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Milestones on Beijing’s OBOR plan

Atul Aneja.

Atul Aneja.  

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As China begins its assertion in Eurasia, it is the Asian flank that remains the weakest link

In tune with its economic rise, China has taken a conscious decision to cement its place as a “great power” on the global stage. Chinese aspirations have followed the careful crafting of a “grand strategy” designed to best ensure Beijing’s peaceful rise. The core of this strategy is Eurasia and its instrumentality is the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. With an economically dynamic China as its nucleus and in partnership with resource-rich Russia, Beijing has decided to knit the rest of Eurasia with roads, railways, cyber-connected hubs, smart cities, and industrial parks. With the financial reins of the initiative firmly in grasp through the $40-billion Silk Road fund and the 57-nation Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), China has begun the journey to generate “new growth engines” along all the flanks of the new Silk Road. So far, the European, Central Asian, and African integration with China is on a fast track.

Obstacles in Asia-Pacific

But the initiative is facing serious obstacles in the Asia-Pacific. The crises in the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea, where the interests of China and the U.S. collide, are emblematic of a tense geopolitical tug of war in the Pacific.

The Chinese are not the first to recognise Eurasia as the gateway to achieve global influence. In his 1904 seminal article to the Royal Geographical Society titled “The geographical pivot of history”, Halford John Mackinder zeroed in on the area from the Volga to the Yangtze and from the Himalayas to the Arctic as the heartland of what he called the “World Island”. Those who ruled the heartland commanded the “World Island” comprising Asia, Europe and Africa.

Mackinder’s thesis has been forcefully amplified by Zbigniew Brzezinski, a powerful advocate of a globalist America and an influential figure in the Obama White House. In his book The Grand Chessboard, Mr. Brzezinski described Eurasia as “the centre of world power”, which the U.S. must not neglect despite the Soviet Union’s collapse.

While recognising the connection between Eurasia and global eminence, the Chinese are nevertheless scripting a differentiated, if not a unique, discourse. Instead of pursuing the blood and iron path of former colonial powers, they are trying to achieve a great power status through a cooperative and collegiate approach by combining financial and economic heft with eastern soft power attributes.

At a media conference marathon held earlier in March, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi laid bare Beijing’s approach to acquire pole position among modern nation states. “China has the confidence to find a path to great power status, different from the one followed by traditional powers,” he said. “How? It is different in that China will not play the bully. Rather, we will abide by the purposes and principles of the UN charter; and China will not engage in zero sum games. Rather we will pursue win-win cooperation with all the countries of the world.” Referring to the OBOR initiative, Mr. Wang stressed that President Xi Jinping’s pet project was an “open initiative” and not a form of “Monroe Doctrine” to expand Beijing’s dominance.

Growing ties with Europe

The OBOR initiative has provided China significant manoeuvring space to permeate and shake up Europe’s post-war architecture premised on the U.S.-led Atlantic Alliance. The Chinese managed to draw Europe, which has been unable to extricate itself from the pitfalls of the 2008 financial crisis, into the OBOR paradigm through the formation of the AIIB. Britain, defying exhortations from Washington, jumped onto the AIIB bandwagon, and others including Germany and France followed soon after. Cracks in the post-war alliance system, led by Washington, only widened after Australia, New Zealand and South Korea also signed up to the AIIB. It was therefore hardly surprising when Mr. Wang described China’s growing ties with Europe, amplified by Beijing’s membership of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, as “the highlight of Chinese diplomacy in 2015” as well as a symbol of an emerging multipolar world.

As China begins its assertion in Eurasia, it is the Asian flank that remains the weakest link. It is in the Asia-Pacific that China confronts the U.S., which is reinforcing six decades of “Pax Pacifica” through President Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” doctrine.

Consequently, the Chinese are engaged in feverish diplomacy to undermine the Pivot, which is being reinforced by two vectors: the nuclear tensions in the Korean peninsula and the crisis in the South China Sea. On the Korean Peninsula, the Chinese are unequivocal in advocating denuclearisation, but also insist that Pyongyang’s nuclear disarmament must be tied up with the signing of a formal peace treaty between North and South Korea. If this happens, it would remove a major rationale for the U.S. Pivot. Simultaneously, a formal peace treaty could premise the rapid integration of the Korean peninsula in the OBOR initiative.

Significantly, the Chinese focus on denuclearisation follows two major outcomes of international diplomacy that have benefited Beijing. China fully backed Russia in disarming Syria of chemical weapons. This proved critical in averting a likely “regime change” in Damascus. The nuclear deal with Iran, in which both Russia and China played a major part, not only removed the chances of a military attack but also opened the door for Iran’s integration with the Eurasian core through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the OBOR initiative.

While competition for energy sources may play a small part, the South China Sea has become an open contest for the exercise of hegemony in the Asia-Pacific between the U.S. and China. Many fear that growing tensions will open the door of the Thucydides trap — a state of open war following a contest between an established and an emerging power.

In any case, as it reinforces its European flank through the powerful attraction of the OBOR initiative, China’s grand strategy of cooperative dominance over Eurasia faces its toughest test in Asia.

atul.aneja@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Dec 15, 2019 12:09:23 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/milestones-on-beijings-obor-plan/article8394515.ece

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