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Beijing’s hard and soft touch

May 17, 2017;

The Pioneer, 17 May 2017

China’s history is replete with threats and territorial demands. Sino-Indian talks on border disputes have one theme: ‘What is with us now is ours’

Notwithstanding several Indian liberal thinkers’ strong advocacy for India to endorse China’s magnum opus, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in view of China continuing to roil the waters for India, its leadership has had to opt for a principled no-show at the Beijing summit on the trans-continental One Belt One Road (OBOR) project. (The Road refers to ancient maritime routes between China and Europe; the Belt describes the Silk Road’s better-known trails overland.) President Xi Jinping looks back on the era of fabled Silk Road as China’s golden age. Soon after his ascension, he announced, “The greatest Chinese dream was the ‘great revival of the Chinese nation’.”

Claiming to invest about $150 billion a year in OBOR countries, President Xi has travelled far and wide, with cheque-book in hand, scattering multi-billion dollar infrastructure and connectivity projects along the way. Hoping to create new markets for Chinese firms and a Eurasian trading bloc, besides new spheres of influence for his Government, Xi has made OBOR a central part of his foreign policy. As China’s foreign direct investment increasingly goes to OBOR countries, its contracts now involve Chinese firms managing the infrastructure they build, rather than (as in the past) building them and simply handing them over. The $46-62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), stretching from China’s autonomous region of Xinjiang to Gwadar port in Balochistan, and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor, that stretches from Kolkata to Kunming, are closely related to China’s (BRI) which is not limited to, the area of the ancient Silk Road.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi have stressed on being sensitive to each other’s strategic concerns — for instance, when they met on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, and again in Goa in September 2016. China remains adamant on blocking India’s membership of Nuclear Suppliers Group  and its pleas at United Nations to designate Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar as a ‘global terrorist’. It loathes the idea of India being considered to share the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) high table.

Ever since 1955, China’s history is replete with threats and territorial demands and rattling of its sword. Every now and then, China’s People’s Liberation Army face-off along the Line of Actual Control in Demchock, Ladakh area. Sino-Indian talks to settle border disputes seem to have one theme: What is with us now is ours and let us negotiate only what is yours that we claim to be ours.

Hasn’t Chinese leadership been threatening  any country that invites the Dalai Lama, or India when he visits Arunachal Pradesh? Itself paranoid about the Dalai Lama and untenably suspicious of India impairing  its sovereignty, doesn’t it behove China to introspect why it just brushes aside India’s legitimate concerns about the CPEC infringing India’s sovereignty, running as it does through Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, which de jure remains Indian territory, and is not even a province of Pakistan. Hasn’t China been obsessed with Pakistan, courting  it for long with special “relationship that is higher than the mountains and deeper than the oceans”, militarising it even with clandestine nuclear wherewithal, to keep making things difficult for India?

Mao Zedong believed power flowed from the barrel of the gun; today, China seems to demonstrate that infrastructure power is at the heart of economic power, and economic power at the heart of strategic power. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in their plans for trans-continental rail connectivity, which  has become China’s stratagem of  statecraft.

The grand design of the stereotypically inscrutable Chinese for winding the dragon’s coils around India are apparent. The Dragon builds a steel choker, web of rail, around India’s neck. Its formidable presence in terms of rail projects in India’s north is typified by world’s highest 1,142km Golmud-Lhasa rail line, opened in July 2006, now extended westward by a 252 km link to Xigaze, Tibet’s second largest city, and due to have a further 400 km extension not only to Kyirong (Chinese Gyirong), on the border with Nepal, and a probable further 120 km link to Kathmandu, but also to Yayung (Dromo in Tibetan), close to Bhutan and connected to Sikkim via the Nathu La Pass, and yet further on to Nyingchi (Nyingtri) on the doorsteps of India’s Arunachal Pradesh. The Lhasa-Nyingtri railway would provide convenient access for China’s military in a region with extremely difficult terrain and limited road access.

On India’s eastern flank, Chinese rail and road connectivity speedily knits the Southeast Asian land mass. All around India, China shares land borders with five South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation countries, looks over the Chicken’s Neck at a sixth, and has a long border with Myanmar. From Kunming in Chinese Yunnan province, a network of road, rail and river links fork out to Sittwe in western Myanmar and Thilawa near Yangon on the Bay of Bengal. Having feverishly built a 1,100 km long pipeline to tap the rich Shwe gas fields from the Kyaukpyu deep sea port on Myanmar’s Arakan coast to Kunming, also a multiple road, rail and pipeline link on its Rakhine coast, China accomplished “Yunnanisation” of northern Myanmar. It is now trying to extend the proposed Yunnan-Kyaukpyu link to Chittagong.

In the south, as a part of its ‘string of pearls’ strategy of links with regional maritime nations, China has been financing nearly all of Sri Lanka’s biggest infrastructure projects — a new sea port at Hambantota, an oil storage facility, a new airport, a thermal power plant, an expressway, besides a special economic zone at Mirigama near Colombo.

On India’s western flank, China has planned strategic linkages to Pakistan, Iran and all across Central Asia, incorporating the Gilgit-Baltistan tract in PoK into its Xinjiang’s logistics grid, expanding the Karakoram highway, also planning a rail line from China-built and operated Gwadar port in Balochistan on Pakistan’s south-west coast close to the Straits of Hormuz  through Khunjerab Pass in the Karakoram to Kashgar, which is connected to Xigazê, already rail-linked to Lhasa.

Symptomatic of its proclivity to flex muscles, China has built constructions on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs on the Spratly Islands, positioning ‘significant point-defence capabilities, in the form of large anti-aircraft guns and probable close-in weapons systems at each of its outposts’. These islands and reefs are claimed by Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan.

Adept equally in flexing its soft power muscles, China has scattered roads and football stadiums across Africa. By the hundreds it has set up Confucius Institutes around the world to spread Chinese language and culture. With adroit moves, China now sprinkles Buddhist projects all across South and Southeast Asia, to  usurp Buddha’s legacy in Asia. It plans to project Pakistan as a cradle of Buddhist culture and heritage, reviving ‘Gandhar Trail’, linking Lahore, Taxila and Peshawar, as it consolidates Buddhist sects across Southeast Asia to converge in World Buddhist Forum at Wuxi, near Shanghai, ostensibly to supplant Tibetan religious hierarchy. Last year, China replaced India as partner to celebrate Vesak (Buddha Jayanti) at Lumbini, Nepal.

(The writer is senior fellow, Asian Institute of Transport Development, and a commentator on social issues)

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