WHEN China’s President Xi Jinping inaugurated at Islamabad on April 20, a $46 billion investment plan to connect Kashgar with Gwadar, he laid the foundation stone of an edifice of great promise. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) lies at the heart of Mr Xi’s two signature initiatives — the Silk Road Economic Belt in the north and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road in the south. Together, they would connect China by land and sea to Central and South Asia, West Asia and Europe.
Xi Jinping became president in November 2012. Very soon into his tenure, he delivered two historic speeches. On Sept 7, 2013, at the Nazarbayev University in Astana, in Kazakhstan, he proposed forging “closer economic ties, deepen cooperation and expand development space in the Eurasian region, we should take an innovative approach and jointly build an economic belt along the Silk Road … To turn this vision into reality, we may start in specific areas and connect them over time to cover the whole region”.
Less than a month later, on Oct 3, 2013, he suggested the ‘Belt’s’ companion, the ‘Road’, in a speech in Indonesia. “Southeast Asia has since ancient times been an important hub along the ancient Maritime Silk Road. China will strengthen maritime cooperation with the Asean countries, and the China-Asean Maritime Corporation Fund set up by the Chinese government should be used to develop maritime partnership in a joint effort to build the Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century.”
The CPEC, which links the two, was mentioned to the Pakistani president on a visit to China and to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Beijing.
To be sure, road-building in Asia is not a new idea. The prime minister of the Soviet Union suggested to the leaders of Pakistan and India at Tashkent in January 1966 the establishment of an overland trade route connecting his country with theirs running through Afghanistan. He renewed the proposal during his visits to the three countries in May 1969.
The US is seeing its influence in Asia slip away.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had earlier poured scorn over the whole idea in his essay ‘Political Situation in Pakistan’ published in 1968. The political motivation was soon revealed when president Leonid Brezhnev propounded his proposal for collective security in Asia in June 1969. The Kosygin Plan was clearly part of the Brezhnev Plan.
In her magisterial work Roads and Rivals, the scholar Mahnaz Z. Ispahani, granddaughter, incidentally of M.A.H. Ispahani, brings out “the politics of access in the borderlands of Asia”.
Road building is not devoid of political implications. But in the last 25 years the political scene in Asia has altered fundamentally.
A perusal of the full text of President Xi’s two speeches brings out two things. First, the remarks were not off the cuff. They were major policy pronouncements and the policy had been made public after full consideration with significant inputs by professionals, diplomatic and economic.
Secondly, Xi Jinping is realistic enough to know that hegemony is impossible. Hence his references to a ‘win-win’ idea and rejection of comparison with the Marshall Plan.
The follow-up is important. A Silk Road Fund Co. Ltd. was established in 2014. This $40 billion fund will “provide monetary services throughout the Belt and Road initiatives”.
This is altogether different from the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. China has promised $50bn to the bank. If 47 countries rushed to join as its founding shareholders, it is because they have no fears of Chinese domination. They include Britain, France, Germany, Italy, New Zealand and Thailand.
The US viewed their defection with dismay and subdued anger. Japan and Australia signed up with the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, (TPP) “one of the biggest trade deals in American history”. The 12 countries which would comprise TPP together account for 40pc of the world GDP and one-third of trade.
China’s reaction was in glaring contrast to that of the US. It concluded free trade agreements with Australia and South Korea. Shi Yaobin, China’s deputy finance minister, correctly pointed out that “every member’s share” of decision-making power in the AIIB “will decline commensurately with the gradual increase in the number of member countries”; especially if the members include Germany, France and Britain.
To the US, however, the AIIB and its other components pose a challenge to its erstwhile hegemony in the region. It sees its influence slipping away.
In his State of the Union message last January, President Barack Obama complained that China was trying “to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region”. He proclaimed “We should write those rules” — as if the people of Asia did not matter. China’s initiatives promise hope that the days of American predominance are about to end.
The writer is an author and a lawyer.
Published in Dawn, May 2nd, 2015