Published in Pakistan Observer:

The One Belt One Road Chinese initiative that was proposed in 2013, had a global curtain raiser through its first ever international co-operation conference held in Beijing on May 14 and 15, 2017, indeed had a global ring. It was attended by 1500 people from more than 130 nations. 28 countries were represented by top leadership and 60 international organizations.

President Xi calls it his country’s greatest diplomatic event. In an address at the forum’s opening ceremony, Xi said his nation would “foster a new type of International Relations” based on mutual co-operation, co-existence and co-prosperity, there by attempting to place a check on the existing order that is centered on the United States. This is of particular interest because this coincides with the Trump’s administration decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific partnership free trade pact. The three main countries originally skeptical of it were India, US and Japan. The last minute decision by the US to send top Asia Expert Mathew Pottinger, a national security council officer to the summit as a result of a trade deal, with China, which has for one opened up Chinese markets to American beef, natural gas and certain financial services, and in return allowed Chinese banks to expand operations in the US. It was seen in Beijing as a huge success. Pottinger said, US firms have a long and successful track record in global infrastructure development and are ready to participate in the “OBOR.” China in particular and the global community in general are seeing it as a major policy shift of the Trump administration towards China and not merely a quid pro. More consolidation is perhaps in the offing.

It is estimated that $ 1.7 trillion would be required for annual infrastructure investments in the OBOR, the three funding institution namely – the Asian infrastructure, the New Development Bank, and the Silk Road Fund – only have capital totaling $ 240 billion. The US clout over institutions like United Nations, World Bank and IMF is no secret. The US support may go a long way in meeting the gap. The US role cannot be subtracted from the security and geo-politic challenges that exist in the path of the implementation of OBOR.

The sudden US U-turn in its policies towards China is good news for China and Pakistan and has put tremendous pressure on India. Jagannath Panday, a research fellow at the Institute for the Defense Studies and Analysis, in New Delhi, said, “India is in a dilemma.” The participation in India is seen as an early signal that the Trump administration is reframing the US-China relationship.

India chose to stay away, its main objection stemming from its position on parts of errs-while Jammu and Kashmir state that India claims as its territory. India also stone-walled China’s offers of accommodation. Sane voices inside India are of the view that it made a huge mistake and was not even missed at the event which is seen by many as one of the most ambitious global trade infrastructure initiatives in history where leaders from across Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America participated. India will have difficulty defending the position it has taken especially at a time when it can barely control the Kashmir under its direct control. It stands isolated and comes across as a whimsical rather than a practical state that is an emerging economy. India’s politics of self-importance and aggressive assertion of its point of view did not pay off.

It is important for India to make note of the fact that China had built the Karakoram Highway decades ago. The 1963 border agreement between Pakistan and China had accommodated Indian sensitivities. How can the upgradation of the existing infrastructure threaten India’s illusionary claims of sovereignty over Gilgit and Baltistan.

India should revisit its stance on OBOR initiative and its relations with Pakistan. Pakistan is going through a major paradigm shift in its foreign policy. Pakistan’s commitment to China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is complete and long-term, which will automatically address India’s concerns. Moreover, for the larger benefit of this region both India and Afghanistan have to stop blaming Pakistan for their internal failures.

Pakistan has moved on responding to the changing ground realities to improve its economy and the condition of its people. Is India ready to do the same? OBOR is a new geo-economic reality, which is fast-becoming irreversible. It will by default change the relational equations of the region. The reactive attitude of New Delhi where Indian media has actually called for tougher actions to obstruct the OBOR project is an approach which is uncomprehendable from a country of India’s stature. Moreover, India had blocked the holding of the SAARC, however both Sri Lanka and Nepal attended the summit. This is the new reality of South Asia.

Countries like Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia who have direct issues with China chose to participate in the summit realizing the rising role of China in the global economic matrix. Moreover, a very pertinent aspect is that participation of the developed world with countries like US, Britain and Germany coming onboard will exigently put a check on China, which is a good thing.

The issues of transparency, labour laws and environmental protection are on the table. Mathew Pottinger, while committing US support had also warned that the project success would depend on a number of factors including transparency in government procurement, high quality financing to avoid unsustainable debt burdens. Greece and several European Union countries indicated they would not sign one of the summit documents of trade because it did not sufficiently address European concerns on transparency of public procurement and social and environmental standards. German economic minister Brigitte Zypries called for transparency to ensure that the call for investment bids are “non-discriminatory.” China has agreed to go by international trade agreements and has made a public commitment to both inclusiveness and openness. It is now upon individual countries to protect their interests. The venues to do so exists.

Last but not least many in Pakistan see our convergence with China as an alternative to our relationship with the US. This is a deeply flawed paradigm. China is very keen on both US and India amongst other countries becoming a part of its economic initiative. It will not become a part of any contentious equations. The entire thrust of Chinese diplomacy in the region is to bring down levels of acrimony in the region and beyond to promote connectivity. Its China’s new world order.

A major concern, however remains, especially for countries like Indonesia, Japan, US, India, South Korea and Vietnam is that the grand initiative may really be a smokescreen for strategic control. Countries that are direct beneficiaries and have welcomed the initiative are asking for greater clarity on the part of China about its intentions. Something China will have to address to take it to the next level.

(Dr. Huma Baqai is an Associate Professor in Institute of Business Administration, Karachi in the Department of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts)

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