New Delhi: Even as the Chinese Communist Party amended the country’s Constitution to pave the way for President Xi Jinping to continue beyond the traditional two-term presidency, a leading Indian Sinologist and former envoy to Beijing described the Chinese supremo’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a “strategic opening to expand its regional and global profile” that will inevitably “impinge on India’s strategic space”.
He said the Middle Kingdom — which historically saw itself as the centre of the world — is moving beyond former President Deng Xiaoping’s famous 24-character dictum of maintaining a low profile and not overtly claiming leadership, and is instead seeking to reclaim its centrality in regional and world affairs.
“One can see that Deng Xiaoping’s famous 24-character dictum — ‘Observe calmly, secure our position, cope with affairs calmly, hide our capabilities and bide our time, be good at maintaining low profile, and never claim leadership’ — has started receding in the rear-view mirror (of China),” Ashok Kantha, Director of the Institute of Chinese Studies and former Indian Ambassador to China, said in a speech on “China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Nature, Implications and India’s Response” here on Monday evening.
The speech was part of the “Changing Asia” lecture series organised by the Society for Policy Studies think tank in association with India Habitat Centre.
Stating that China has clearly started moving beyond Deng’s advice, Kantha said that today Beijing is “prepared to deploy its considerable political, economic, military and diplomatic clout in pursuit of its strategic objectives” and saw the recent developments in Sri Lanka, Maldives and the Indian Ocean neighbourhood as a manifestation of the Chinese great-power ambition.
At the same time, he entered a caveat saying that China is still reluctant to expand its international responsibility too rapidly.
He said that the BRI — earlier called One Belt One Road and which loftily proclaims to reinvent the old Silk Route of international trading for the modern era — is a highly “imaginative and strategic” plan under President Xi as part of China pursuing its great power ambitions. China has estimated one trillion dollars of investment in the BRI which has, since its formal unveiling in 2015, seen some 70 countries joining its bandwagon.
Kantha’s remarks assume significance as the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee on Sunday amended the country’s Constitution, removing the rule that the President and Vice-President of China “shall serve no more than two consecutive terms”, thereby allowing Xi to continue as President indefinitely.
“China is now shaping its environment in its periphery in quest of an objective dating back to the 19th century of an economically prosperous and militarily strong nation,” the former diplomat said.
He said that the BRI is the third wave of China’s quest for a leadership role in the world, the first being the opportunities it saw in expanding its influence after the global economic crisis in 2008 and the second being Xi’s assuming the role of President in 2013.
Kantha is of the view that the BRI is more than just about connectivity and building infrastructure in the countries it touches from China to Europe. Stating that China is planning to influence rules being set in its periphery, he said that no region is more attractive for the BRI than South Asia and its the “main battleground” for the realisation of the BRI dream.
He said China is impinging on India’s strategic space and “will change India’s strategic and operational environment in a significant way”.
India has so far refused to be a part of the BRI given the threats it poses to its security and territorial integrity.
Kantha said that though China has agreed to take India’s interests and concerns on board, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and is the flagship project of the BRI, will affect India’s security.
He said that India should see the BRI as a geo-strategic challenge and should work with like-minded countries to maintain security in the region as more and more nations are showing reservations about the ownership, financing and long-term viability of BRI projects.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’S Sagarmala project, according to Kantha, is one way of countering the BRI. The Sagarmala project is a strategic investment initiative of India that envisages setting up of over six mega ports, modernisation of several dozen more ports, and development of coastal economic zones, among others.
Kantha also cited the Kaladan multi-modal transport project connecting Sittwe port in Myanmar with Mizoram in northeast India and the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway in this connection.
Pointing out that the BRI is a purely Chinese initiative and not a multilateral one, he recalled External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in 2015 when she said that Beijing cannot expect blanket endorsement for it and the two countries should work for synergetic benefits.
“BRI is a manifestation of China’s rise as great power and attempt to dominate the global economy,” Kantha said.
“It will be one of the biggest challenges to our foreign policy in the foreseeable future.”