By Emre Kovacs and Murray Hunter
In September 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed that China and Central Asia collaborate to build a Silk Road Economic Belt, which would comprise all countries within the Eurasian region. According to Eurasian expert and China Daily columnist Liang Qiang, such a corridor would be the World’s longest economic belt, with the most potential for development, and a strategic base of energy resources in the 21st century.
In the 2014 Report on the Work of the Government, Premier Li Keqiang reaffirmed that China will intensify on its planning and building of a Silk Road Economic Belt and a 21st century maritime Silk Road.
However, just as important as the economic considerations and aspects of a new Silk Road concept, is the formulation of a geo-cultural framework for the Silk Road. This is based upon the assumption that with better mutual understanding and appreciation of each other’s art and culture, an environment of trust will overcome any underlying deep rooted historical and modern prejudices, doubts, suspicions, misunderstandings arising from cultural differences which would otherwise make the common ground of the Silk Road slippery and unpredictable.
Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi said just recently stated publicly that mutual cultural understanding as will be paramount and fundamental to making the Silk Road development initiative work for all. He further added, that the Chinese government will strive for the vision of establishing the Silk Road Economic Belt by making further efforts to build mutual trust and overcome doubts, such as making clear the difference between China’s vision and those of Russia and the US, and stressing development and cooperation without economic integration, and by taking into consideration the different concerns of different countries and actively seeking converging economic interests with regional countries.
Thus one of the major barriers to implementing the Silk Economic Belt will be overcoming the long embedded divisions and prejudices, some justified and others unjustified, and fears of Chinese economic and demographic domination, as China reemerges as the major influential power in the region.
This requires serious discussion about what type of programs should accompany Silk Road development itself, where new policy approaches will be necessary to overcome the barriers discussed above.
At the wake of this new Eurasian economic initiative, a new paradigm to solve the problems created by fast development, and rebalance economics back inwards towards Asia once again.
There is a great historical example here, a proven Asian paradigm which was successful in promoting many diverse cultures with a mutually shared prosperity, where the peoples of the region prospered. This paradigm is the culture and economy of the ancient Silk Road.
Today the ancient Silk Road is being rebuilt in the form of a transcontinental network of bullet trains, oil and gas pipelines, highways, telecommunication lines and satellites, trade agreements and scientific cooperation. But the silk road economic belt also needs a cultural soul
The authors propose and accompanying Silk Road Cultural Belt which should be focused on the nations and cultures of countries comprising the Silk Road region. The programs should focus on the developing the indigenous cultures of those nations which once have all been connected through the Silk Road, both on land and on the seaway.
Today the ancient Silk Road is being rebuilt in the form of a transcontinental network of bullet trains, oil and gas pipelines, highways, telecommunication lines and satellites, trade agreements and scientific cooperation. But the silk road economic belt also needs a cultural soul.
In this regard, one must bear in mind that the ancient Silk Road was not only a road for commodity exchange. The burgeoning economy along the Silk Road was made possible by the mutual appreciation of each other’s culture and artifacts. Cultural understanding and interaction was the very base which sustained and enhanced the trade and economies within the Silk Road Belt and acted as a unifying force for Asia. The ancient Silk Road was the road of commodities, but it was as much as the road of ideas, art, cultures, spiritual teachings, scholarly knowledge, medicine and gastronomy.
A new scholarly understanding of the different cultures, their intricate connection and often shared roots, will bring the nations of Eurasia closer to each other.
A new, heartfelt and sincere artistic expression nurtured by the rich cultural inspiration of the Silk Road traditions will make the precious knowledge and experience of many generations available for modern thought and action.
The scholars and the artists with vision will together surely find many keys and focal points to map out the road towards an enhanced Asian cultural understanding, and mutual prosperity.
Everything that exists and created by humans has to exist first in the mind to become an idea and thought, which can be followed by action and accomplishment. Scholarship and art can conceive, create and communicate ideas and thoughts for actions and accomplishments. Imagination is the key to innovation.
Eurasian nations, we believe, will, in this way, come to recognize what is common, everlasting and beautiful within each culture of the vast Eurasian continent.
The paramount goal should be for the different cultures to be inspired by each other to find and cultivate their common roots and values, to appreciate each other’s specialties and differences..
It is envisioned that as a result, understanding and relationships will deepen between the participating people and their nations. The Eurasian Cultural Belt should become the focal point and radiating source of a new Eurasian consciousness for the reemerging New Silk Road which we believe will be a key factor in the twenty-first century coexistence.
If we want to have the blessings and opportunities that will come with a renewed Eurasian consciousness, we need to rebuild this Eurasian consciousness on solid ground, cemented by art, scholarship and culture. Surely, economics and politics will follow.
While the people of the world are often divided by political and economic interests, the authors believe that it would be possible for people to communicate more effectively with one another and to form a true brotherhood through culture exchange and mutual appreciation.
Music, dance, the fine arts, fashion and gastronomy have a strong attraction for people, and can often be easily shared and appreciated. In other words, culture can bring people together.
It is also important that through culture people can often come to know one another. The soul of a people, their innermost nature, is expressed in their fine art, music, dance and gastronomy.
It is the opinion of the authors that scholarship, art and economy go hand in hand, that they are interdependent and are able to either nurture or destroy each other. Regarded as a whole, they need to be brought into harmony. Otherwise, destructive forces can emerge to threaten the achievements of humanity.
The facilitation of cultural understanding through scholarship and art should the primary goal of The Eurasian Cultural Belt. This will make Eurasian Cultural Belt conferences and exhibitions of the New Silk Road unique events, where scholars and artists, the leaders of culture, economy and politics can find new tools and comprehensive approaches for their own work.
The engine of the above initiative should be the Eurasian Cultural Exchange Trade Posts (ECETP), domiciled in every capital and major city of the new Silk Road. These trade posts should take the form of spacious art and cultural villages, housing libraries, study rooms for scholars, art galleries, showrooms, conference and meeting facilities, cafes, restaurants and hotels along with art fashion and media studios to facilitate excitement, experience and interaction between scholars and artists and anybody else interested.
The programs should include art and research scholarships, conferences, presentations, exhibitions, media events and public culture dissemination.
The culture and history of the nations of the New Silk Road should be researched and promoted by the Eurasian Cultural Exchange Trade Post. Confidence, self esteem and generosity towards each other will than develop in an open and inclusive atmosphere.
The Eurasian Cultural Exchange Trade will work on the premise that diversity is strength and not weakness, and that cooperation evolves from the appreciation and understanding of each other’s culture.
This is the necessary new paradigm for the Eurasia of the 21st century and beyond. According to Charles Darwin, those that survive are not the strongest, or smartest, but those who are able to adapt to changing environments.
Otherwise domination, colonization, division, strife and slavery will dominate the next century within the current paradigms we know, in the midst of environmental and social deterioration.
Ongoing India China Confrontation in the Himalayan Region
China and India are two of the most populous countries in the world with ancient civilizations that date back over 4000 years. Since independence, the two countries have enjoyed cooperative diplomatic and trade relations. However, the undertow of territorial disputes and several border skirmishes have kept the relations strained. The relations between China and India became tense fifty‑eight years ago, when beset by tensions over territorial disputes, China attacked India on 20th October 1962 after India attempted to define the borders unilaterally – this was when the world’s gaze was fixed on nuclear tensions between Soviet Union and the US. The attack followed a string of allegations with India accusing China of suppressing Tibetan regional autonomy, while China charged India with attempts to weaken its rule in Tibet.
Although the war over Tibet after a brief period of clashes was over soon with China emerging as the victor, the conflict over the Line of Actual Control (LAC) as a disputed border between China and India remained unsettled. The repeated clashes over territorial disputes and disagreements on demarcation of LAC led to increased militarization and deployment of troops in the region. This came with the consequence that violation of the imaginary and undecided LAC by either military during border patrols and surveys ignited standoffs. It also triggered military confrontations between the two whenever there was an increase in border militarization or development of logistical infrastructure close to the disputed border by either side. For instance, in 1975, clashes resulted in the death of four Indian soldiers when Chinese troops established camps in the Daulat Beg Oldi sector 10 km on their side of LAC. In 2013, President Xi Jinping at the BRICS Summit in Durban expressed his desire to settle the Himalayan border dispute as early as possible. However, again in 2014, China and India were face‑to‑face on LAC, when Indian workers started construction of a canal in a border village. In 2017, both militaries came to another stand‑off when Chinese brought heavy road‑building equipment near the Doklam region and started road construction in the disputed area.
Likewise, on 16 June 2020, a clear provocation that escalated into a military engagement between China and India in the rugged terrain of Galwan Valley seemed to be India’s infrastructure development in the disputed Ladakh region. Especially, the construction of the north‑south road leading to the airfield in northern Ladakh signified a threat for the Chinese. The construction of road appeared serious to PLA as it could transport troops and supplies to the disputed area and destabilize the LAC balance. The current turn of events that left around 20 Indian and some Chinese soldiers dead and many injured on both sides while several Indian soldiers taken hostage was a Chinese attempt to freeze the construction of Indian infrastructure. The deaths were the first fatalities in four decades from the simmering conflict along the 2000 km undemarcated LAC.
China expected India to put a halt to the construction projects in the disputed area like China did at the tri‑junction region, where China, Bhutan, and India meet, after the 2017 Doklam stand‑off as it was a critical geostrategic location for India. China asserted India to respect the LAC, as there was no clear‑cut demarcation of it and stressed on the need to develop a mechanism to resolve the border dispute. The Chinese Foreign Office spokesperson, after the military engagement stated that they want peace and tranquility, while upholding the so‑called Wuhan spirit of ‘mutual understanding, trust, and predictability’.
Both states have made several attempts at confidence‑building measures (CBMs) in the past. The first attempt to foster good neighbourly relations was signed in 1993 titled as “Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control in the India‑China Border Areas”. Later in 2012, another agreement titled ‘Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination in India‑China Border Affairs’ was signed. This agreement was designed to develop political contacts to prevent border incursions on LAC. In 2019, during the 14th meeting of the CBMs, both states reiterated their intent to actively negotiate the border‑related issues. Although CBMs were fortified but due to lack of attention on a conflict resolution mechanism a new cycle of tensions and accusations ignited, making peace at the moment a dim and distant possibility.
As tensions remain high, if the conflict escalates, it could do so to a point of no return as it could engulf the strategic partners on both sides. With both states adopting an aggressive stance, confidence‑building measures or a peace agreement would be unattainable. Although both states have expressed a wish to resolve the issue through dialogue, neither side has disengaged militarily. The satellite imagery obtained by Reuters showed that military build‑up is strong on both sides of LAC, as 30‑40 Indian vehicles and over 100 vehicles on the Chinese side were spotted near the Galwan River. Both sides have prepared troops and heavy weapons anticipating further escalation. Some analysts have argued that the strategic location of the conflict is in India’s favour, but one aspect not to be neglected here is that China’s People Liberation Army (PLA) though not having as many bases in the Western theatre as India, does have a stronger backup, and PLA’s military is equipped with highly advanced capabilities; hence the balance of military power is heavily tilted in China’s favour. According to the 2020 SIPRI Military Expenditure Database, between 2010‑19 China increased military expenditure by 85 percent, while in comparison India increased it by 37 percent. The Indian construction projects that triggered the current conflict was an attempt to shift this balance in its favour, which has so far backfired.
However, to restore the balance of power, the Indian government could move further close to its strategic partner, the US. While the US would continue to provide diplomatic support, on the military front, an increase in military hardware sale to India would intensify a potential arms race in the region. Since the clash has buffeted the esteem of the Indian government that had surged to power on populist and nationalist sentiments India is likely to continue its military modernization pitching it as the need of the hour since the crisis is on‑going. It might even further engage with China militarily to diminish China’s growing soft power image enhanced with its role in the global pandemic crisis, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects, and its technological ventures of covering the world with its 5G technology. India could be under the impression that military engagement would shake China’s reputation as a soft power turned into a military aggressor, and negate the impression of ‘peaceful rise of China’ while supporting the general precept that rise of a power cannot be peaceful in an anarchic world. Standing up to China would support India’s aspiration of becoming a regional power, if not global.
Nonetheless, the two advanced nuclear countries should realize the grave danger of a military confrontation. While both have agreed on diffusing tensions as early as possible, they might exert additional pressure on each other by increasing their military presence in the region, or through diplomatic means. In that case, the course of events would go beyond immediate recovery or spread to other domains of warfare. This is what the world least needs at this time as it struggles to save lives and economies from collapse in the wake of coronavirus crisis which continues to take its deadly toll across the world.
The situation should especially be a wakeup call for Modi government which has destabilized the region with a series of recent provocations against most of its neighbours. To give peace a chance, the agreements should be respected and both states should agree to develop a conflict resolution mechanism. For this India would have to give up its political chest‑thumping, which may be enchanting to a section of its domestic audience for the time, but continues to be an intolerable nuisance abroad.
China’s Post-COVID strategy
In the aftermath of the covid19 pandemic, the increasingly belligerent behaviour exhibited by China in South Asia and South East Asia and China’s imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, it is interesting, to see the tone of the English media of China. While there is not an iota of doubt, that for a genuinely comprehensive peek into the Chinese view on crucial political, economic and geo-political issues, a perusal of the Chinese language papers is imperative. The Global Times,the mouth piece of the Communist Party is important, because it covers the views of Chinese academics, strategic analysts who through their opinion pieces provide a deep insight into China’s approach towards crucial economic and geo-political issues.
From the opinion pieces of the past few months, the Global Times one thing is evident, that with the US becoming increasingly unpredictable under Trump, it is virtually invincible. There is a growing belief, that Beijing is formidable both in the economic and strategic context. Strategic Analysts and journalists writing for the English speaking daily, have also tried to drive home the point, that Beijing is in a position to take on the US and its allies and that any attempt to isolate China would not be taken lying down. On the other, articles in the Global Times warn against Anti-China alliances, and also argue against why they will not be possible, pointing to the fault lines between the US and other countries. It has also not refrained from using strong language against countries like Australia and Canada by insinuating that they are acting as mere appendages of the US.
Aggressive stance vis-à-vis countries which blamed China for lack of transparency with regard to the outbreak of the pandemic
If one were to look at the newspaper’s labelling of countries which took a firm stand against China, with regard to blaming it for suppression of crucial information pertaining to the pandemic, Beijing was scathing not only in it’s criticism of the US, but also lashed out at Australia, for asking for an enquiry into the origins of the deadly pandemic. The newspaper labelled Australia as a mere appendage of the US, even dubbing it as a ‘poodle’ and ‘dog of the US’.
It has also warned other countries, especially Australia, of the economic consequences of taking on Beijing. An article titled, ‘Australia’s economy cannot withstand Cold War with China’ written by Wang Jiamei concludes by saying
‘…..If a new Cold War leads to a China-Australia showdown, Australia will pay an unbearable price. Given Australia’s high dependence on the Chinese economy, an all-around confrontation will have a catastrophic effect on the Australian economy’
The fact that Beijing did not take kindly to Australia’s criticism of China, and a demand for a probe was strongly reiterated by the point, that China imposed sanctions on imports of certain Australian commodities like barley and suspended the import of beef. China has also issued warnings to students and tourists to reconsider travelling to Australia.
This was done days after China’s envoy in Australia Cheng Jingye in an interview to an Australian media outlet had warned of strong economic repercussions (the envoy was referring not just to the impact on Australia-China trade, but on Chinese students pursuing education in Australia and tourists visiting Australia) if Australia continued to adopt a strong stance against China on the issue of an enquiry into the origins of the covid19 pandemic (Australia reacted very strongly, to this threat).
Beijing unsettled by emerging alliances?
One interesting point is, that while commentaries and reportage in the Global Times try to send out a message, that China’s rise is inexorable and that Beijing is not daunted by emerging alliances and the narrative of reducing economic dependence upon China, it seems to be wary of partnerships and alliances which seek to challenge it. The newspaper repeatedly warns India, UK, Australia, EU member states about the perils of strengthening ties with the US. Even in the midst of recent tensions between India and China, Global Times tried to argue, that India would never openly ally with the US and if it did so, this would be damaging. An article in the Global Times states
It won’t be in the interest of India, if it really joins the Five Eye intelligence alliance. the role of a little brother of the US within a certain alliance is not what India really wants.
The article also tries to dissect differences between US and India over a number of issues, which are not wrong, but what it forgets is which two countries do not have differences over strategic and economic issues.
Strong language against Canada
It is not just US, Japan, Australia, EU and India, Global Times has also adopted an aggressive posture vis-à-vis Canada. An article in the Global Times, ‘China-Canada ties wane further as Ottawa becomes Washington’s puppet over HK’ dubbed Justin Trudeau was in pole position of bootlickers castigating him for the measures he has taken, after China tightened its control over Hong Kong via the imposition of National Security Law. Steps taken by Trudeau include suspension of the extradition treaty with Hong Kong and a decision to end the export of sensitive military items to the region.
Cracks in the bilateral relationship had begun to emerge between Canada and China, after Canada detained CFO of Huawei, Meng Wanzhou on a US extradition warrant (in the end of May, a Canadian court had ruled that Wanzhou could be extradited to the US much to the chagrin of the Chinese), while Beijing in return had detained two Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavlor (both were charged with espionage in June 2020). It would be pertinent to point out that Beijing has signaled it’s displeasure with Canada by reducing imports of Canadian products like pork and canola oil.
While Beijing itself is becoming more aggressive and belligerent, it can not expect other countries to stick to their earlier position on crucial strategic issues. While it is unfair to assume that The Global Times can cover the fact is that China is on the defensive, because it is for the first time that other countries are finding common ground in the strategic and economic sphere. While the results may not come overnight, partnerships are likely to concretize and gather momentum, because Beijing seems in no mood to give up on its hegemonic mindset and patronizing approach. Yet, other countries and regional blocs also need to have a clear vision to counter China and divergences over minor issues will not help. It is true, that a zero-sum approach vis-à-vis China is not beneficial, but for that to happen Beijing too needs to act responsibly, which seems doubtful given its behavior on a number of issues.
Why does the Dragon do what it does
The recent stand-off between China and India has been the headlines around the world, especially since the stand-off went ugly with 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number (probably less than 20) Chinese soldiers losing their lives in a vicious hand to hand combat. Since then, nationalistic sentiments in India are running high with immense public pressure to account for the Chinese for what happened in Galwan Valley. In order to understand the motives behind the recent clashes, one has to go back to 1962 or even before that.
This is not the first time that tensions along the LAC (Line of Actual Control) have flared up and definitely this is not the end of such events. Strategically, what was true in 1962, is true today. The real bone of contention is still Aksai Chin. Aksai Chin is the Dragon’s hanging sword on Delhi, which can be unleashed anytime keeping India continuously in a state of passive defensive. As long as China adheres to its strategy on Aksai Chin, it will always have the strategic initiative, and India’s “great power ambition” will continue to lay in the abyss of the Indian Ocean.
Aksai Chin indeed was a part of the State of Kashmir but since Kashmir already was being fought over between India and Pakistan and the region being far from both India and Pakistan was inaccessible to both claimants. Beijing saw an opportunity and with tacit approval from Pakistan, went ahead to control this “Sand Sea of China” which is the literal translation of Aksai Chin in Turkic.
Aksai Chin is strategically very important for China. It is the only possible land route that connects China’s Xinjiang Region to Tibet. China’s G219 Highway and the New Tibet Railway Line both pass through Aksai Chin. If there was not to be an Aksai Chin, the Chinese had to cross the hard terrain of the Kunlun Mountains to connect China’s two big landmasses. In 1962 when China took the initiative to cross the LAC, Beijing had several things on its mind. Firstly, it had to secure Aksai China so that a land link between Xinjiang and Tibet can be established. Secondly, China knew that controlling the heights over India is going to give it a long term strategic advantage and through it, it could always keep the initiative in its hands, keeping Delhi in a defensive position for an unprecedented time in the future. Thirdly, it wanted to support Pakistan which was having its own problems in the Kashmir sector. In case of any future Indo-Pak conflict, China would be in a better position to intervene. Lastly, and most important of all, Beijing wanted to ensure no future disturbances along the LAC. The main objective of the 1962 War was made very clear by Chairman Mao at the Xiangshan meeting: “At least 30 years of peace must be guaranteed.”
One may wonder that what does thirty years of peace do. What merited the risk of crossing over the LAC by the Chinese? The answer is rather simple: Integration of Tibet! Tibet was having internal problems and especially after the Dalai Lama fled Tibet it was getting harder for Beijing to keep it under control, but that couldn’t be possible unless and otherwise New Delhi would be completely knocked out of the Tibetan game and this is exactly what the 1962 War did.
Some analysts believe that instead of focusing on Aksai Chin which is a rugged piece of land, China should’ve gone for the Arunachal Pradesh, which the Chinese call “Southern Tibet”. The area is also much richer in natural resources than Aksai Chin. The point made then by Beijing was that Arunachal Pradesh was a more difficult terrain to be defended plus the aim was to stabilize the whole of Tibet, instead of just Southern Tibet. Another interesting reason why Beijing kept mum about Southern Tibet was that it was the “Granary of Tibet”, the absence of which meant that Tibet had to rely on Beijing for its basic necessities. Another well-calculated move by Beijing to reign in Tibet.
All along the 1962 War, Beijing was clear of its objectives. It was not expansionism that drove the war but rather strategic interests. The war was initiated by China, and China itself took the initiative to end it. It was clear to the Chinese planners that any War with India had to be swift, decisive and must set the tone for future engagements. That is why after the PLA took over control over large swathes of land across the LAC and the “McMahon Line”, then quickly retreated back to the “McMahon Line”. Since the battleground is usually too cold for battle, the PLA had only a two-month window to launch an offensive
Prior to the war, at the Beijing Xiangshan meeting in which it was decided to fight the 1962 War, Zhou Enlai specifically instructed that “logistics must be done well, and we must never increase the number of casualties due to logistical factors like in the Korean War.”
Learning on the lessons of 1962, India unilaterally decided not to build any infrastructure in the region surrounding the LAC, fearing that the same infrastructure might be used by the Chinese to come into the Indian mainland. Since now New Delhi is ascertaining its regional and global power, it is constructing new roads and infrastructure along the LAC and China is clearly not happy with India changing the status quo. Previously, the status quo maintained gave Beijing a strategic advantage. One border issue had pinned India for decades, wasting a lot of India’s national power, and has allowed China to develop with peace of mind for decades.
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