Washington: In a significant expression of international will, references to China’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI) have been deleted from all UN resolutions, bringing an end to Beijing’s “wordplay diplomacy” and dealing a blow to its biggest strategic gambit.
The spread of “Xi Jinping thought” via subterfuge came to a complete halt, at least at the UN, thanks to some diplomatic due diligence by India, the US and the EU. China’s little helper Pakistan could do nothing but watch.
The last vestige of BRI propaganda was deleted from a resolution on Afghanistan on December 6 in a final act of cleansing that started last year when India took a strong stand against BRI and rained on Xi’s parade by raising questions about transparency, environmental standards, predatory economics and violations of sovereignty.
Just as last year, when the coalition of India, US and EU worked to remove references to BRI from two other resolutions, the three-pillar resistance was led by the young Indian diplomats at India’s permanent mission who negotiated with other delegations and gathered widespread support.
The latest victory was achieved when references to BRI contained in the 2017 and 2016 resolutions on Afghanistan, which had the UN General Assembly welcoming “regional economic cooperation through regional initiatives, such as the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road (the Belt and Road) Initiative and other regional projects,” were deleted. The 2018 resolution on Afghanistan was rid of BRI baggage.
“BRI at the UN is going, going, gone…” a UN observer told this columnist. The belt had fallen and the road was blocked.
Interestingly, references to all other regional initiatives such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India or the TAPI gas pipeline project and the Chabahar agreement between India, Afghanistan and Iran were retained, making the deletion of BRI reference even more noticeable.
In fact, the resolution made a special mention of the delivery of the first consignment from India to Afghanistan from Chabahar Port and the establishment of the Afghanistan-India direct air freight corridor.
The last bit will especially irk Pakistan because its attempts to squeeze Afghanistan economically by denying India land transit rights for trade are failing. Last week, the UN recognised the importance of other routes devised by India to help Afghanistan.
The Chinese representative accepted defeat, registering mild unhappiness and noting only that the final text of the latest resolution had failed to mention the “consensus” reached in the past. He did not mention BRI, probably to avoid focus on the failure.
Diplomatic sources in New York said India, with support from the US and the EU, emphasised that all connectivity efforts in the region must be based on the principles of economic viability and financial responsibility – something that the BRI has spectacularly failed to do.
They argued that all transnational projects must follow “universally recognised international norms, rule of law, transparency and environmental standards” – basically the criticisms first made by India as Xi was showcasing BRI at a summit in Beijing in front of eager heads of state.
Those criticisms are now almost universally accepted and have become the backbone of the resistance. They have been used by the US, Japan, Australia in their Quadrilateral Security Dialogue to arrive at a counter-narrative of “sustainable infrastructure” (BRI promotes indebtedness) and “skill and technology transfer” (China brings its own workers for projects, giving no jobs to locals).
“Connectivity initiatives must respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations,” a senior diplomatic source said. “They should promote trade, not tension.”
Countries from Sri Lanka to Pakistan, from Malaysia to Myanmar are already having second thoughts about BRI as the shadow of debt darkens their door and local populations gain almost nothing in terms of skills transfer or even basic employment.
This battle royale at the UN between China and the US-India-EU combine may seem esoteric but it is significant nonetheless. It was important to wage this war over words because the tradition of precedent allows countries to build on previous resolutions and augment their narrative.
Language buried in resolutions can be resurrected later at an opportune moment to one’s advantage and before you know it, bad ideas are being endorsed by the General Assembly.
But once something is deleted by consensual agreement, getting the same language back in the same resolution or others becomes difficult.
The Chinese, in the great power tradition, see the UN as a vehicle to further their agenda. They have been working meticulously over the past few years to spread their word and thought through various UN organisations.
In their vision, BRI is the perfect expression of the “very purposes and principles of the UN Charter,” and pretty much an incarnation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Well, not so fast, said the troika of India-US-EU.
Seema Sirohi is a Washington DC-based commentator.