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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2403

Regional Connectivity Yes, But Domination No

By Rattan Saldi - Syndicate Features

The large participation in the May 14-15 Beijing summit on One Belt One Road, OBOR, indicates the desire for good infrastructure at home and for greater access to markets abroad. A flagship project of OBOR initiative is China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that passes through the Pakistan occupied Kashmir, POK which, India says, is its integral part. China is also working to extend the Pakistan corridor to Afghanistan and beyond.

Protagonists of the CPEC claim that the Corridor would bring economic prosperity to the region but critics aver that it would mainly benefit Beijing firstly by helping it transport Gulf crude to mainland China at much less cost and secondly by giving it access to coal, natural gas, oil and mineral resources of Balochistan and POK.

The CEPC project details are still shrouded in a mystery wrapped in Dragon ware but Pakistan’s leading daily, Dawn’s investigative reports show that thousands of acres of land would be leased to Chinese entrepreneurs to set up their business ventures that range from solar power to agriculture farms. This could be the reason for the publicly visible opposition to CPEC in Balochistan and POK. Locals are worried that the Chinese would over run their culture and exploit their natural resources like the British East India Company did in undivided India for long years.

Both Balochis and the PoK people are disturbed by the ethnic cleansing China has mounted in Muslim majority Xinjiang province that borders six countries including Pakistan and India. Their worry: How can we trust China which is not allowing beards, hijabs, Ramadan prayers, and even names like Mohammad, Haji, Azhar, Wahhab, and Madina for the newly born Muslim children in Xinjiang?

Sri Lanka’s experience with Chinese loans also is giving nightmares to several sections of Pakistanis and their worry is about the danger of Pakistan dependent on IMF loans getting sucked into a new debt trap.

China has not, going by media reports, succeeded in winning over its Pakistani critics, whose number is increasing. Nevertheless, it is projecting CPEC as the magic wand that would provide greater connectivity and that more access would translate into prosperity in restive Balochistan, backward PoK and insurgency hit Xinjiang province.

While this appears as a mirage at present, diplomats and strategic experts hold the view that Beijing would station Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) troops to provide a security cover to its workers engaged in troubled and trouble prone zones. Remember the anti-terrorism policy drafted by China last year authorizes intervention outside its borders in the Chinese national interest.

Gwadar, the port on the Arabian Sea coast in Balochistan that CPEC would connect with Kashgar in Xinjiang has already witnessed a spate of violent attacks on Chinese workers. A Chinese couple were kidnapped in mid-May and they are still untraceable. Flip-side of PLA deployment will be that the beneficiary will end up as China’s protective colony.

The OBOR beneficiary countries must, therefore, ensure that there is transparency in the Chinese projects and that there are no strings attached. Simultaneously, these countries must invoke their anti-dumping laws to check the swamping of their markets by low - cost, poor – quality - mass produced Chinese goods. Otherwise they must be ready to pay the cost – political as well as economic.

Put simply, countries joining the OBOR band wagon and those shunning it should weigh their national interests. Also judge OBOR utility vis-à-vis linkages offered under existing regional groupings.

Association of South East Asian Nations, ASEAN, is a quite successful grouping in the region but other initiatives such as the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal), the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) and the 21-nation Indian Ocean Rim Association are still to tap their potential for regional cooperation. The eight- nation South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, SAARC, has fared no better. Many regional issues remain unresolved as Pakistan has been playing spoils sport.

SAARC had proposed in 2014 a Motor Vehicles Agreement that allows free movement of vehicles across South Asia. But it became a victim of Pakistani intransigence. This prompted the establishment of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal regional Forum, BBIN, and the new grouping paved the way for connectivity through vehicular movement. Bhutan has, however, failed to ratify the Treaty citing environmental issues. The other three countries, Bangladesh, India and Nepal are going ahead with enhancing logistics efficiency. So what began as an eight nation plan is about to end up as a three-nation wonder.

BIMSTEC represents Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Bhutan and Nepal. It is engaged in enhancing cooperation in trade, energy, investment, technology transfer and tourism besides connectivity. Senior officials of these countries met in Kathmandu a few days ago. Now the Foreign Ministers are slated to meet in June. The Bimstec summit may take place towards the year-end in the Nepalese capital.

Another important regional bloc, which is actively working to enhance maritime cooperation, is the Indian Ocean Rim Association. The 21-nation group held its summit in Jakarta this March. Presidents of Sri Lanka, South Africa and Indonesia, and Prime Ministers of Australia, Bangladesh and Malaysia and high level delegations from other member nations participated in the Summit. India was represented by Vice President Hamid Ansari. The leaders pledged their support to enhance cooperation in maritime operations, “as a part of their resolve to make Indian Ocean peaceful, stable and prosperous”.

Notwithstanding their hiccups, the message from these regional blocks is clear and unmistakable. They all stand for regional connectivity, and greater economic integration. But are not willing to allow the domination by any single power –old or new, even if there is no free lunch in a globalized world.

Well, OBOR is different from these regional blocks. It is the brain child of President Xi Jinping, who has been pushing for it for the past three years. It is China - centric and China – driven with manpower, material power and money power provided by China. President Donald Trump, after startling the world with his ‘America First’ policy, has given fresh lease in his maiden budget to two old initiatives- the New Silk Road, a public private initiative with India as an important player and the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor linking South Asia with South East Asia. The American initiatives are still economical on details.

China is going ahead with its OBOR at jet speed. It has identified 270 deliverable goals across Asia, Europe and Africa. But has set up no institutional framework. Beijing holds the OBOR Forum baton till 2019 when the next summit is planned. It means that Beijing will have no incentive to not make the OBOR an extension of its foreign office.

Not a good news for countries which do not want to be client states of the Dragon. And also to all countries who cherish their sovereignty!

- Asian Tribune -

China's One Belt One Road, (OBOR)
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