China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has created a stir around the world. Will this multi-country infrastructure and investment project, which conservative estimates put at around $1 trillion, transform the global power structure or will it trap numerous countries in debt leading to chaos? And what does it mean for India? In London, Hindol Sengupta spoke to Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at The Royal United Services Institute, for some answers. Edited excerpts:
What do you think most people are getting wrong about the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)?
What’s most missing in the discourse is often perspective from these countries (the countries through which the project runs) and which reflects their interests. We should be wary of superimposing our external interpretation or perception on them. For instance, this entire point about debt traps. Now there are issues about debt, but it is not really about China trying to trap these countries into debt. It is more about the capacities and issues within these countries. Two problems happen while analysing the BRI: one, people tend to think of it as one grand strategy as opposed to lots of things happening in diverse ways in lots of places; and [two], try to superimpose that view or superimpose the view of the bigger U.S.-China clash that is happening now onto this. But both are not quite correct. There are many nuances that get lost when we cut in that way.
What are the most interesting nuances in the Indian subcontinent that are being missed out in the BRI analysis?
On the India side, there is a tendency to think that India does see this as a big, hostile thing [in] its entirety, whereas I would say that the reality is in fact India can never sign up to the BRI project in its entirety because the China-Pakistan corridor cuts through disputed territory [Pakistan-held Kashmir]. But there are other elements in the vision like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), like investment into third locations, and like Chinese investment into India that the Indian government quite likes and would like to foster. In Pakistan, once again we talk about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as one overarching thing whereas, in reality, these are a number of smaller projects. And even the loans are of various kinds—some are loans given by Chinese banks to Chinese companies to complete projects, others are loans given to the Pakistani government as a concessionary rate, and then the Pakistani state hires companies on projects. We have a habit of treating these as one big block whereas actually these are a bunch of different projects being handled in different ways and with different kinds of reactions on the ground in Pakistan. In some regions, you see some tensions and local pushbacks on the ground in Pakistan like in parts of Balochistan; in some others, like in parts of Punjab, people are quite happy about these projects.
In this scenario, how do you look at the insurgent attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi (in November 2018) for which Pakistan blamed India?
That incident did not surprise me in the least. If you track recent incidents in Pakistan, there have been more and more direct attacks on Chinese interests in Pakistan by militant groups. We recently had an incident where a bomber of the BLA (Balochistan Liberation Army) targeted a busload of Chinese engineers. The BLA has been very clear that they are targeting Chinese interests in the country. The accusations against India have a long history. The thing that worries me is that while it is impossible to say whether there is any merit to these accusations, what is certainly true is that there is a lot of anger in Balochistan, which has been there for a long time. What they have now realised is that attacking the Pakistani state hasn’t really delivered any results. They have realised that if we attack the foreigners we will get more attention internationally, and we are attacking the Pakistani state’s biggest ally; and that in itself might deliver some results for us. It is erroneous to blame this on India or Afghanistan, and it is impossible to know for sure if there are any elements from these countries lurking in the background, but what we can say for certain is that there is real anger in Balochistan, and it has now decided that targeting the Chinese gets some sort of a reaction.
If this flares up, what does it mean for CPEC?
The underlying logic of CPEC would remain and this will remain an irritant to that. If the Chinese put more pressure on the Pakistanis to stop this kind of attacks, you will see a much stronger crackdown on the Balochi groups by the Pakistani forces. CPEC remains important and within Pakistan, CPEC has become kind of synonymous with Pakistani national economic rejuvenation, and that’s important for the whole region. Chinese companies will have much greater security around their assets and they might struggle on sending large numbers of engineers to Pakistan if these sorts of attacks escalate. But China is big; they will still find some people to send and its unlikely that these kinds of attacks would bring some sort of a grinding halt to the CPEC. A major attack might mean that the Chinese might [have] some of their security forces on the ground, but largely they would want the Pakistanis to solve this.
What ramifications does China’s stringent actions on the Uighur Muslims—including ‘re-education camps’—in the Xinjiang region have on its ties with Central Asian countries, Pakistan and the BRI?
What has been depressing is the lack of response from the Muslim world on this issue. Whatever comments there have been has largely come from Western capitals, and some from Malaysia. This is mainly because those countries do not want to upset China. But there have been some tensions in Central Asian countries some of whose citizens live in China and who are getting caught up in these issues in the Xinjiang region. What we have seen is concern, for instance, in Kazakhstan, where people are worried about these measures in China making their influence felt in their own country. There is pressure from the people in some of these countries for their governments to bring up these issues with China. This is not what the governments want to do because they want economic ties with China. This friction will grow.
How will the BRI project impact India’s future relations with China and Pakistan?
Clearly, in the Indian strategy vision, China is the biggest threat they look out and see. You see this in all kinds of things, in the strategic military purchases of India, in the so-called ‘necklace of diamonds’, in its relationship with Japan and the U.S. But notwithstanding all of this, we still see India hesitate to let the relationship with the Chinese to blow up into a full-fledged confrontation. That’s why we haven’t seen the Quad [Quadrilateral Security Dialogue; the strategic coming together of the U.S., India, Japan and Australia] really live up to its expectations. This is because none of the countries want this to become very confrontational and seem like a great front against China. Because they realise that they have other business with China. The U.S. has been trying to push things towards a confrontational direction, but the other countries realise that they must engage with China, its rise is happening around their borders. It is a very complicated picture. The real question going forward is how India will accommodate China’s rise, but also that China must learn to handle India’s rise and take its concerns more seriously. They have historically really looked down on India and treated India in a really disparaging fashion. This has led to angry confrontations and a sense in India that it just not taken seriously enough. I think there is a rebalancing that will happen [between the two]. And if that happens successfully, it could be massively beneficial to both. But at the moment it seems to be that national pride in both countries means that they are butting against one another but if these two great powers can figure out a way to work together and how, their growth models would intertwine with another.
What is the low-hanging fruit that India and China can pick off to better their relationship?
The low-hanging fruit could be Afghanistan. If India and China could agree that they would partner in Afghanistan, you could see a real game changer on the ground in that country with hugely positive effects. The other is why does India and China have to see projects in the surrounding island countries as threats? Why not jointly build infrastructure projects using the AIIB or the BRICS Bank, which could again lead to cooperation.