OBOR’s own ‘software’ for better ties

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Geopolitical notes from India

M D Nalapat

FROM the start, this columnist has predicted that President of the Peoples Republic of China and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Xi Jinping will emerge the winner against his domestic detractors. The odds are high that Xi will be given a Standing Committee and a Central Committee of his choice exactly a year later, when the CCP meets to decide on such matters, and from then onwards, he will be able to spend the remainder of his two 5-year terms fulfilling his goals for China, which is to make the country overtake US not only as an economic but as a technological superpower.
Hopefully, this will be done the way that has been traditional in Chinese statecraft, as a series of “Win-Win” solutions rather than as a chain of “Zero Sum” outcomes of the kind favoured by European colonialists in previous centuries. The latter certainly enriched themselves, but at the expense of all the lands they occupied and the people indigenous to those territories. By the close of the 19th century, the Eurasian landmass had been unified as a consequence of the colonial policies of European powers, with almost the whole of Asia coming under the control of states in Europe. Had the latter adopted a “Win Win” policy rather than seek subjugation and exploration the way they did, the colonial powers of Europe would themselves have been better off.
Britain, for example, throttled to death much of industry in the Indian subcontinent, replacing such manufactures with produce from the UK. Indeed, given its huge population and rates of economic growth, China is positioned to become the new centre of gravity of the Eurasian landmass, and this is sought to be achieved by the One Belt One Road (OBOR) project, which is the most ambitious plan seen in China since the Great Wall was built two thousand years ago. Xi Jinping intends to link Europe and Asia together through a network of roads and railway lines that would shorten spaces and allow seamless transfer of commodities across the frontiers of vast Eurasian landmass.
Once OBOR gets completed, the resting construct would represent a paradigm shift in global geopolitics, pulling the global centre of gravity away from Washington to Beijing, in line with expectations of growth trajectories. The centrifugal pull of OBOR will increase as more of the project gets implemented, thereby leaving those countries not participating on the side. In South Asia, it is certain that most SAARC countries will sign on to OBOR because of the perceived benefits that the project will bring, thereby putting pressure on holdouts It would be a boost for OBOR were India to come aboard, because of the country’s huge reserves of manpower and its economic and technological potential. However, such a situation would occur only after relations between India and China move from the low level trajectory that they have been circling in for several decades.
A breakthrough was possible towards the close of the 1980s because of the rapport established between Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping of China and Prime Minister Rajiv Ratan Birjees Gandhi of India. However, the initial momentum was not followed up ad quickly got dissipated. The better personal chemistry between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping gives promise of a rising of the trajectory of the relationship, although as yet the signs are few of this happening. However, should the relationship improve, it is likely that India would enter into the OBOR project, including possibly through a China India Economic Corridor that would cut through both countries and terminate at Kochi. Such a construct would cut through what is termed the “Red Corridor”, the locations were there still exist clusters of ultra-left guerrillas, and such development within the affected regions would sharply reduce the intensity of such manifestations there.
It would be among the ironies of history that a project conceived by a successor to Mao Zedong would have a dampening effect on the activities of groups that largely style themselves as “Maoist” (or as members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). Through India, OBOR would pass through Myanmar into Malaysia and Singapore, besides tributaries reaching into Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Overall, the scheme would boost connectivity significantly and make the transport of many items easier and cheaper, thereby expanding markets and consumer demand across a region which in coming decades will overtake Europe in economic prowess To the west of India, OBOR would traverse parts of Pakistan, Central Asia, Russia and hereafter enter Europe. Eventually, the network would also serve to improve the quality of human flows across frontiers.
In the “Zero Sum” days of European colonialism, there were no visas to block movement across boundaries. It is expected that such anachronisms would cease when the Win-Win period of mutual cooperation characterised by OBOR becomes a reality across two continents that would get unified by this project initiated by Xi Jinping. However, roads and railways are not enough. There needs to be seamless movement across boundaries for those who are productive, and for this to take place, relations between different states needs to be cordial. Both Canada as well as Mexico have contributed greatly to US development and vice versa.
However, such synergy would have been lost had the relationship between Ottawa and Washington or between Mexico City and the capital of the US been troubled. For OBOR to reach its desired potential, the countries participating in it need to ensure that their differences be dealt with in a manner that avoids conflict. Mutual behaviour needs to be respectful of each other’s security concerns. That is the challenge posed by the grand vision of OBOR : linking states together into a friendly and collaborative association that would ensure smooth development across the Eurasian landmass. OBOR is the “hardware”. The “software” of close ties needs to be created along with the roads and railways of Xi Jinping’s hyper-project.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.