The Politics Behind China's Belt and Road Initiative

Hegemonic power in the era of globalisation is built upon trade, and trade is the first casualty of war. China’s hegemony is being built through trade. So it has the strongest interest in peace.

This is the second and final article in a two-part series on the Belt and Road Initiative or BRI. The first one deals with the compulsions behind the BRI. Read it here.

One would be mistaken to consider the BRI an entirely economic initiative. All six of its ‘economic corridors,’ over land and sea, are designed to provide back doors through which China can continue to trade and obtain the oil from the Middle East upon which its economy depends.

China had begun to worry about the West’s reaction to its rapid rise, in as early as 2003 when – as Bruno Macaes notes in Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order – President Hu Jintao said that “some large countries are continually interfering in, and attempting to control shipping in the Malacca strait.” Since then the US, India, Japan, Australia, and most recently Singapore and South Korea, have been carrying out joint naval exercises, one of which is the closing of the Malacca Straits. 

Xi Jinping therefore had reason to be even more worried, for as Chinese economic power had increased so had the US’s desire to ‘contain’ it. On August 20, 2013 the Washington-based journal Foreign Policy reported:

“The U.S. military is encircling China with a chain of air bases and military ports…The Pentagon’s big, new strategy for the 21st century is something called Air-Sea Battle, a concept that’s nominally about combining air and naval forces to punch through the increasingly formidable defenses of nations like China or Iran. It may sound like an amorphous strategy…But a very concrete part of this concept is being put into place in the Pacific. An important but oft-overlooked part of Air-Sea Battle calls for the military to operate from small, bare bones bases in the Pacific that its forces can disperse to in case their main bases are targeted by Chinese ballistic missiles.” (emphasis mine)

By 2016, as the noted journalist John Pilger noted, China was virtually encircled by up to 400 such military installations established in Japan, Korea, Okinawa, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia. Thirty one of these were in Okinawa alone, directly opposite Shanghai, at a distance of just over 800 kms. This sounds like a long way away until one remembers that the range of the even the Tomahawk missiles that are the least of the armaments carried by the US navy is 1,400 kms, and that a single US carrier fleet could be armed with anything up to 2,000 such missiles.

The Tomahawk missile used by the US Navy. Photo: Public domain

It cannot be sufficiently emphasised, therefore, that militarily the BRI is a defensive, not an offensive initiative. The ultimate purpose of its six ‘economic corridors’ is to prevent the disruption of international trade, upon which not only China’s but the world’s prosperity depends. The BRI will definitely increase China’s influence, not only in Asia and Africa, but also South America and the eastern Mediterranean. To that extent, the fear of its growing hegemony that Bertil Lintner has expressed in The Costliest Pearl: China’s Struggle for the Indian Ocean, is justified. 

But there is a crucial difference between hegemonic power in the era of the Nation State and hegemonic power in the era of globalisation that we are in now. In the former, hegemony was acquired through war and conquest. In the latter it will be utterly destroyed by war and conquest because it is built upon trade, and trade is the first casualty of war.

Also read: What Lies Behind China’s Belt and Road Initiative?

China’s hegemony is being built through trade. So it has the strongest vested interest in peace of all the nations of the world. That is why, apart from its anti-piracy base in Djibouti, it does not have a single naval or air base, warship or fighter squadron in the entire Indian Ocean region. 

In sharp contrast, the western hegemonic powers are caught in a vice: while they too benefit economically from international trade and therefore have a vested interest in peace, that peace is now costing them the hegemony that they had earned through war and conquest, and so far taken for granted. Lintner’s book brings this contradiction out admirably, although I am not sure that this was his original purpose. 

The Southern Indian Ocean is the area of the world in which Western hegemony is most tenuous, and its continuation least morally defensible. Till only 75 years ago all the land above sea level, not only the several hundred thousand islands, atolls and coral reefs in this fabled ocean, but the countries around them, was ‘owned’ by the European colonial powers, notably the British, but also the French and the Dutch. 

The Indian Ocean region. Photo: Google Maps

In the era of de-colonisation that followed World War II, all but a microscopic proportion of these in terms of land area, were given their independence or, in the case of Reunion and Mayotte, absorbed into metropolitan France as one more of its departements

The British Indian Ocean Territory. Photo: Google Maps.

But the onset of the Cold War, which followed within weeks of the end of World War II, stopped the decolonisation process at 99%. The British gave independence to Mauritius but held on to the vast Chagos Archipelago north of it, renamed it the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) , and made its retention a pre-condition for the grant of independence. Mauritius had no option but to accept.

The French, similarly held on to Kerguellen and sundry other islands in the Crozet Archipelago and renamed them Les Terres Australes et Atlantique Francaises —TAAF (French Australian and Atlantic Territory). Together, these islands have a summer population of 360-plus souls but command an Exclusive Economic Zone of 2.238 million square kilometres

The EEZ of the BIOT is 638,000 square kilometrea and it continues to be claimed by Mauritius to this day. The small population of these Islands was physically torn away from their homes and shipped to Mauritius and the Seychelles – a second indenture heaped upon the iniquity of the first – and their dependents now demand the right of return. 

But the claim was doomed from the start , and remains so because Britain’s purpose in separating the Chagos islands from Mauritius had been to cede the pearl in their midst to the USA for building an air force and signals base.

Diego Garcia in the BIOT. Photo: Google Maps

That was Diego Garcia, a 14 kilometre long, perfectly sheltered lagoon surrounded by a narrow strip of land with sandy beaches and an unbroken fringe of palm trees, with only two small openings to the ocean around it.

As Lintner points out, the agreement was signed in December 1966 ‘in the cover of darkness’, i.e. without the approval of either the British Parliament or the US Congress. Mauritius gained its independence two years later.

The end of the Cold War removed the last vestiges of justification for the continued occupation of this vast area. So China’s recently discovered hegemonistic ambitions, embodied in the BRI, have provided Britain, France and the US with the perfect excuse to maintain the status quo in the region. 

Also read: Chagos: UK Refusal to Return Archipelago to Mauritius Show Limits of International Law

The reluctance of the Western powers to engage with a fresh challenge when they already have so many at home to cope with, is understandable. But how does one explain India’s not just willingness but anxiety to join them in opposing China. How does one explain the Modi government’s adamant and self-publicised refusal to join the BRI when China has extended every invitation it is capable of to make it come in? 

There are two distinctly different reasons for this. The first is a testosterone driven turf battle in the Indian Ocean that has existed ever since India’s defeat in the 1962 border war. The second is a sense of cultural stewardship born out of close racial, religious and cultural ties, that are particularly close with Mauritius, but also significantly present in the Maldives, the Seychelles and Reunion.

Ambassador Venu Rajamony presenting India’s position in the oral proceedings concerning The Legal Consequences of the Separation of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius in 1965 at the International Court of Justice. Photo: Indian Embassy

India sees itself as a protector of their independence and has agreements with Mauritius and the Maldives to come to their aid in case of external attack or internal de-stabilisation. It fulfilled this role in the Maldives in 1988, and twice within three months in the Seychelles in 1986. It also responded to a call for help from Mauritius to prevent an attempted coup, but the issue was resolved before Indian forces reached the island. It therefore sees the Chinese ingress as a threat to its paternalistic cultural hegemony. 

These two impulses have made India strategic thinkers swallow the well-worn idea that China is seeking to choke India with a ‘string of pearls’ – a set of bases stretching from the Middle East to Myanmar – without a single hiccup. Few remember that this thesis was first put forward by an American arms manufacturer, Booz Allen Hamilton in 2005 and elaborated in a more comprehensive paper the next year by one Christopher Pehrson for the US army War College. 

The plug in these presentations for more defence spending by the US government is obvious. But it is India that has swallowed it, hook, line and sinker. As a result, for two decades the Navy has been pampered with funds to build or lease an aircraft carrier, submarines and stealth frigates, while both the Air Force and the Army have been starved of funds and are equipped for the most part with obsolete aircraft and weaponry. Today, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scrambling to make good the deficit in armaments. At what cost, only a future Comptroller and Auditor-General’s report will tell us – if it is allowed to.

This is an updated version of a review article that appeared in Biblio, volume 24, number 7-9, June -September, 2020. 

Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi-based former journalist and editor. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger—Can China and India Dominate the West.