Silk Road in South Asia: Designed to be a game changer?

 

Shakhawat Liton

 

Building new Silk Road trade routes -- an ambitious project masterminded by Chinese President Xi Jinping -- appears a game changer in South Asia's regional politics.

During his landmark visit, Dhaka agreed to give full support to his initiative. Earlier, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, three Saarc members, agreed to the plan.

In 2014-15, the Chinese leader visited India and the three countries, and China inked deals worth billions of dollars for development projects in those countries. At the time, Beijing signed deals worth $46 billion with Pakistan, $20 billion with India, $1.4 billion with Sri Lanka and worth $500 million with the Maldives.

India, however, still remains hesitant about joining the bandwagon as many of its policymakers think that China wants to increase its influence in the region through this initiative.

 

"A rising China has steadily used its economic and military clout to woo Indian's neighbours and incorporate them in its ambitious One Belt, One Road project," said Pinak Ranjan Chakroborty, a former Indian diplomat.

 

Pinak, a distinguished fellow of Delhi-based think-tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF), in an article styled "China-Bangladesh bonhomie: India needs to restrategise as the Dragon woos this neighbour" wrote about Bangladesh-China's agreement to jointly advance the idea of building new Silk Road under One Belt, One Road Initiative.

"It is an essential component of China's concerted move to woo India's neighbours and drive a wedge between them," he wrote in his article posted on CatchNews on Friday.

After his two-day state visit, Xi left Dhaka yesterday morning for Goa, India, to attend BRICS Summit.

Apart from signing government-to-government deals worth $24.45 billion during his visit, Dhaka and Beijing upgraded their relations to strategic partnership. In addition, private Chinese companies pledged $13.6 billion in investment in Bangladesh.  

"Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed BRICS leaders who began arriving in Goa on the eve of the Summit, China threw in the usual hoopla with President Xi Jinping making a strategic stopover in Bangladesh," said The Tribune, an English daily in India, yesterday. 

"Xi's Dhaka visit is strategically placed since Bangladesh has traditionally been a close ally of India and for China, it is another nation in the South Asian region where it wants a bigger footprint," it said.

Last year, Modi had announced a $2 billion credit line during his visit to Dhaka, but Chinese generosity has dwarfed that, the report added.

"His [Xi] trip comes at a time when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is leading efforts to boost ties with neighbouring countries, from Sri Lanka to Nepal, by offering them a share of India's fast-growing economy," said a Reuters report published in the Times of India on Friday.

The Chinese investment with the aim of building Silk Road has empowered Pakistan to counter Indian's offensive against it.

After the Uri attack in which 18 Indian soldiers were killed and for which India blamed Pakistan, India has been pursuing a strategy to isolate Pakistan globally and also in the South Asian region.

It has been successful as most Saarc members last month refused to attend Saarc summit scheduled for November in Islamabad. After India declined to attend the summit, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Bhutan and Sri Lanka came up with the same decision, citing a lack of atmosphere conducive to join the summit. Their pulling out was viewed as a significant step in that direction for the grouping.

Since then, India has moved to build a new sub-regional group with members of the Saarc, excluding Pakistan. It has planned to strengthen BIMSTEC, a regional group of countries in South Asia and South East Asia.

At the invitation of the Indian PM, heads of the states and governments of other Saarc member countries are attending a BRICS regional outreach. Pakistan has not been invited by India, host of the summit.

BRICS has a tradition of having an outreach event with the region where the host country is located. This time, instead of the Saarc countries, which includes Pakistan, Delhi has decided to invite the BIMSTEC countries -- Bangladesh, India, Myanmar,                   Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal.

Pakistan did not remain silent. Islamabad is exploring the possibility of creating a greater South Asian economic alliance to counter India's controlling hold on the Saarc, said a report in the Dawn, a leading English newspaper of Pakistan, on last Wednesday.

“A greater South Asia is already emerging,” said Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed.  “This greater South Asia includes China, Iran and the neighbouring Central Asian republics,” said the Dawn report, quoting the Pakistani senator who was visiting Washington last week.

In this initiative, Pakistan's strength is the good relation with China and huge Chinese investment deals worth $46 billion inked between the two countries during Xi Jinping's visit to Islamabad last year to build China-Pakistan economic corridor.

China's relations with Pakistan may also frustrate India's move to use BRICS summit to rebuke Pakistan.

"While BRICS is an economic forum, India will use this opportunity to try to push forward its own agenda on terror. Sources say India will try to convince each nation to issue statements condemning terror in an effort to globally isolate Pakistan. But  China is expected to play the usual spoiler," said The Tribune in a report yesterday. 

Russia also may not agree with such an Indian move as Moscow has evinced interest in selling fighter jets and other military hardware to Islamabad. Last month, Russia and Pakistan had conducted military exercise.

The Chinese leader's visit to Dhaka has been viewed by the Indian media as significant.

China may put renewed pressure on India to join its idea for building the Silk Road trade routes during the BRICS summit as most of India's neighbours in South Asia are falling in line with the Chinese ambitious initiative, according to a leading English daily of India.

"The Chinese president will surely take the opportunity of his interactions during the BRICS summit to impress upon India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi that by not joining the BRI [Belt and Road Initiative], New Delhi is missing out an opportunity for economic development," said the Hindustan Times yesterday.

The Chinese leader's visit and subsequently upgraded ties between the two countries would not only boost the role of Bangladesh in the region, but also give it an edge in BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach summit, said China.org.cn, an official web portal of China.

"When Shiekh Hasina comes to Goa, fortified by the new partnership with China, she would be setting Bangladesh on a bold, new course with a clear-cut strategy for balancing relations between neighbours (meaning India) and global powers (read, China)," said the web portal in the article styled "Xi creates webs en route to BRICS."   

Nepal, a Saarc member, seems willing to join Xi's ambitious project.

A few months back, the Nepalese government was considered as close to China. But the new government is known close to India. Following the change in the political landscape,            Xi Jinping has delayed his visit to Nepal.

Now, Nepalese foreign experts recommend the Nepalese government to use the BRICS Summit to ensure Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit, said a report by The Himalayan, an English daily of Nepal, on Thursday.

Former foreign secretary Madhu Raman Acharya said Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal should talk about the purported visit while he would meet the Chinese head of the state in India, said the report.

In the last three years, Xi visited many countries along the ancient Silk Route, and Beijing signed many deals with the countries, promising to invest billions of dollars in different sectors, particularly for infrastructure development.

Under the "One Belt, One Road" initiative comprising the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, the Asian giant is focusing on building a trade and infrastructure network for connecting Asian countries with Europe and Africa along the ancient Silk Road routes.

China, the world's largest exporter of goods since 2009, needs such a network to maintain its double digit growth by opening new markets for its consumer goods and to increase its dominance over the region in a peaceful manner in the name of trade, say analysts.

Beijing looks to garner international favour through a massive investment effort in Europe and Asia to surpass the US on the world stage, said Sputnik in a report on June 3.

 

In recent years, China planned infrastructure projects involving over $200 billion for construction, and $1 trillion for other projects are on the horizon, dwarfing US foreign investment by several orders of magnitude, said the Russian news outlet.

 

 

Shakhawat Liton

Source : The Daily Star

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