Based on remarks at the RSIS book launch of Alan Chong and Quang Minh Pham (eds), Critical Reflections on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Palgrave MacMillan, 2020
Political scientists Alan Chong and Quang Min Pham bring with their edited volume originality as well as dimensions and perspectives to the discussion about the Belt and Road that are highly relevant but often either unrecognized or underemphasized.
The book is about much more than the material aspects of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In fact, various chapter authors use the Belt and Road to look at perhaps the most fundamental issue of our times: how does one build a global world order and societies that are inclusive, cohesive and capable of managing interests of all stakeholders as well as political, cultural, ethnic and religious differences in ways that all are recognized without prejudice and/or discrimination?
In doing so, the book introduces a moral category into policy and policy analysis. That is an important and commendable effort even if it may be a hard sell in an increasingly polarized world in which prejudice and bias and policies that flow from it have gained new legitimacy and become mainstream in various parts of the world.
It allows for the introduction of considerations that are fundamental to managing multiple current crises that have been accentuated by the pandemic and its economic fallout.
One of those is put forward in the chapter of the late international affairs scholar Lily Ling in which she writes about the need for a global agenda to take the requirements of ordinary people into account to ensure a more inclusive world. The question is how does one achieve that.
It is a question that permeates multiple aspects of our individual and collective lives.
If the last decade was one of defiance and dissent, of a breakdown in confidence in political leadership and systems and of greater authoritarianism and autocracy to retain power, this new decade, given the pandemic and economic crisis, is likely to be a continuation of the last one on steroids.
One only has to look at continued Arab popular revolts, Black Lives Matter, the anti-lockdown protests, and the popularity of conspiracy theories like QAnon. All of this is compounded by decreasing trust in US leadership and the efficacy of Western concepts of governance, democratic backsliding, and the handling of the pandemic in America and Europe.
Mr. Chong conceptualizes in his chapter perceived tolerance along ancient silk roads as stemming from what he terms ‘mercantile harmony’ among peoples and elites rather than states. It was rooted, in Mr. Chong’s mind, in empathy, a sense of spirituality and a mercantile approach towards the exchange of ideas and goods.
It was also informed by the solidarity of travellers shaped by the fact that they encountered similar obstacles and threats on their journeys. And it stems from the connectivity needs of empires that built cities and roads to retain their control that Mr. Chong projects as civilization builders.
There may be an element of idealization of the degree of tolerance along the ancient Silk Road and the assertion that the new silk road is everything that the old silk road was not. But the notion of the role of non-state, civil society actors is key to the overall quest for inclusiveness.
So is the fact that historic travellers like Fa-Hsien, Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta grappled with the very same issues that today’s world is attempting to tackle: the parameters of human interaction, virtue, diversity, governance, materialism, and the role of religion.
The emphasis on a moral category and the comparison of the ancient and the new Silk Road frames a key theme in the book: the issue of the China-centric, top down nature of the Belt and Road. Vietnamese China scholar Trinh Van Dinh positions the Belt and Road as the latest iteration of China’s history of the pioneering of connectivity as the reflection of a regime that is at the peak of its power.
Mr. Van Dinh sees the Belt and Road as the vehicle that will potentially revitalize Chinese economic development. It is a proposition on which the jury is still out in a world that could split into two distinct camps.
It is a world in which China brings much to the table but that is also populated by black and grey swans, some of which are of China’s own making. These include the favouring of Chinese companies and labour in Belt and Road projects, although to be fair Western development aid often operated on the same principle. But it also includes China’s brutal response to perceived threats posed by ethnic and religious minorities.
That may be one arena where the failure to fully consider the global breakdown in confidence in leadership and systems comes to haunt China. That is potentially no more the case than in the greater Middle East that stretches from the Atlantic coast of Africa into the Chinese province of Xinjiang.
Its not an aspect that figures explicitly in political scientist Manouchehr Dorraj’s contribution to the book on China’s relationship with Iran as well as Saudi Arabia but lingers in the background of his perceptive analysis of anticipated changes in the region’s lay of the land.
Mr. Dooraj focusses on three aspects that are important as one watches developments unfold: The impact of shifts in the energy mix away from oil coupled with the emergence of significant reserves beyond the Middle East, Iran’s geopolitical advantages compared to Saudi Arabia when it comes to the architecture of the Belt and Road, and the fact that China is recognizing that refraining from political engagement is no longer viable.
However, China’s emphasis on state-to-state relationships could prove to be a risky strategy assuming that the Middle East will retain its prominence in protests that seek to ensure better governance and more inclusive social and economic policies.
That takes on added significance given that potential energy shifts could reduce Chinese dependence on Middle Eastern energy as well as repeated assertions by Chinese intellectuals that call into question the relative importance of China’s economic engagement in the region as well as its ranking in Chinese strategic thinking.
The implications of the book’s partial emphasis on what Mr. Chong terms philosophical and cultural dialogue reach far beyond the book’s confines. They go to issues that many of us are grappling with but have no good answers.
In his conclusion, Mr. Chong suggests that in order to manage different value systems and interests one has to water down the Westphalian dogma of treating national interests as zero-sum conceptions.
One just has to look at the pandemic the world is trying to come to grips with, the need for a global health care governance that can confront future pandemics, and the world’s environmental crisis to realize the relevance of former Singaporean diplomat and public intellectual Kishore Mahbubani’s description of the nation state system as a boat with 193 cabins and cabin administrators but no captain at the helm.
Mr. Chong looks for answers in the experience of ancient Silk Road travellers. That may be a standard that a Belt and Road managed by an autocratic Chinese leadership that is anything but inclusive would at best struggle to meet.
Importance of peace in Afghanistan is vital for China
There are multiple passages from Afghanistan to China, like Wakhan Corridor that is 92 km long, stretching to Xinjiang in China. It was formed in 1893 as a result of an agreement between the British Empire and Afghanistan. Another is Chalachigu valley that shares the border with Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south, and Afghanistan to the west. It is referred to as the Chinese part of the Wakhan Corridor. However, the Chinese side of the valley is closed to the public and only local shepherds are allowed. Then there is Wakhjir Pass on the eastern side of the Wakhan corridor but is not accessible to the general public. The terrain is rough on the Afghan side. There are no roads along the Wakhjir Pass, most of the terrain is a dirt track. Like other passages, it can only be accessed via either animals or SUVs, and also due to extreme weather it is open for only seven months throughout the year. North Wakhjir Pass, also called Tegermansu Pass, is mountainous on the border of China and Afghanistan. It stretches from Tegermansu valley on the east and Chalachigu Valley in Xinjiang. All of these passages are extremely uncertain and rough which makes them too risky to be used for trade purposes. For example, the Chalagigu valley and Wakhjir Pass are an engineering nightmare to develop, let alone make them viable.
Similarly, the Pamir mountain range is also unstable and prone to landslides. Both of these routes also experience extreme weather conditions. Alternatives: Since most of the passages are risky for travel, alternatively, trade activities can be routed via Pakistan. For example, there is an access road at the North Wakhjir that connects to Karakoram Highway.
By expanding the road network from Taxkorgan in Xinjiang to Gilgit, using the Karakoram Highway is a probable option. Land routes in Pakistan are already being developed for better connectivity between Islamabad and Beijing as part of CPEC. These routes stretch from Gwadar up to the North.
The Motorway M-1, which runs from Islamabad to Peshawar can be used to link Afghanistan via Landi Kotal. Although the Karakoram highway also suffers from extreme weather and landslides, it is easier for engineers to handle as compared to those in Afghanistan.
China is the first door neighbor of Afghanistan having a common border. If anything happens in Afghanistan will have a direct impact on China. China has a declared policy of peaceful developments and has abandoned all disputes and adversaries for the time being and focused only on economic developments. For economic developments, social stability and security is a pre-requisite. So China emphasizes peace and stability in Afghanistan. It is China’s requirement that its border with Afghanistan should be secured, and restrict movements of any unwanted individuals or groups. China is compelled by any government in Afghanistan to ensure the safety of its borders in the region.
Taliban has ensured china that, its territory will not use against China and will never support any insurgency in China. Based on this confidence, China is cooperating with the Taliban in all possible manners. On the other hand, China is a responsible nation and obliged to extend humanitarian assistance to starving Afghans. While, the US is coercing and exerting pressures on the Taliban Government to collapse, by freezing their assets, and cutting all economic assistance, and lobbying with its Western allies, for exerting economic pressures on the Taliban, irrespective of human catastrophe in Afghanistan. China is generously assisting in saving human lives in Afghanistan. Whereas, the US is preferring politics over human lives in Afghanistan.
The US has destroyed Afghanistan during the last two decades, infrastructure was damaged completely, Agriculture was destroyed, Industry was destroyed, and the economy was a total disaster. While, China is assisting Afghanistan to rebuild its infrastructure, revive agriculture, industrialization is on its way. Chinese mega initiative, Belt and Road (BRI) is hope for Afghanistan.
A peaceful Afghanistan is a guarantee for peace and stability in China, especially in the bordering areas. The importance of Afghan peace is well conceived by China and practically, China is supporting peace and stability in Afghanistan. In fact, all the neighboring countries, and regional countries, are agreed upon by consensus that peace and stability in Afghanistan is a must and prerequisite for whole regions’ development and prosperity.
Shared Territorial Concern, Opposition to US Intervention Prompt Russia’s Support to China on Taiwan Question
The situation around the island of Taiwan is raising concerns not only in Chinese mainland, Taiwan island or in the US, but also in the whole world. Nobody would like to see a large-scale military clash between China and the US in the East Pacific. Potential repercussions of such a clash, even if it does not escalate to the nuclear level, might be catastrophic for the global economy and strategic stability, not to mention huge losses in blood and treasure for both sides in this conflict.
Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that Moscow continued to firmly support Beijing’s position on Taiwan as an integral part of China. Moreover, he also underlined that Moscow would support Beijing in its legitimate efforts to reunite the breakaway province with the rest of the country. A number of foreign media outlets paid particular attention not to what Lavrov actually said, but omitted his other remarks: the Russian official did not add that Moscow expects reunification to be peaceful and gradual in a way that is similar to China’s repossession of Hong Kong. Many observers of the new Taiwan Straits crisis unfolding concluded that Lavrov’s statement was a clear signal to all parties of the crisis: Russia would likely back even Beijing’s military takeover of the island.
Of course, diplomacy is an art of ambiguity. Lavrov clearly did not call for a military solution to the Taiwan problem. Still, his remarks were more blunt and more supportive of Beijing than the standard Russia’s rhetoric on the issue. Why? One possible explanation is that the Russian official simply wanted to sound nice to China as Russia’s major strategic partner. As they say, “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” Another explanation is that Lavrov recalled the Russian experience with Chechnya some time ago, when Moscow had to fight two bloody wars to suppress secessionism in the North Caucasus. Territorial integrity means a lot for the Russian leadership. This is something that is worth spilling blood for.
However, one can also imagine that in Russia they simply do not believe that if things go really bad for Taiwan island, the US would dare to come to its rescue and that in the end of the day Taipei would have to yield to Beijing without a single shot fired. Therefore, the risks of a large-scale military conflict in the East Pacific are perceived as relatively low, no matter what apocalyptic scenarios various military experts might come up with.
Indeed, over last 10 or 15 years the US has developed a pretty nasty habit of inciting its friends and partners to take risky and even reckless decisions and of letting these friends and partners down, when the latter had to foot the bill for these decisions. In 2008, the Bush administration explicitly or implicitly encouraged Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili to launch a military operation against South Ossetia including killing some Russian peacekeepers stationed there. But when Russia interfered to stop and to roll back the Georgian offensive, unfortunate Saakashvili was de-facto abandoned by Washington.
During the Ukrainian conflicts of 2013-14, the Obama administration enthusiastically supported the overthrow of the legitimate president in Kiev. However, it later preferred to delegate the management of the crisis to Berlin and to Paris, abstaining from taking part in the Normandy process and from signing the Minsk Agreements. In 2019, President Donald Trump promised his full support to Juan Guaidó, Head of the National Assembly in Venezuela, in his crusade against President Nicolas when the government of Maduro demonstrated its spectacular resilience. Juan Guaido very soon almost completely disappeared from Washington’s political radar screens.
Earlier this year the Biden administration stated its firm commitment to shouldering President Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan in his resistance to Taliban advancements. But when push came to shove, the US easily abandoned its local allies, evacuated its military personal in a rush and left President Ghani to seek political asylum in the United Arab Emirates.
Again and again, Washington gives reasons to conclude that its partners, clients and even allies can no longer consider it as a credible security provider. Would the US make an exception for the Taiwan island? Of course, one can argue that the Taiwan island is more important for the US than Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ukraine and Georgia taken together. But the price for supporting the Taiwan island could also be much higher for the US than the price it would have paid in many other crisis situations. The chances of the US losing to China over Taiwan island, even if Washington mobilizes all of its available military power against Beijing, are also very high. Still, we do not see such a mobilization taking place now. It appears that the Biden administration is not ready for a real showdown with Beijing over the Taiwan question.
If the US does not put its whole weight behind the Taiwan island, the latter will have to seek some kind of accommodation with the mainland on terms abandoning its pipe-dreams of self-determination and independence. This is clear to politicians not only in East Asia, but all over the place, including Moscow. Therefore, Sergey Lavrov has reasons to firmly align himself with the Chinese position. The assumption in the Kremlin is that Uncle Sam will not dare to challenge militarily the Middle Kingdom. Not this time.
From our partner RIAC
Russia-Japan Relations: Were Abe’s Efforts In Vain?
Expanding the modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward.
One year after the end of Shinzo Abe’s long period of leadership, Japan has a new prime minister once again. The greatest foreign policy challenge the new Japanese government led by Fumio Kishida is facing is the intensifying confrontation between its large neighbor China and its main ally America. In addition to moves to energize the Quad group to which Japan belongs alongside Australia, India, and the United States, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has concluded a deal with Canberra and London to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines which in future could patrol the Western Pacific close to Chinese shores. The geopolitical fault lines in the Indo-Pacific region are fast turning into frontlines.
In this context, does anything remain of the eight-year-long effort by former prime minister Abe to improve relations with Russia on the basis of greater economic engagement tailored to Moscow’s needs? Russia’s relations with China continue to develop, including in the military domain; Russia’s constitutional amendments passed last year prohibit the handover of Russian territory, which doesn’t bode well for the long-running territorial dispute with Japan over the South Kuril Islands; and Russian officials and state-run media have been remembering and condemning the Japanese military’s conduct during World War II, something they chose to play down in the past. True, Moscow has invited Tokyo to participate in economic projects on the South Kuril Islands, but on Russian terms and without an exclusive status.
To many, the answer to the above question is clear, and it is negative. Yet that attitude amounts to de facto resignation, a questionable approach. Despite the oft-cited but erroneous Cold War analogy, the present Sino-American confrontation has created two poles in the global system, but not—at least, not yet—two blocs. Again, despite the popular and equally incorrect interpretation, Moscow is not Beijing’s follower or vassal. As a power that is particularly sensitive about its own sovereignty, Russia seeks to maintain an equilibrium—which is not the same as equidistance—between its prime partner and its main adversary. Tokyo would do well to understand that and take it into account as it structures its foreign relations.
The territorial dispute with Russia is considered to be very important for the Japanese people, but it is more symbolic than substantive. In practical terms, the biggest achievement of the Abe era in Japan-Russia relations was the founding of a format for high-level security and foreign policy consultations between the two countries. With security issues topping the agenda in the Indo-Pacific, maintaining the channel for private direct exchanges with a neighboring great power that the “2+2” formula offers is of high value. Such a format is a trademark of Abe’s foreign policy which, while being loyal to Japan’s American ally, prided itself on pursuing Japanese national interests rather than solely relying on others to take them into account.
Kishida, who for five years served as Abe’s foreign minister, will now have a chance to put his own stamp on the country’s foreign policy. Yet it makes sense for him to build on the accomplishments of his predecessor, such as using the unique consultation mechanism mentioned above to address geopolitical and security issues in the Indo-Pacific region, from North Korea to Afghanistan. Even under Abe, Japan’s economic engagement with Russia was by no means charity. The Russian leadership’s recent initiatives to shift more resources to eastern Siberia offer new opportunities to Japanese companies, just like Russia’s early plans for energy transition in response to climate change, and the ongoing development projects in the Arctic. In September 2021, the annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok did not feature top-level Japanese participation, but that should be an exception, not the rule.
Japan will remain a trusted ally of the United States for the foreseeable future. It is also safe to predict that at least in the medium term, and possibly longer, the Russo-Chinese partnership will continue to grow. That is no reason for Moscow and Tokyo to regard each other as adversaries, however. Moreover, since an armed conflict between America and China would spell a global calamity and have a high chance of turning nuclear, other major powers, including Russia and Japan, have a vital interest in preventing such a collision. Expanding the still very modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward. The absence of a peace treaty between the two countries more than seventy-five years after the end of the war is abnormal, yet that same unfinished business should serve as a stimulus to persevere. Giving up is an option, but not a good one.
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