative partnership with China. It should simultaneously develop and maintain good relations with the U.S., Russia and Europe and littoral states in the Indian Ocean. Instead of a uni-linear approach, it should pursue a multi-angular foreign policy to reduce competition and confrontation in the Indian Ocean and to ensure the success of CPEC.

Finally, Pakistan should not implement the CPEC and hook up to the OBOR by clinging to a mindset based on past constructs of failure. Pakistan’s economy, CPEC, and Pakistan’s state have turned a corner. We, Pakistanis, tend to oscillate between megalomania and appeasement. The megalomaniac says we should conquer the world; the appeaser whispers that we should surrender, unconditionally, to whoever hurls a howl at us. Our calling as a nation is for neither of these choices, because we have to build a progressive, democratic and prosperous state harking to the aspirations of its 200 million people devoted to the ideals of peace and amity.
Last year, after President Xi Jinping’s visit to Pakistan, an astute Indian analyst wrote that the “historic Chinese thrust to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean via the Gwadar Port, if it is allowed to succeed, will transform the geopolitics of the entire region phenomenally” and make Pakistan “one of the most coveted real estates in global politics….” The onus is on us to make Gwadar and CPEC a success and to believe in our destiny as a pivotal state.

The writer is Director General, Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad and a former Ambassador to the United Nations (in both New York and Geneva) and China.


Categories: Analysis, Geopolitics, Technology

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