India’s former national security advisor Shivshanker Menon recently rejected the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and said that it was unacceptable to India. “[N]ot all projects under the initiative are economically viable, which suggests that there is geo-strategic motivation,” he was quoted as saying at a conference.
Grounding this rejection in the corridor’s passage through “disputed territory”, New Delhi’s hawks are deploying all possible arguments to cast aside the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative as “Chinese attempt for regional expansion.”
But this hawkish position overlooks a primary reality — the OBOR and the CPEC epitomize China’s econo-diplomatic offensive. This offensive is rooted in a belief that trade and development alone can provide the much needed political stability in the region.
Thus, the OBOR and the CPEC initiatives embody not only an inherent desire for staying politically relevant in global and regional matters but also a relentless pursuit of trade expansion and development through greater connectivity. The ambiguity surrounding these initiatives should be clarified.
Firstly, Beijing remains religiously committed to the principle of non-interference in internal affairs of other states. Secondly, the OBOR is based on an understanding of sharing dividends of economic prosperity with all those who believe in regional connectivity. Thirdly, China seems ready to mediate between other countries, such as between India and Pakistan or Pakistan and Afghanistan, as long as these countries are willing to talk out their differences.
Fourth, China will never use another country as a tool to target a third country. Fifth, China has opposed the recent U.S. strike involving “the mother of all bombs “dropped at ISIS shelters in eastern Afghanistan. Its position seems to be that such strikes set a dangerous precedent in international relations. Sixth, any attempts at peace building and reconciliation cannot move forward without taking into consideration historical and political ground realities. The increasing nexus between ISIS and regional groups such as ETIM (also known as Turkestan Islamic Party), IMU, and Al-Qaeda affiliates and collusion of these terrorist outfits with trans-border criminal syndicates represents a threat to all states and requires a joint strategy.
Seventh, it seems China will continue engaging with whoever believes in peace and cooperation. Support for any particular country at the cost of another will not be an option — it will choose or distinguish between India and Pakistan. Both countries will need to sort out their conflicts among themselves.
Eighth, China recognizes that politically-motivated projects cannot necessarily be economically sustainable. Any venture — even if it is flowing out of political considerations — has to be economically viable to ensure sustainability for a win-win outcome.
Irrespective of the Indian or US reservations and objections, China’s stated objective has been to push for stability and development as much as possible. This is the sense one gets in Beijing and Shanghai.
That is why despite India’s hostile opposition to OBOR initiatives, Beijing is still keen to pursue friendship and cooperation with New Delhi. Chinese officials say they would be ready to nudge India into cooperation with Pakistan but the two countries need to decide among themselves how they want to shape their relationship. For Chinese officialdom, similar logic extends to Afghanistan and Pakistan relations.
In fact, China is ready to support Pakistan and Afghanistan in resuming formal talks on contentious issues. But the nature and extent of Chinese role in such talks will depend on the attitude of the two states concerned.
This readiness to help Pakistan and Afghanistan resume talks is accompanied by an acknowledgment that much of Afghanistan’s problems are owed to role of external players. Chinese leadership also recognizes that Pakistan has been suffering from multiple crises in the last 15 years.
Both countries are similar in many ways so why don’t they stop listening to external forces — motivated by geopolitics — and instead hear each other out, ask Chinese friends.
However, Chinese leaders and officials also list down three conditions for their engagement with the troubled Af-Pak region. Firstly, political views of all strategic stakeholders need to be in sync. Secondly, security is a central concern for pushing and promoting investments. The government in Beijing can give policy and guidelines to businesses but it cannot push them. So it’s critical for local stakeholders to work for improvement of security. Lastly, politically motivated projects are never profitable and, thus, it is necessary that all projects should be economically sustainable.
Chinese academia and officials point out that that if China can move on and promote trade relations with politically hostile countries like the US, Japan, and India, why can’t Pakistan and Afghanistan pursue the same path? If the two countries share history, ethnicity, culture, religion, and borders, why cannot they pursue a shared destiny involving political stability and economic development in the region?
The writer is Editor, Strategic Affairs, and also heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad and author of Pakistan: Pivot of Hizbu Tahrir’s Global Caliphate. Can be reached at Imtiaz@crss.pk