CHINA IN ITS NEW AVATAR
Been meaning to catch up with the Dok La stand off, and thus the changing nature of China for some time. So here I go:
Remember Marshall Plan? The US initiative for a European Recovery? That was to later fan out into many directions to finally end in NATO (though many won’t agree about Marshall Plan kicking-off with NATO in mind; I am just pointing at the general direction of the cascade). Well, I have a feeling that BRI/OBOR is your 21st century Marshall Plan, thanks to our friendly neighbour China.
Halford MacKinder had this theory about Eurasia being the ‘heartland’ — that whoever controlled it controlled the word. The Cold War and the resultant mess in Vietnam or Afghanistan that followed throughout the second half of the 20th century — thanks to the likes of finally-dead-ZBig were the results. And Alfred Mahan had another Eurasia-centred global perspective that was chiefly centred round the maritime routes. Going all the way back to the time of Alexander the Great, he argued that those nations which had built a powerful maritime force, including both merchant and naval fleets, had been the most enduring. The Brits loved him! And so did the Americans — for they took over from their cousins to become the chief maritime mafia that has been ruling the seas till today.
The Americans, for as long as their mid-20th century hatched plan was running smooth, remained in charge.
But things are in a state of constant flux.
If there has been ONE TRUE beneficiary of globalization, it is China. Export-led growth, massive upward mobilization of millions of below-poverty citizens, impressive economic gains, trade surpluses… you name it. With this kind of a surreal growth, there was bound to be saturation; that came to China in the shape of overproduction of steel, construction machinery and transportation. And non-performing loans. And reducing foreign exchange reserves. China has seen a way out of this by being the key driver of the globalized world. When you grow and grow, and your old clothes don’t fit, you have to get out to buy/rob new clothes (beg and borrow don’t apply, because you are rich). This is the time for altering the Rules of Engagements — and creating a few afresh. So make no mistake: OBOR is the Chinese interpretation of the legacy of Halford MacKinder; and what is brewing at the SCS corridor is a wrestling match based out of Alfred Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783 (1890). China is that 21st century power that — finally shedding its “China Dream” of minding its own business is giving these two a try. Simultaneously.
The CPEC chapter of the OBOR corridor has been in focus for some time now. I have in the past argued about this being the proverbial dead albatross around Pakistan’s neck; and eminent Pakistan daily, Dawn has now taken to speculating the same logic based on whatever inside information has been made available to them. Rationally, one doesn’t need much inside info, one just needs to look at the earlier trade relations-results that China has had with countries like Sri Lanka to understand the tilt. My personal advantage has been my earlier dealings with Chinese businessmen and industrialists. For someone who began his career working in US multinationals, a Chinese multinational could be an eye-opener. They are extremely narrow in their vision and more money-minded than your average Shylock the Jew. And this would be my fundamental disagreement with the great Pepe Escobar; for I was witness to how an organization wound-up its operations in India just because the Indian CEO (I was reporting to him), wanted local manufacturing to be set up here. Turned out that the Chinese factory that was overcharging, was a pet of the Chairman (a Han Chinese) — he had a 70% stake there — and reducing its production, to manufacture cheaper here in India wasn’t going to help his profit line there; rather add up to the credibility of the Indian CEO, as captive markets in Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand and a few other South Asian nations expressed interest to buy from India if the local manufacturing were to take-off ( I was a part of the negotiation team that ran around getting these guys to agree to the manufacture-in-India proposal).
The concept of global domination, for people like me that have read or observed even a little bit about Old Uncle’s Foreign Policy and its results on Latin America, Europe or the Middle East, is not shocking. A today, B tomorrow… that shit is old, and is bound to prevail. So I don’t have any puppy-dream when it comes to China’s intent. Mankind is destined to be born and get kicked in their ass till they die. Vaccum — in this world of asskickers, asskickees, contesting superpowers and regional powers — can’t exist. Any other reason why Seychelles, Djibouti, and Pakistan — port projects that China insisted were purely commercial — have acquired military dimensions?
Anyway, CPEC. We have a joke between a few good friends. That China is getting to buy entire Pakistan at the fraction of the annual turnover of Walmart. And that is gradually getting to be a reality: slicing the cake, an inch at a time — the Chinese way. And that is why India abstaining from OBOR makes sense (I had previously argued that a nominal participation would be a good thing. But I had limited idea about the opacity of the nature of OBOR). It is not multilateral but bilateral. Signed in isolation with different member nations. It is not SCO. It is not AIIB. It comes with the rider of repayments of loans at a high interest rate. And it specifies the requirement of purchase of Chinese equipments, Chinese labour, and use of Chinese technology. There is little transparency thus, and it is also being argued now that there is no environmental or social commitment or sustainability involved. In short, this is not Eurasian Integration; this is old USSR building roads from Asghabat or Almaty to Moscow — so that if you were to drive from one of these places in South Soviet to the next, you’d had to drive all the way through Moscow.
India’s clear communication to stay out of OBOR has been that slap on the face that the Chinese are finding hard to forget. The Dok La standoff is one of the results of that. Perceived superiority over New Delhi is an old Chinese behavioural trait. So out comes Dalai Lama, Arunachal Pradesh, Aksai Chin etc. Then Bhutan — that doesn’t like the Chinese guys much — requests India for military support, and that makes way for “so we will send our guys to Kashmir if Pakistan requests us”… is what is going on.
Whether Dok La is as crucial a piece of geopolitical patch like Turkey or the Suez Canal, is unimportant. What is important is that New Delhi here has suddenly started behaving uncharacteristically for the first time since Xi took over and consolidated there. And why not. Think UPA. Sonia, Manmohan, Mani Shankar and gang: World Thumb Twiddling Champions. And then Modi: loudmouth, brash, crass, and pushy. And for the better or for the worse — does things. Like a bull in a china store; nonetheless. Demonetization and GST being the two big examples, (And by the way, if India hasn’t blinked this long at Dok La, there could be reasons to believe that the Surgical Strike on Pakistan was for real).
Anyway, this kind of a suddenly assertive India could be a little difficult to gauge. So my guess is that there would be a series of smaller events that would chiefly be the equivalent of China moving pawns here and there to understand the nature of threat that New Delhi is. Remain ready for more such news of standoffs, a little push here or there, enhanced activity along Indian Ocean, jumping in the bathtub naked with Pakistani Generals and things like that. For India — and if I consider CPEC — there are some similarities with NATO encirclement of Russia. And since New Delhi has taken a stance, moves are gonna be crucial, far removed from UPA moving the Queen one step forward and two step back on an empty chessboard.