China tries hard to transcend most multi-regional conflicts through OBOR

Photo: Michel Temer/CC BY 2.0

Regardless of the multi-regional conflicts that punctuated China’s diplomacy, OBOR has opened up doors of renegotiations and interactions. 

By Joelyn Chan

China’s encircling plans, One Belt One Road (OBOR) or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), have rocked up a storm, and it continues to affect all countries, in one way or another.  Given Trump’s “America First agenda” and UK’s Brexit, OBOR may be the next best thing left for some ASEAN nations.

Source: Xinhua News

OBOR’s current bill racks up to US$4 trillion, close to 36% of China’s Gross Domestic Product in 2016. The massive infrastructure plan is expected to cover 65% of the global population and 75% of the world’s energy resources. The forum served as a significant milestone since President Xi Jinping’s first announcement in 2013. Invitees and non-invitees, followed by attendees and non-attendees of all big and small nations, were scrutinised as indications of China’s likes and dislikes.

Like all rising and current global superpowers, China has conflicts entrenched since historical times. As China tries to roll out the OBOR project along more than 20 countries, OBOR acts a double-edged sword, which could either improve or further strain ties. In a podcast for The Diplomat, analyst Ankit Panda said, “OBOR is about the world order and China’s place in that order.”

Emerging Nations – China and India

With over 1.3 billion citizens, both global powerhouses would eventually battle for supremacy in Southern Asia.  India had declined China’s invite to the OBOR forum. Its concerns run deeper than just ambiguity in economic gains, but also past issues surrounding borders disputes, territorial integrity, and nuclear proliferation.

For one, the 1962 Sino-Indian war initially left India feeling sore and shocked at the one-month war that China started. In 2013, Himalayas was once again, another trigger for standoffs. In August 2017, the most recent conflict broke out in Ladakh region. These deeply rooted and recurring border issues hinder any OBOR discussion.

India is no longer the weak child that China can easily pressurise into conformance. Considering both pull and push factors, China’s OBOR is not attractive enough for India, and India’s growing diplomatic power allows it to hold its stance against any unfair requests from China. India would rather foster better relationships with nations excluded from OBOR than to turn a blind eye on the previous discontentment with China.

Current major power- United States (US)

The struggle to exert dominance is always happening between the US, the world’s leading capitalist democracy, and China, the world’s most populous communist state. These different ideologies generate a different set of vision for Asia’s future, with little commonalities for both nations to compromise and agree on a way forward.

On the request of China, US’s National Security Council Official, Matthew Pottinger, had attended OBOR forum as part of trade deals that permitted US access to China’s beef and financial services market. US will participate no further as OBOR further diminishes the US’ presence in Asia and offers negligible gains.

After President Trump took over and lapsed on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, there is no counterbalancing force to curb China’s influence. Neither is there a clear strategy to maintain US’ position in global politics. No matter how amazing China positions OBOR, we will not see US as China’s top supporter anytime soon.

Communism brothers – North Korea and Russia

Although North Korea has attended the OBOR forum, its participation is still uncertain and interpreted differently by various countries’ press. China’s Foreign Minister Spokesperson, Geng Shuang, rationalised the extension of the invite to North Korea with OBOR’s openness. Meanwhile, North Korea struggles to comprehend China’s potential economic returns from OBOR. In the eyes of the isolated nation, there are better things to do than to fund infrastructural developments around the region.

North Korea is a wild card on China’s hand. The communist country relies on China for food and fuel, launched missile tests on OBOR forum day and ignores China’s advice on nuclear proliferation.  Certainly, OBOR will help North Korea achieve economic development and improvement in transportation and energy infrastructure, but it would not hold any power to interfere with North Korea’s internal affairs

There is more certainty for past superpower nation, Russia. OBOR marked an important step in Sino-Russian strategic friendship. The recent talks generated at least US$10 billion worth of projects.

With bonds forged since communist era, China and Russia unite against their common enemy – US. Apart from that, both nations are careful to not infringe on the other’s area of dominance. Russia had been worried about losing its regional influence to China. China allays those fears with constant reassurance, arrangements to have Russia be the second speaker in OBOR forum and emphasis on their partnership.

Regional concerns – South China Sea (SCS) and ASEAN

This year marks ASEAN’s 50th anniversary and the 26th anniversary of the dialogue partnership between China and ASEAN. Despite the massive scale of OBOR, ASEAN nations have yet to solidify their common stand, leaving ambiguity and uncertainty hanging during times of disagreement. In the ASEAN joint ministerial statement, it addressed BRI and noted: “the Leaders looked forward to working closely with China to enhance cooperation on the basis of equality, mutual respect, benefit and consensus.”

ASEAN Master Plan for Connectivity 2025 (AMPC) overlaps with OBOR. Both initiatives entail an increase in connectivity and integration networks.  So far, China provides funding support when AMPC is compatible with OBOR’s aims.

China’s foreign ministry said, “SCS problem was not a China-ASEAN dispute and should not affect China-ASEAN relations.” China regards contentions in SCS with ASEAN member states in isolation and strategises to defuse the issue by focusing on economic gains. With infrastructure grants given to ASEAN member states, there is a plausible trend where countries like the Philippines adopt a quieter stance on their sovereign rights to gain greater economic benefits.

The future

OBOR is part of China’s ambition, and it is undoubtedly a high-stake commercial project that requires participating nations long-term buy-in. While it has created opportunities for renegotiations and interactions, it still lacks the persuasive power for some nations to cover its eyes on China’s misbehaviours. For countries that signed up, the bilateral relations forged cannot afford to go sour until the project’s slated completion in 2025.