When something seems too good to be true…


Myths and facts about One Belt One Road


One-Belt One-Road has probably become the most cherished vision in participating countries in Southeast Asia. Given China’s violent upheavals after the reunification, the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward had left the oppressed farmers in a state of apathy towards its overwhelmingly charged and long political instability. Mao’s plans didn’t work out the way he meant them to be. Trade liberalisation was not only the way out of staunch ‘Juche System’ of communist ideology but also a sigh of relief for the generations of masses that were at war with themselves. In 1991, Mao’s charisma had vanished to the point where Gang of four had been arrested. While rest of them were executed the remnants of China’s long sanguine history of hard-core communism died with tragic suicide of one the most charming of the culprits, former actress and head of propaganda department, Jiang Qing, Mao’s fourth wife and de facto ruler of the China.

Fast forward 20 years China has recovered from its socio-political carnage. Infrastructure, education, healthcare, foreign policy, currency valuation and foreign reserves have dramatically skyrocketed. Many argue that it is the inflexible authoritarianism of communist party with its extortionist policies that explains the overnight progression of what they call the Chinese bubble. Jury is still out on it if all this was worth sacrificing the multiparty democratic freedom and censorship of public dissent. Proponents of capitalistic economics would portray it as the slave labour of pharaohs that can give progeny to come with picturesque pyramids but a life of starvation and suppressed dissatisfaction. I presume the attitude in China’s upper echelons is “whatever rocks the boat”.

Rowing a boat in troubled waters however has not been easy for China. Russian fell on its nose precisely at the time when China had to make a decision about its post-Maoist foreign policy. When the pressure to join a bloc is immense one needs to be very careful about what one wishes. Luckily the party had learned the importance of development and strength from their history. It came out with five guiding principles of its foreign policy of peace. These Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence are mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. Seemingly a very neutral and innocuous strategy was however a very deftly crafted message that went out loud and clear. Not only did it show non-alignment it pronounced the forming of bloc’s interference in world peace process and a monopolistic hegemony. With it, China not only disassociated itself from its brief romance with communist Russia the message was the same for the US.

The commendable part in a treacherous and whimsical arena of global politics is the strength with which China adhered to these five principles. Over the decades it has consistently avoided voting on resolutions that included sanctions, interventions and ending civil wars. Its stance has always been firm be it Iraq and Iran war, Israel and Arab countries, or South and North Korea rift. Despite being a permanent member of Security Council in UN, China has never used its power to favour a bloc.

This aloofness helped China focus on its miraculous five-year plans. The state of the art plans are short term five year policy that address immediate needs. Plan after plan China’s used these building blocks to strengthen its economy, infrastructure and huge military empire. From its first plan in 1953, it is in its 13th five year plan. This laudable consistency owes a lot to its impartial five principles of foreign policy. International Institute of Strategic Studies last year published a report from London called ‘The Military Balance”. The report outlines the military comparison between US and China. With almost doubled the size of US military of 1.4 million, China has over 2.3 active military with an additional 1.1 million as reserves. The formidable might China has created by closing the gaps between its land, air and maritime army, direct military conflict might be a bygone conclusion. South China Sea dispute is an ideal reflection of that. As China controls the 3000 acre Spratly Islands in the sea, Philippines despite winning the case at international court against Beijing has chosen to side with the more loyal and geographically closer partner, China. With new trade agreements signed worth $72 million, Duterte has decided to spread his investments in two blocks.

One-Belt One-Road is China’s diplomatic expansion to its new neighbours with an extended hand. This firm handshake does mean business but will it not benefit its neighbours? From Singapore to Myanmar, Mongolia to Russia and Pakistan to Turkey the old Silk Road seems to have reincarnated in Chinese vision. The hard nuts to crack in these mutual regional developments are India and Iran along with other countries of less diplomatic importance that insist upon siding with the US, for now. While India is trying its best to pit Chabahar against Gawadar port and playing TV ads to discourage its citizens from purchasing Chinese goods, regional position of Hindutva-ridden India is debilitating. Maritime routes are another concern for Indian military complex because of growing Chinese influence on east and worsening relations with Pakistan.

The story doesn’t always fly the way Chinese want it to be. The inside report from original documents on CPEC were published in DAWN recently by Khurram Husain. The benevolent trader’s façade doesn’t look as good as it is portrayed. Plan rigorously eyes the agriculture lands for its fertility and low cost labour. It includes visa-free travel for Chinese nationals to Pakistan that would set up demonstration projects in different areas and will be protected by 24/7 surveillance systems set up in all metropolitan cities and will expand with time. This vertical expansion will slowly devour all channels from raw products to distribution channels, manufacturing and supply chains for global dissemination. Chinese Companies will be majority stakeholders if not the sole owner of the projects e.g. Huawei and China Mobile.

Along with three passages, one road, two axes and five functional zones the plan digs deeper than mutually prolific trade. Mineral and petroleum exploration is part of the long term strategy that along with China many western countries have long waited for. With that comes the revolution in social sphere where along the coastline a Dubai like tourist friendly utopia is envisioned. With nightlife, golf courses, yacht docks, theatres, spas and hot spring hotels will be built. How this fits into the cultural fibre of an Islamic country is also an intricate matter but its disconnect with Chinese values of secularism in their own country is troublesome. Human Rights Watch report about Xinjiang province and its treatment of its Muslim minority are no secret. The argument can be made that it has dealt with other minorities e.g. in Tibet with same force and policies but this does not seem to assuage any of the pan-Islamic ideals pervasive in Pakistan.

Pakistan is not the only Muslim country in the initiative. Turkey another participant will definitely have a say in ‘beyond the business’ affairs. Public pressure will soon build and Erdogan is known to have supported Muslim causes vehemently. His open armed embrace for Syria has been extolled worldwide and his philanthropic activities for Muslim world are not up for discussion. Icing on the cake is how China plans to reap the benefits of this. The payment terms have been ridiculously tilted in favour of Chinese enterprises. The lease, loans, contracts; stakeholder agreements will leave the country drained in the long term.

An appropriate tagline for the erudite audience can be, “What were we thinking while inking those agreements?” As a nation we all think about it as concerned citizens. Was it an easy way out of political turmoil and panama leaks for the Prime Minister and his family? The quick influx of foreign investment on despicable terms was a ruse to make out like a bandit just in case army decides to oust him out for his corruption and collusion with foreign players? Will this second martyrdom in politics gain him the sympathy votes in 2018 or after, that will get him in power, yet again?

The other scenario is more exhilarating, while fiction-like, if true this could be of more serious consequences. What if this stage fight between politicians and army is an eyewash? While army distances itself from increasingly unequal relationship with flirtatious US, CPEC is the message to US to mend its ways and drop ‘do more’ question. Can this be a collusion between politicians and generals where they will come out shaking hands with bags filled with money while fire is ablaze behind them burning everything in a cinematic fashion? All great stories are little embellished but if this one holds up the quote from Godfather in Panama verdict is not just a quote after all.