China and the Belt and Road Initiative in South Asia

In 2013, President Xi Jinping announced the launch of two new Chinese connectivity projects: an “economic belt” along the historic Eurasian Silk Road and a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road to expand cooperation between China and Southeast Asian countries. The common theme of the two was to increase China’s collaboration and communication with regional nations to enhance mutual development and prosperity.

Over the next decade, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) grew into a massive infrastructure, trade and connectivity project, stretching beyond Eurasia and Southeast Asia to regions such as South Asia, the Middle East and many parts of Africa. Some China observers have argued that the BRI is China’s updated and planned grand strategic vision of its historical Middle Kingdom hierarchy – China is centered on a global network of connectivity where all roads ( territorial and maritime) lead to Beijing. Others feared that the BRI was China’s strategic plan to gain geopolitical power by making smaller and weaker countries indefinitely beholden. Still others have warned that the BRI, far from being a monolithic, well-planned vision, is deeply fragmented by national interests, diluting its effectiveness as a unified grand strategy. These arguments assess whether the BRI is a success or failure for China, that is, whether the BRI enhances China’s geopolitical status and brings economic benefits to it. These factors are important, but they are centered on China. Ultimately, success also hinges on a more overlooked consideration: recipient countries’ perception of China and their reception of the BRI.

Safer:

China

Belt and Road Initiative

South Asia

India

Pakistan

The success or failure of the Belt and Road Initiative in South Asia can be determined by asking two questions. First, do recipient countries see the BRI as a positive Chinese initiative that brings significant benefits, whether political or economic? The BRI and China are considered synonymous, so positive views on the BRI can not only reinforce positive views on China, but in theory also make recipient countries willing to continue cooperation with China. Second, has the recipient country been able to manage the BRI to advance its own national agenda? If recipient countries see the BRI advancing their stated political or economic goals, they are likely to continue to welcome increased Chinese investment. Conversely, if they consider that the BRI does not deliver on the promise of economic benefits or has significant political side effects, then it may give recipient countries pause. In the long run, this could affect further cooperation with the BRI and China. In South Asia, even if a beneficiary country sees the BRI and China in a positive light, it has not necessarily also been able to manage the BRI to its satisfaction. Pakistan is an example. Again, even where the BRI and China are viewed negatively, as in India, the government has been able to use the specter of the BRI to advance other interests.

The lesson for the United States is that if it seeks to curb China’s influence in South Asia, it must pay attention to how potential recipients of such largesse react to China and the BRI. The United States cannot match BRI investments in South Asia, but it can support South Asian countries that choose to cooperate with China, as well as with India, the dominant power in the region. . If the BRI delivers on its promise to provide connectivity and infrastructure in South Asian countries that badly need it, it can contribute to domestic stability – a less volatile South Asia is in the interests of the United States . The United States can achieve stronger partnerships and increased credibility by actively empowering South Asian countries to assess the merits and demerits of the BRI, and by supporting alternatives for those who opt out, rather than to oppose the BRI wholesale.

This discussion paper was made possible through the generous support of the Ford Foundation.

Professors: To request a review copy, contact [email protected]. Please include your university and course name.

Safer:

China

Belt and Road Initiative

South Asia

India

Pakistan

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