By MR Josse
KATHMANDU: OBOR – or ‘One Belt, One Road’ – is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visionary initiative explained by Chinese academic Chen Xiaochen as geared to speeding “economic development and globalization of the Eurasian continent, and other regions of the world, by advancing policy coordination, infrastructure connectivity, unimpeded trade, facilitating investment and people-to-people exchange.”
In fact, the ‘One Belt’ and ‘One Road’ terms refer to China’s proposed “Silk Road Economic Belt” and “Maritime Silk Road” projects with the envisaged connectivity covering these five major areas of interest: policy coordination, infrastructure construction (including railways and highways), unimpeded trade, financial integration and people-to-people ties.”
It has, by now, become the centrepiece of Chinese economic diplomacy, endorsed by an ever-expanding number of Asian and European countries but still viewed with unease and even suspicion by some, including – in our region – by India, of which more later.
As elaborated by Jinhua Zhang, another Chinese academic, OBOR has been conceived by China’s ruling elite and represents “the first major attempt by China to design and implement a cross-continental mercantile strategy” that will surely have “significant global and geopolitical consequences.”
One may rightly ask: what’s really driving OBOR? Junhua provides considerable and timely illumination, thus: “Many of China’s production sectors have been facing overcapacity since 2006. The Chinese leadership hopes to solve the problems of over production by exploring new markets in neighouring countries through OBOR.
“The OBOR initiative will provide for the development of China’s less developed border regions. China also intends to explore new investment options that preserve and increase the value of the capital accumulated in the last few decades. OBOR has the potential to grow into a model for an alternative rule-maker of international politics and could serve as a vehicle for creating a new global economic and political order.”
Further light has been shed on OBOR’s raison d’etre by Junhua who offers this interesting backdrop to its conception: “OBOR is a product of Chinese neomercantilist thinking. Today’s neomerchantilism differs from the mercantilism of the 17th to early 2Oth century, when merchants were often complicit in the imperialism of the great powers in the pursuit of increased political power and private wealth. Neomerchantilism today is much more constrained, thanks to national and international legal frameworks, reluctance to engage in armed conflicts, as well as a greater widespread appreciation of human rights.”
Other thoughtful insights into OBOR have been offered in Asia Times by Pepe Escobar who terms it as Xi’s new “transpolitical concept” which “territorially is extrapolated from national borders towards belts and roads, in fact, supply chains.” In Escobar’s view, OBOR is “posing the foundation of a transnational geoeconomic model, and, if successful in the long run, a new geopolitcal model.”
Escobar refers to the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) which he says in “fully institutionalized” while “OBOR is still a loose experiment in progress.” Interestingly, he informs that both Xi and his Russian counterpart President Vladimir Putin have stressed that OBOR and EEU are ultimately complementary – and that adds an extra dimension to the Russia-China partnership.” He believes that, “In the long haul, regional powers Iran and eventually Turkey are also going to be on board.” If so, India’s unease is not difficult to comprehend.
As Xinhua reported, New Zealand recently became the first developed Western nation to sign a cooperation agreement with China on OBOR – incidentally, around the time that Foreign Minister Prakash Saran Mahat was stating in Beijing (vide Rising Nepal, 28 March) that a MOU on OBOR would be signed “soon”, a reminder that the Prachanda-led coalition has been dragging its feet in this regard for long, due to pressure from India, as per the political consensus in Kathmandu.
At this juncture, it may usefully be noted that, according to Rising Nepal columnist Narad Bharadwaj (24 March), “When the Chinese government sent a draft proposal on OBOR to the to the Nepal Government last year, the Nepal Government, as reported in the media, returned the draft after dillydallying for over a month. This is irresponsible and may result in a lost opportunity for Nepal.”
Two additional points cry out for attention: one, that while Xinhua reported that during Prachanda’s recent China trip the two presidents agreed to “cooperate more” on OBOR, it drew pointed attention to the fact that “Xi called on the two sides to strengthen political trust” – a clear, if diplomatic, signal that political trust between Nepal and China is at an all-time low; two, that state media have kept mum and not gone into editorial rhapsody about Prachanda’s ‘highly successful’ China visit!
It is not certain how long Kathmandu can hold out from clambering aboard the OBOR bandwagon – which has such widespread and deep economic benefits for Nepal – despite Indian pressure.
Before concluding on India’s stance on OBOR, let me briefly refer to Xinhua’s report disclosing that OBOR now has “the participation of more than 100 countries and international organizations, with over 40 signing cooperation agreements with China, outstripping global expectations” – including recently with Saudi Arabia and Israel!
According to Indian comments on OBOR support from some South Asian countries, including Pakistan, India probably feels it has been outmaneuvered by China in regional geopolitical onemanship. It is an eye-opener that in a keynote address to the ‘Raisina Dialogue’ in New Delhi December last year, Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar, lectured China “to respect India’s sovereignty in a direct challenge to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project which passes through Pakistan-administered Kashmir, claimed by India as her territory.”
Apart from a dog-in-the-manger sense of victimhood, India’s reluctance to come on board OBOR is probably also related to her having to expose her comparatively weaker economic and military hand vis-à-vis a mighty, rising and affluent China – although India could reap huge infrastructural benefits for herself by such an association.
Geopolitically speaking, OBOR represents a high-water mark for China and Xi’s visionary leadership.