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Perspectives on Emerging India-China Strategic Dynamics: Understanding OBOR; By Col. R. Hariharan VS

C3S Article no: 0001/2017

Role of President Xi Jinping in reshaping China

China’s desire to dominate global environment and play an increasing role in international affairs to complement its growth as global economic power is linked to its hope to create a “moderately prosperous society.”[1] The fall in China’s growth rate in the last five years has increased its urgency, not only to carry out structural reforms and fiscal discipline to sustain its growth but also to open up new markets while protecting its expanding global strategic interests.

Apart from traditional aspects of strategic security, China is also keen to protect its global trading interests and logistic routes from big power realignment taking place now. China would like to balance its relationship building with regional powers like India, which are emerging as strong regional economic powers, ready to protect their own strategic interests. The outgoing Communist Party of China (CPC) general secretary Hu Jintao in his report to the 18th Party Congress in November 2012 had vocalized China’s strategic perspective of the emerging strategic scene. He noted the Party’s desire for the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) “to meet the new requirements of China’s national development and security strategies” to ensure it “fully carry out their historic mission in the new stage in the new century.” [2] He added that China should “implement the military strategy of active defense for the new period.” According to him it involved enhanced “military strategic guidance as the times so require” and great importance to be given to maritime, space and cyberspace security. “We should make active planning for the use of military forces in peacetime, expand and intensify military preparedness, and enhance the capability to accomplish a wide range of military tasks, the most important of which is to win local war in an information age.”

Xi Jinping, who succeeded Hu Jintao as the general secretary of CPC in 2012, has been vigorously implementing the agenda set by the CPC. With control over all the three echelons of power –the government, the CPC and the CMC – President Xi has become all powerful after he became the President and the Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) a year later. After the sixth plenary session of the 18th Central Committee in October 2016 recognised President Xi as a ‘Core leader’ he has emerged as unchallenged leader, as it was a haloed position occupied so far only by Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin.[3] Significantly, unlike Jiang Zemin, who was accepted the core leader of the “third generation” to toe Deng Xiaoping’s leadership line, no constraints have been placed on Xi’s as ‘Core leader’.  As the Hong Kong daily newspaper South China Morning Post said being labelled ‘core’ has “sent a strong message that his (Xi’s) authority is beyond challenge within the Party that has ruled China for 67 years.”[4] More importantly, President Xi perhaps enjoys unprecedented freedom to charter China’s strategic course.

During the last three years, President Xi has taken many strategic initiatives to realize the ‘Chinese dream.’ While attending an exhibition on “Road to revival” in November 2012, Xi Jinping explained what the amorphous term ‘Chinese dream’ meant to him. He said, “Every person has ideals they pursue, their own dreams. Right now, everyone is discussing the Chinese dream. I think that the realization of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people is the modern era great dream of the Chinese people.” [5]

A whole range of analysts have tried to understand President Xi’s “China Dream.” Some of them like Kim Dramer have even discussed its impact as China’s effort to create a new world order. [6]

Probably as Professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom says “Xi’s Chinese Dream is protean. He associates it with different things at different times in different places.”[7]  But China assuming a position of international centrality as well as reverting to its classical traditions is central to his visualization of the Chinese Dream. At the same time, President Xi would like the Communist Party of China (CPC) to complete “a surge to global prominence and strength.” [8]

President Xi since he came to power in 2013 has been hard selling the gigantic One Belt One Road (OBOR) infrastructure project to revive the historic Silk Road link from China to Asia and Europe. This has been on the top of his agenda to every country he visited since 2013 he visited including India.[9] Reviving the ancient silk route from China to Europe through Central and West Asia as the OBOR along with its subsidiaries to populous South Asia is at the heart of the project. The two South Asian projects – the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) multimodal project and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor project – have strong economic and strategic connotations for India. The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) promoted as part of the OBOR aims at reviving the maritime links of the 14th Century Chinese Admiral Zheng He across Indian Ocean Region (IOR), where India continues to be a dominant naval power.[10]

Apart from these influences at work, President Xi also has been facing enormous economic pressures to get the OBOR functional as part of the strategy to control the rapid erosion of China’s economic power with the steady fall of its double digit growth rate since 2012. According to a Bloomberg report of 23 December 2016 President Xi seems to be reconciled to be a growth rate even less than the benchmark average rate of 6.5 percent for five years promised by policy makers in 2015 to build a “modestly prosperous society” by 2020.[11]

The OBOR-MSR initiative across Eurasia can fulfil many of these needs because it is valuable strategic vehicle to achieve China’s “surge to global prominence”. President Xi mooted the idea of jointly building the infrastructure initiative, for the first time while visiting Central Asia in September 2013. Since then, the OBOR has come to dominate China’s foreign policy discourse. President Xi has taken personal interest in promoting the OBOR whichever country including India. In 2014, he pledged a sum of $40 billion to support the initiative.[12]

As Christopher K. Johnson observes “the OBOR is comprehensive, focused and personal to President Xi. As with his rapid consolidation of political power, the striking feature of Xi’s efforts in this area is the speed with which he is moving to put his own stamp on China’s foreign affairs.” [13]

China had been promoting the OBOR as a development, rather than strategic, initiative. However “there is little doubt, that President Xi views OBOR as the signature foreign policy theme of his leadership tenure as the practical embodiment of his ‘China Dream’ for promoting national rejuvenation and cementing the country’s place as a leading world power.” [14]

The full text of the “Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Belt and Road” explains the global strategic context of the OBOR says the initiative to “jointly build” the OBOR “embracing the trend towards a multi-polar world, economic globalization, cultural diversity and greater IT application, is designed to uphold the global free trade regime and the open world economy in the spirit of open regional cooperation.” Thus its scope is much more than building transcontinental infrastructure links.[15]

The Full text of the OBOR lists its objectives as: “promoting orderly and free flow of economic factors; highly efficient allocation of resources and deep integration of markets; encouraging the countries along the Belt and Road to achieve economic policy coordination and carry out broader and more in-depth regional cooperation of higher standards; and jointly creating an open, inclusive and balanced regional economic cooperation architecture that benefits all.”[16]

Conceptually this makes the OBOR initiative an attractive proposition for participating countries as smoother trans-Asia-Europe connectivity would open up backward areas for international investment, development and trade. Chinese funding made available for the project makes it even more attractive. On the flip side, the experience of some of the countries where China had aided and carried out projects has not been very pleasant. The Chinese have generally been seen as narrow and self-serving without prioritizing the overall interest of the host nations.[17] The experience of China’s trade and investment strategies in some of the countries like Myanmar and Sri Lanka have gained notoriety due to lack of transparency, back room deals with politicians and vested interests to the detriment of national economies, increasing their debt burden and creating environmental and political backlash.[18]

Despite such adverse experiences, most of the participating nations in Asia have welcomed the OBOR as it would also promote people to people links to build bridges between nations to usher in peace, amity and prosperity. Moreover, the OBOR could kick start development and improve the quality of life of the people in these countries some of which are among the world’s poorest nations with very low HDI.

The Text avers the OBOR “a positive endeavour to seek new models of international cooperation and global governance,” that would “inject new positive energy into world peace and development.” [19]This has made the US and its Western and Asian allies suspicious of the strategic objectives of OBOR as it has the potential to become an important part of China’s efforts to promote a new world order.[20] Their fear seems to be justified as the OBOR would vastly improve China’s strategic access to promote its political, trade and economic interests in 64 countries, including oil-rich Central and Western countries and populous nations of South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) littorals.[21]

The suspicions about China’s strategic intentions have been further reinforced by its aggressive stance to defend its territorial claims in South China Sea, even after they were rejected by the Permanent Court of Arbitration rejected China’s claims to a scattering of rocks and reefs in the South China Sea which were contested by Philippines.[22]

Many analysts consider China’s increased flexing of military muscles is due to its confidence in the modernized PLA’s capability to defend its strategic interests globally. President Xi is implementing a number of measures to modernize PLA’s command and control structure to improve its readiness and flexibility in decision making, prune PLA’s flab and recruit better educated soldiers and officers to be able to operate jointly with the air force, navy and missile forces in the informatized modern battlefield.  He has cleansed the Augean stables of corruption among the officer cadre to improve the PLA’s allegiance to the CPC and improved its grass root linkages. Thus PLA has greater capacity than ever before to defend China’s interests not only on land, sea and air, but also probably in space as well. According to  a March 2016  Peoples’ Daily report, China well on track to building modern strong army, is taking “a zero-tolerance stance on corruption” and “has rolled out measures to restructure the armed forces, increased civil-military integration and taken a zero-tolerance stance on corruption.[23]

According to the U.S. Department of Defense 2016 Annual Report to Congress on China, as China’s global presence and international interests grow, “its military modernization program has become more focused on investments and infrastructure to support a range of missions beyond China’s periphery, including power projection, sea lane security, counter-piracy, peacekeeping, and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR).” [24] The Report further states efforts are on to improve PLA’s “key capabilities that would be used in theater contingencies, including cruise missiles; short, medium, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles; high performance aircraft; integrated air defense networks; information operations capabilities; and amphibious and airborne assault units.”

So it was not surprising when China made public its intention to build its overseas military support facility in Djibouti in November 2012. This signals the shift of China’s strategic military presence from regional to global space as it can sustain the PLA Navy’s operations far from home shores. [25] A powerful PLA operating across the continents will become a reality during the next decade enormously increasing not only China’s strategic interests and assets but prestige as well. Thus the OBOR network is poised become a game changer in the strategic equations between China and other nations. In China’s emerging strategic dynamics OBOR has as big a strategic role to play as its global economic assertion.

India’s uncertainties about China’s role in South Asia

Ever since came to power in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has had four bilateral meetings with President Xi Jinping in which the central theme had been to build win-win relations between the two countries. The Indian Prime Minister himself raised the optimistic note by coining a new term “Inch (India and China) towards Miles (Millennium of Exceptional Energy)” to describe the potential of India-China relations .”[26]

Since then they have taken a number of measures to foster trade, investment, strategic cooperation on global issues and people to people relations between the two countries. China has also been actively involved in various projects in India i.e., industrial infrastructure and feasibility of high speed railway project etc.

Joining the OBOR would be a logical step for Prime Minister Modi to speed up the promotion of his national vision of “Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas” (Together with all, Development for all) for collective efforts for inclusive growth of every Indian. [27]

However, after all the bonhomie, India-China relations have entered a period of uncertainty due to China’s huge investment in building a multifaceted strategic relationship with Pakistan at a time when India was frustrated by Pakistan’s inaction to rein in Pakistan army-sponsored Jihadi terrorist operating from bases in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) infiltrating into in Jammu and Kashmir state to carry out attacks and trigger unrest. In bid to safeguard India’s interests in this worsening scene,  Prime Minister Modi has strengthened strategic partnerships with the U.S., Japan and Vietnam to protect traditional areas of Indian influence in South Asia and the IOR that are being eroded by China’s increased presence. India’s public stand in support of the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea (SCS), which was similar to the stand of the U.S. and its Asia-Pacific allies, and the Indian navy conducting the 2016 Malabar trilateral joint naval exercises off Japanese coast in the vicinity of SCS have added to China’s suspicions about India’s intentions in respect of China.

China’s frustration with India probably explains its continued stand against India on some key issues like the denial of membership of the Nuclear Supply Group and opposition to the UN Security Council declaring Masood Azhar, the leader of the Jaish-e-Mohammad(JeM),  a UN-listed terrorist. China’s stand on Azhar is an anachronism as the UN has already listed the JeM as a terrorist group. [28]

Chinese foreign ministry’s frequent admonitions on Indian conduct over the Dalai Lama and ‘gross interference’ in the affairs of Arunachal Pradesh and frequent “warnings” as well as condescending advice from Chinese commentators to India probably reflect China’s overall frustration rather than animosity with India. [29] Despite such periodic fulminations, both Indian and Chinese foreign ministries have maintained a level of equanimity in publicly expressing their views by and large to focus more on positive aspects of the relationship between the two countries. This would indicate further maturing of the relationship between the two countries to see each other’s differing views as part of a relationship building process. Both President Xi and Prime Minister Modi have continued to keep their communication links open to avoid minor of misunderstandings snowballing into conflicts. This augurs well for both India and China as they need each other’s support, cooperation and strength to further the development agenda alive and avoid conflict.

However, both the CPEC and the BCIM projects are central to China’s South Asia agenda. Both projects have their own implications for India in the emerging dynamics of South Asia. President Xi invited India to speed up the OBOR when he met the Indian Prime Minister for the first time on the sidelines of 6th BRICS summit at Fontaleza, Brazil in July 2014. He wanted India to speed up building the BCIM which would link up Kolkata with Kunming in Yunnan. Since then he has continued to maintain the same refrain on the project. He saw it as a part of the regional consensus to step up economic integration in the region while speaking at the recent BRICS summit in India.[30]

Though India had been an active participant in the deliberations on the BCIM corridor project it seems to have reservations about the project. The project passes through an environmental and geostrategically sensitive region involving five countries which have their own internal issues complications that could vitiate the full success of the project. These have the potential to go beyond control of both India and China particularly there is a frustrating lack of a transparent process in place. Moreover, the waters of India-China relations have been turned murky by the CPEC infrastructure project promoted by China in Pakistan in utter disregard to India’s strong objection to it as it passes through PoK under Pakistan’s illegal occupation. This has probably made India cautious in dealing with China. This subject would be analysed in another article on the emerging India-China strategic dynamics focusing on South Asia.

Conclusion

After his anointment as the “core leader” of China, President Xi Jinping has emerged as the modern day successor to Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. He is determined to realize the ‘Chinese Dream’ to emerge as a global power. The OBOR, the giant infrastructure project linking China with the rest of Asia, parts of Europe and Africa, is poised become a game changer in the strategic equations between China and other nations. This would enable the PLA to complete its transformation into a professional armed force capable of operating in land, air and sea across four continents to further China’s global ambitions.

We can expect China along with Russia and some of the regional powers challenging the European-US combine already struggling to retain their ability dictate terms of global conduct. In this eye-ball to eye-ball confrontation between the two power-centres, India has a crucial role as a major Asian power bordering China with rapidly growing economic and military clout. Its huge underserviced markets and influence across Asia has the potential to make the OBOR a profitable proposition to China.

Though both President Xi and Prime Minister Modi are trying to set aside their age-old animosities and build a win-win relationship, China’s strategic sallies with India’s neighbours and building strategic bonding including promotion of the CPEC infrastructure project with Pakistan has made India suspicious of China’s intentions in South Asia. Similarly, China’s suspicion about India’s strategic intent regarding China has been tweaked by India’s growing bonhomie and strategic relationship with the U.S., Japan and Vietnam.  However, China needs India’s participation to make the OBOR an economic reality just as it needs India to take active part in its effort to promote a new world order to break Western hold.

China also needs India’s underserviced market to open up to further its investment and trade interests to benefit from India’s development story. India needs Chinese investment and entry into Chinese markets to fulfill its development goals faster. So India-China relations have entered a transitory stage under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi and President Xi; much would depend upon how the two ambitious leaders overcome their mutual suspicions and take forward the relationship.

For this to happen, the two nations should focus on each others’ strengths rather than weaknesses. Confidence building measures between them is going to be a difficult process with the entry of China in Pakistan in a big way as it gives an undue strategic advantage to both countries in their relation with India. Ideally, China could use its clout with Pakistan to give a positive turn to its relationship with India. As this is unlikely to happen, the India-China relation is likely to continue to be subjected to mutual suspicious, buffeted by global power realignments. So India’s active participation in OBOR is likely to be limited to the BCIM corridor project. To speed up this process, China needs to recognize India’s special relationship with its South Asian neighbours.

End Notes and references

[1] “Moderately prosperous society” is a Confucian usage, dusted up and used by CPC general secretary Hu Jintao between 2002 and 2012.

[2] Full text of Hu Jin Tao’s report at the 18th Party Congress, November 17 2012

[3] ‘CPC Central Committee with Xi as “core” leads China to centenary goals’, Xinhua, October 28 2016  http://en.people.cn/n3/2016/1028/c90000-9133682.html

[4] ‘Why becoming the ‘core’ matters for China’s communist leaders?’ South China Morning Post, October 28 2016, http://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/2040962/why-becoming-core-matters-chinas-communist-leaders

[5] David Bandurski, “Meeting Mr Hot phrase”, China Media Project, Hong Kong University, February 6 2015  http://cmp.hku.hk/2015/02/06/38107/

[6] Kim Dramer, “The American Dream + The Chinese Dream = A New World Dream”, The Huffington Post, July 31 2015 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kim-dramer-/the-american-dream-the-ch_b_7137010.html

[7] Wassertsrom Jeffrey, “Here’s why Xi Jinping’s ‘Chinese Dream’ differs Radically from the American Dream”, TIME,  October 19 2015, http://time.com/4077693/chinese-dream-xi-jinping/#

[8] Wassertsrom Jeffrey ibid

[9] The Silk Road derives its name from the lucrative trade in Chinese silk carried out along its length, beginning during the Han dynasty (207 BCE – 220 CE). The Han dynasty expanded Central Asian sections of the trade routes around 114 BCE, largely through missions and explorations of the Chinese imperial envoy, Zhang Qian. Wikipedia reference to Elisseeff, Vadime (2001). The Silk Roads: Highways of Culture and Commerce. UNESCO Publishing / Berghahn Books

[10] Zheng He (1371-1433), also known as Cheng Ho, was a Hui court eunuch mariner, explorer, diplomat and fleet admiral during China’s early Ming dynasty. He commanded expeditionary voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, Western Asia and East Africa from 1405 to 1403.

[11]  “President Xi open to growth in China falling below 6.5%”, Bloomberg News, December 23 2016, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-12-23/xi-said-to-express-openness-to-growth-below-6-5-as-debt-climbs-ix1qz3tz

[12] ‘One Belt, One Road’  October 12 2014 http://english.caixin.com/2014-12-10/100761304.html

[13]  Johnson K. Christopher, “President Xi Jinping’s Road and Belt Initiative”, A Report of the Freeman Chair in China Studies, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, March 2016 https://www.uschina.org/sites/default/files/President%20Xi%20Jinping’s%20Belt%20and%20Road%20Initiative.pdf

[14] Johnson K. Christopher ibid

[15] “Full Text: Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Belt and Road”, Xinhua, CRI English News, March 29 2015, http://english.cri.cn/12394/2015/03/29/2941s872030.htm

[16] “Full Text: Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Belt and Road” Xinhua, CRI English News, March 29 2015, http://english.cri.cn/12394/2015/03/29/2941s872030.htm

[17] Pattanaik Smruti S, ‘Controversy over Chinese investment in Sri Lanka’, East Asia Forum, June 5 2015, http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2015/06/05/controversy-over-chinese-investment-in-sri-lanka/

[18]  “Gin-Nilwala diversion project: Rs 4.1 billion paid to Chinese firm but no work”, Sunday Times, Colombo, January 1 2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170101/columns/gin-nilwala-diversion-project-rs-4-1-billion-paid-to-chinese-firm-but-no-work-222569.html

[19]  “Full Text: Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Belt and Road”, Xinhua, CRI English News, March 29 2015, http://english.cri.cn/12394/2015/03/29/2941s872030.htm

[20] Robert Stutter, “China’s Grand Strategy in Asia”, Testimony delivered to the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Washington DC, March 14 2014,  http://unsc.gov/sites/default/files/SUTTER_Testimony.pdf

[21] According to the Visions and Actions on Jointly Building the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, quoted by the HKTDC Research in The Belt and Road Initiative –Country Profiles, the giant infrastructure initiative covers – but is not limited to – the area of the ancient Silk Road. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences lists 64 countries covered by the OBOR. This includes seven countries of South Asia.  Apart from this, the OBOR covers Southeast Asia -11, Central & West Asia -11, Middle East & Africa -15, and Central & East Europe – 20 countries, http://china-trade-research.hktdc.com/business-news/article/The-Belt-and-Road-Initiative/The-Belt-and-Road-Initiative-Country-Profiles/obor/en/1/1X000000/1X0A36I0.htm

[22] “China’s claims in the South China Sea rejected”, China File , June 12 2016, http://www.chinafile.com/conversation/chinas-claims-south-china-sea-rejected

[23] “China well on track to building modern and strong army,” Peoples’ Daily Online, March 2 2016, http://en.people.cn/

[24] The Department of Defense USA Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the Peoples Republic of China 2016 http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2016%20China%20Military%20Power%20Report.pdf

[25] “How China’s Base in Djibouti Reveals an ‘expanding sphere of influence’”, Sputnik News, August 24 2016, https://sputniknews.com/africa/201608241044589413-china-base-djibouti-influence/

[26] Avinash Godbole,  “Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Visit to India” CLAWS Journal, Winter 2014 http://www.claws.in/images/journals_doc/1358290672_AvinashGodbole.pdf

[27] Narendra Modi, “Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas: Collective efforts for inclusive growth” May 9 2014  http://www.narendramodi.in/sabka-saath-sabkavikas-collective-efforts-inclusive-growth-3159

[28] Elizabeth Roche, “Why is Masood Azhar so important to China” Live Mint, June 12 2016 http://www.livemint.com/Politics/h074H8BmzsTgo2Jh1eE3xK/At-UN-China-twice-blocked-Indias-bid-to-ban-JeM-chief-Maso.html

[29] Ananthakrishnan, “China warns India against deploying Brahmos cruise missile in Arunachal Pradesh”, India Today, August 22 2016,  http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/brahmos-china-warns-india/1/745700.html

[30] President Xi speaking at the BRICS meet said “We need to foster a regional consensus on cooperation and work with relevant countries to step up economic integration and connectivity in the region, speed up the building of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor and complete at an early date negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. We need to become the twin anchors of regional peace, commit ourselves to building an Asia-Pacific security and cooperation architecture that is open, transparent, equal-footed and inclusive, and achieve common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security in the region. He also proposed to explore ways to effectively connect China’s Belt and Road (Silk Road) initiatives with India’s relevant development plans, in a bid to achieve mutually beneficial cooperation and common development. “ Xi and Modi ‘committed to taking India-China ties to new heights’ The Hindu updated 1 April 2916  http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/xi-and-i-committed-to-take-indiachina-ties-to-new-heights-modi/article7402838.ece

[Col R Hariharan, a retired MI specialist on South Asia, has been associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies since its inception. His analytical articles focus on his areas of specialization including South Asian countries, terrorism and insurgency and China’s relations with South Asian countries and littorals of the Indian Ocean Region. E-mail: haridirect@gmail.com; blog http://col.hariharan.info ]

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