Games China plays The Excelsior 18 May 2022
Xi Jinping, on assuming presidency of China, announced the launch of Belt Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013. It was his brainchild and as the absolute monarch of an authoritarian government, it was pushed through employing a ‘whole of China approach.’ Because Xi believed in it, the Chinese government believed in it. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a major project under the BRI, was launched with full fanfare in 2015. The BRI at its peak involved 13,000 aid and debt financed projects worth more than USD 850 Billion spread across over 160 countries.
For India, the bug bear was that the CPEC transited through disputed POK, with China claiming that it was an economic project with no connection to the border dispute. Since China ignored Indian concerns, India refused to participate nor attend any conference on the BRI. Further, India and the west rightly termed the BRI as a debt trap. Over the years, this was proved right. Since 2018, China has been slowly scaling back its funding as nations falling into Chinese debt traps, default on payments. The BRI was further impacted by COVID.
BRI granted unfair advantages to Chinese concerns. 70% of loans were provided directly to Chinese companies involved in construction in the host nation. This hid true debt figures. The current Maldives government on assuming power was not even aware of the amount owed to China. The figures were shared by the Chinese ambassador. Currently, 42 nations owe more than 10% of their GDP to China.
Many countries were forced to sign away strategic assets to China to avoid default. Sri Lanka surrendered its Hambantota port, Uganda handed over its Entebbe airport, while Zambia lost its state-owned copper mining companies. The Chinese naval base in Djibouti is being expanded because China holds most of the nation’s debt. Many more countries, including Pakistan, are in a similar predicament. Some nations have been able to reschedule debt repayments.
However, the BRI suffered setbacks when nations comprehended true Chinese motives. A report stated that Chinese investments reduced by 54% to USD 47 billion in 2020 and disbursement of loans reduced from USD 75 Billion in 2016 to 3 Billion in 2020. Wang Xiaolong, a member of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s International Economic Affairs Department, mentioned that ‘20% of BRI projects were seriously impacted while 40% were adversely impacted.’ Only 32 projects of the CPEC in Pak have been completed out of 122 planned.
Many nations defaulted, with Zambia leading the way in 2017 and Sri Lanka the latest. A report in Euromoney summed up a failed BRI when it stated in an article titled, ‘China: End of the belt and Road’ in Jun 2020, ‘you are going to see not clarity but messiness and fudging, with the aim of avoiding a massive default or a diplomatic disaster that will make the leadership look bad. In China, muddling through is a historic problem.’
With the BRI a failure, Xi has jumped in with a new proposal, which he outlined while addressing the Chinese Boao Forum. He termed it as the Global Security Initiative (GSI). He stated, ‘China would like to propose a GSI, that is, to stay committed to the vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security. It would oppose unilateralism and say no to group politics and bloc confrontation.’ He added that this would, ‘oppose the wanton use of unilateral sanctions and long-arm jurisdiction.’ Since Xi proposed it, every Chinese government official began pushing it.
The Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng discussing the GSI in an online dialogue with global think tanks, stated, ‘The idea is to take the new vision on security as the guiding principle, mutual respect as the fundamental requirement, indivisible security as the important principle, and building a security community as the long-term goal, in order to foster a new type of security that replaces confrontation, alliance and a zero-sum approach with dialogue, partnership and win-win results.’
Possibly the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, suggested the concept to India during his last visit, when he stated that the two nations must move forward ignoring the border issue. His offer was bluntly turned down with the message that normalcy along the LAC is a pre-requisite to normalization of ties. This proposal comes while China challenges its neighbours over islands in the South China Sea (SCS) by offensive naval actions, India over Ladakh and threatens Taiwan.
The GSI includes adhering to the UN charter. It was China in 2016 which refused to accept the UN Tribunal ruling on the SCS, dumping the same charter it now advocates. The reality is that nations in SE Asia only face threats from China and hence such an alliance, headed by China, has no meaning. Cambodia, Pakistan and Myanmar, all indebted to China, would have no choice but to join the initiative. This may signal some success internally but never globally.
China is aware that the US, post containing Russia in Europe, by sucking it into Ukraine for a prolonged operation, will, alongside NATO shift focus onto the Indo-Pacific intending to contain China. Hence, the GSI appears to be China’s counter to AUKUS (Australia, UK and US) security pact and the QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue). Expectedly, China will propose to be the senior partner, bullying others to follow its diktat.
All Southeast Asian countries, bordering China, have lost its trust on account of its aggressive policies. They may simply ignore the proposal. China and ASEAN nations have yet to firm up a common policy on the SCS despite multiple rounds of discussions, mainly because of distrust. In this environment such a security alliance is unthinkable.
China hopes that by proposing the alliance it would gain diplomatically as it did with the BRI. There is also a possibility that China may coerce a few debt trapped nations in Africa to join the GSI as an alternative to repaying loans. It would be hoping that in case it pushes through the alliance, it could block support to the US and NATO as they expand into the Indo-Pacific and Africa. Finally, with Xi facing internal pressures on account of a falling economy, collapsing BRI and mismanagement of COVID, GSI could change his fortunes in the forthcoming 20th Congress, where he seeks a historic third term. Realistically, on account of Chinese aggressiveness, this scheme is destined to fail even before it is launched.