The Geopolitics Of BRI And Nepal
Hira Bahadur Thapa
A trillion dollar mega project widely known as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the brainchild of Chinese President Xi Jinping has unsurprisingly aroused curiosity and consternation around the globe in view of its geopolitical and geo-economic implications in countries. Conceived back in 2013, BRI has attracted worldwide attention because of the grandiose projects involving roads, ports and other connectivity programs, which will cover Asia, Eurasia, Middle East and Africa. This will promote Chinese trade and financial cooperation throughout the region and provide massive Chinese investment in regional infrastructure and natural resources.
It is against this background that Nepal has joined the initiative and wishes to take advantage from increasing Chinese investment in the field of connectivity, which is so vital for her economic development and more so for realising the ambitious goals of happiness and prosperity. Whether or not Nepal can fulfill its desires will depend on how Nepal cultivates her relationship with China. Nepal’s cultivation of balanced relations with her immediate and giant neighbours will always remain an uphill task not only because of her landlockedness but also the relations between China and India, characterised by ups and downs. Happily both enjoy good relations now.
There are differing views about how China intends to have strategic gain by launching projects covering several continents. Not necessarily all those likely in the routes of BRI projects are convinced that BRI is an open-ended project being implemented in three continents. Under the title “Theme Parks and Ski Slopes’ Alexander Stevenson and Cao Li have argued in The New York Times (August 1, 2018) that Beijing’s efforts to build ties through Belt and Road projects has also inspired more frivolous deals. Such analysis has to be understood against the controversy related to the Humbantota port project in Sri Lanka where Chinese massive investment has put the host nation in a perennial debt trap as opined by some critics.
One must not lose sight of the fact that Beijing has pledged trillions of dollars toward the construction of roads, power plants and ports in Asia, Africa and Europe through its BRI. The programme envisions big critical infrastructure projects backed and blessed by the Chinese government as the path to winning friends and spreading influence.
The July 28, 2018 editorial of The Economist better elaborates about the BRI and refers to the same as “China’s Project of the Century. Some people in China prefer to call it a gift of “Chinese wisdom in the world’s development.” It is important to note that road refers mostly to a sea route and belt is on land. One may dispute with the fear of the critics that China has the sinister design to impose its own version of world order at a time when the traditional leader of liberal world is abdicating. Many analysts have contended that US’s America First policy is the symbol of its declining role in maintaining the lead in global affairs and it should not then surprise us to know that China as a rising power competing with the US strategically has aspirations of obtaining strategic leverage through massive investment under BRI.
While there are some commentators like Brahma Chellany, of New Delhi Center for Policy Research, whose articles are generally found to be critical of China, who say that one of the ways to subjugate is through debt and China, in their view is desirous of pursuing strategic gains by pledging billions of dollars worth of infrastructure development.
Bur there are reasons to refute such accusation. One of the vivid examples in this connection is China’s participation in US-led economic globalisation. This has made China the largest contributor to global economic expansion and interconnectedness in the past three decades. China’s accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2001 has accelerated the pace of China’s integration into the global economic system.
It may be in order to recall the words of China’s grand strategist Zheng Bijian, who fifteen years ago coined the term “peaceful rise” to describe China’s development. China’s rise has been faster and bigger yet so far, it has been largely peaceful. (Maria Abi-Habib has written in The New York Times on June 26 2018). The writer opines that this is in no small part because of China’s successful integration into the post-World War II international order.
Even the chief of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Christine Legard raised concerns about problematic debt and urged China to ensure that “the Belt and Road only travels where it is needed”. Her concerns were also due to debate related to the sustainability of a port project in Sri Lanka. But China being very aware of the interdependence between Beijing and Washington would not necessarily act irresponsibly so to cause damage to her bilateral relations with world’s only superpower by pushing diplomatically through BRI projects. As opined by J Staplaton Roy, a former US ambassador to China, has observed that US businesses are taking advantage of China’s huge market and cheap labor. (Foreign Affairs, July-August 2018)
In the recent announcement of an American technology giant Apple capping the threshold of one trillion dollars, commentators have argued that China as a leading customer of iPhone, the most popular and innovative smartphone device has an important role to play.
Aaron Friedberg, professor of Politics and International Affairs, in Princeton University has thoughtfully commented in his engagement debate concerning the essay “Did America Get China Wrong” by Kurt M Campbell and Ely Ratner that as China’s economic growth accelerated some theorists of international relations such as Samuel Huntington have cautioned that fast rising states have historically sought regional hegemony. Despite the above words of caution China has so far behaved as a nation that wants to rise peacefully. Investment hungry countries like Nepal are likely to become vulnerable and hence need to tread carefully while participating in BRI projects.