China, CPEC and COVID-19

Over a span of twenty years, China has had multiple ways of managing and monitoring its relationships with its neighbors, especially in South-East Asia. It has aimed at developing geo-strategic ties, including trade along with military ties with special reference to security sphere. For the countries of South-East Asia, it is a mixed bag of delight to debt. Whilst the short-term benefits in economic activity are extremely lucrative, the long term assertiveness is a cause for significant alarm and apprehension.

The over-assertive approach of the Chinese state to define and protect its “Core National Interests” could be the root cause for conflicts ranging from natural energy resources to territorial tensions. The rise of China as an economic superpower projects a proposition of a multi-polar global superpower arrangement. However, when it comes to the Asian Century, it is convoluted to imagine the greater global community to visualize the continent with a monochromatic Chinese prism.

Since two decades, China has been trying to improve its relations with South-East Asia. There are, at least, four ways by which China is improving its relations with South-East  Asia:

  • Developing strategic partnership and working with regional organizations
  • Expanding bilateral relations
  • Increasing economic ties
  • Removing distrust and anxiety in security sphere

Related to the latter, there are four means by which China has been doing this:

  • Establishing bilateral governmental “security dialogue” with neighbors
  • Developing official military-military exchanges
  • Enhancing participation in ASEAN Regional Forum
  • Increasing its military transparency regularly

One Belt One Road, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and other Chinese initiatives

Post Covid19, the geo-political dynamics of the countries which have participated in Chinese economic partnerships might wish to renegotiate its terms, especially the financial repayment options. With shrinking world economic activity, there might be an increased occurrence of countries seeking debt write-off relief from the Chinese state, without giving up any sovereignty. This can become extremely challenging and complicated. The Belt and Road Initiative has seen investment decisions and often seem to be driven by geopolitical needs instead of sound financial sense.

In the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), there appears to be no significant relationship between corridor participation and project activity involving the local workforce and communities which are in grave danger of facing total oblivion. Mahathir Mohamad, the new prime minister of Malaysia, has described BRI projects as a form of “new colonialism” that must be rejected. Beijing’s quest to create a stable pro-China tilt in Sri Lanka has only spawned political instability, with President Maithripala Sirisena sliding up to and away from Sri Lankan politicians connected to China as the situation demands.

In Bangladesh, authorities recently blacklisted China Harbour Engineering Company, one of the region’s most active BRI construction firms, on accusations of corruption. Burma was so alarmed by regional trends that it put a hold on its own BRI-funded port project in Kyaukpyu until the Chinese agreed to cut its scale by a staggering 80 percent. Nepal and Pakistan have also demanded that China cancel or completely retool ongoing projects in their countries. In western Pakistan opposition to the initiative has turned violent. In recent months Baloch Freedom fighters attacked the Chinese consulate in Karachi, treating Chinese infrastructure investment in their region as a threat to their dreams of independence of State of Balochistan.

Chinese analysts who hoped that the BRI investment would help stabilize China’s borderlands and ease the threat it faces from ethnic separatists inside China must now come to terms with an initiative that is embroiling China in conflict with separatists outside of it. To add the last possible straw, the recent border dispute with India has seen a bloody conflict in the high Himalayas and the animosity between the two nuclear armed neighbors have reached astronomical heights.

If China’s stock has reduced, can India take its place on a global stage?

These Covid-19 terrible times of planetary pandemic have presented an opportunity to revisit our resources; it’s also a time to throw open opportunities for private players in several sectors in the Indian context. Post-Covid, India will be transformed in a new avatar. With its digital technology and a large English-speaking population, India will hopefully be able to reaffirm its top position in the global market.

India is a country of two and three-wheelers. Africa also relies on two and three-wheelers. India can improve the domestic manufacturing capabilities of electric vehicles (EVs) and create a market for them in geographies like Africa and South America. India can take pole position in building up a green energy alliance and can be a global healer in the planetary pollution context. With resurgence of a vast workforce working from home, newer technologies from artificial intelligence to education will evolve and can easily be transcribed in other parts of the world in the road to peace and prosperity.

What positive role can India play post this pandemic, be it in vaccine development or otherwise?

India has played a pivotal role in this catastrophic crisis, be it evacuating stranded citizens from all its neighboring nations, stretching from Afghanistan, to Maldives to Bangladesh or in providing medical and PPE aid to other countries. India has a robust pharmaceutical ecosystem that is playing a leading role in maintaining global demand for both generic and special permit patented medication to manage and contain the pandemic.

Being a beacon of peace and tranquility, with diversity and democracy at its core, India can show the global community an alternative to peaceful co-existence and be the flag bearer of the Asian Century.

"You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty."

– Mahatma Gandhi