China’s Belt and Road Initiative: How will it work?
Posted on May 20th, 2017

By Bandu de Silva Courtesy The Island

As the Chinese President Xi quoted in his inaugural address to the Belt and Road forum in Beijing on Sunday 14th May 2017, the Chinese often say, “The beginning is the most difficult part.” He said, “A solid first step has been taken in pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative. We should build on the sound momentum generated to steer the Belt and Road Initiative toward greater success …” In pursuing this endeavor, he outlined several guiding principles. Twenty nine heads of state and governments, the Secretary General of UN, President of the World Bank, and over hundred other representatives took part in the forum session which shows it has gathered wide support in Asia and the West despite India and Japan keeping away.

India’s Absence

Looking at India’s absence at the forum one may be tempted to ask if holding the Belt and Road forum in China be like playing the famed Shakespeare’s famed drama, Romeo and Juliet, without Juliet.

Such a suggestion is likely to be spurned by both China and India though China may wish to keep the door opened despite her ignoring India’s absence at the Forum. As Raj Mohan, a top China-watching journalist in India put it thus: “India, which has long considered itself an equal to Beijing, cannot find her playing a secondary role in BRI fiddle … Neither India’s strong objections nor its weak political endorsement of the BRI would have any impact on its evolution; there is an air of inevitability to the BRI.”

What finally turned out was India’s absence which was completely ignored by the Chinese though the Chinese Foreign Minister had earlier expressed the hope that India would send a delegation. The Indian journalist continued that India which had been awakened had to do three things before she could join China on the latter’s initiative, the first being to bringing about a strategic challenge in her relations with immediate neighbours. That is deploying her inherited trans-border connectivities through the use of religio-cultural factor; the second was to develop India’s road connections to the Eastern parts; and third, development of ports in the east coast. If one looks at Prime Minister Modi snatching the opportunity offered by Sri Lanka this month, one could see him doing a first act in relation to her southern nighbour.


PM with Chinese President

Opinion in India was divided on participating in BRI. I expected that she might send a professional team as it did for the Hainan Dialogue which our President attended as a special guest but this did not happen.

Another country which seemed to be drawing her feet on BRI seems to be Japan with her own initiative. She, too, was absent at the forum in China.

What is BRI about?

The much-spoken-of China’s Belt and Road (BRI) initiative was first put forward by President Xi Jinping in 2013. While originating in China that the initiative is expected to deliver benefits well beyond its borders is demonstrated by more than 40 countries and international organizations signing cooperation agreements with China under the initiative. The upcoming BRI forum is expected to explore ways to address regional and global economic problems, generate fresh energy for interconnected development, and ensure that the initiative brings greater benefits to people of the countries involved, President Xi said in January this year.

The BRI, an infrastructure and trade network, not only connects Asia with European and African landmass along ancient land and maritime trade routes, and the Indo-Pacific maritime domain through an overland “belt” and a maritime silk “road,” but also involves, as observed by Raj Mohan, ” the export of Chinese capital, labour, technology, industrial standards, commercial benchmarks, the use of the Yuan, the development of new ports, industrial hubs, special economic zones and military facilities, under Beijing’s auspices”.

“While the BRI is then breathtaking in scope, its scale is, of course, much bigger, thanks to the massive economic resources and national ambition that Beijing can mobilise … China is set to become the first non-Western power in the modern era to shape the geopolitics of Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific. While most nations are ready to accept this, grudgingly or otherwise, two of China’s neighbours — Japan and India — are reluctant.”

Sri Lanka’s Role

Sri Lanka has no such big stakes as Japan and India would have in the BRI initiative. China considers her part of the BRI link. Critics look askance at China’s infrastructural development at the Hambantota Port and the Colombo Port City Project. She has to meet India’s concern on fears of China’s rival maritime expansion in the Indian Ocean. She cannot however, ignore Chinese investments if she is to proceed with her development projects.

Bi-lateral relations

For Sri Lanka, on the bi-lateral side, the main subject for discussion outside participation in BRI Forum is further talks on Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China. China has signed FTAs with a number of countries. The FTA with Sri Lanka was first mooted in 2015 and talks have been continuing since to improve terms. Sri Lankan exports to China remain low at 2.9 per cent of her total exports and they are expected to find greater access to markets with cheaper inputs and enhanced competitiveness etc.  Deeper trade integration and investment cooperation is also expected. Caution is taken not to permit China to enter the services field to the disadvantage of Sri Lankans as is alleged in the case of the proposed Economic and Technological Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) with India which has been devilled by the fear of Indian encroachment to the service fields in Sri Lanka.

The Hambantota project is not out of doldrums. The parliamentary debates and media discussions in Sri Lanka show that the proposed agreement to release 15,000 acres of state land in Hambantota to interested Chinese entrepreneurs has run into difficulty including violent protests. Obviously, there are elements which do not want to see the project succeed.

The most important consideration for boosting up relations between China and Sri Lanka is for both sides to “respect each other, understand and accommodate each other’s core interests and major concerns, and support one another on major issues.” That is a slogan which the Chinese repeat when discussing relations with countries. This sentiment was expressed by the Chinese President when he met President Maithripala Sirisena during his first official visit to China when he emphasized the need for “friendly cooperation” and “trustworthiness” and “reliable friendship.” That not only summed up what one may see as an expression of Chinese apprehension over the new Sri Lankan government’s attitudes towards Chinese investments but also served as a veiled expression of indignation over creating a “loss of face” situation for China, which the Chinese traditionally find difficult to stomach.

While the Sri Lankan Prime Minister participated in BRI forum, just fresh from the encounter with Prime Minister Modi in Colombo, he may not have been feeling a free man but mindful of repercussions that any overt enthusiasm he might be inclined to show in Beijing over BRI might cause in India. India, which now raises sovereignty issues over BRI, was herself seen laying down the parameters of sovereignty that her southern neighbour could practice. That was what he put in an aphorism when he said “India’s Sri Lanka’s security were indivisible”.

Sri Lanka needs to maintain a neutral national security policy that it will not arouse the security concerns of its big neighbour. That means Sri Lanka will have to do some tightrope –walking between economic imperatives and national security issues in its own interest. In short, she will walk the India rope with a Chinese umbrella in hand to maintain the balance.

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