The Financial Express

China\'s one-belt, one-road vision: Bangladesh\'s one-track outcome

| Updated: October 24, 2017 06:54:15

China\'s one-belt, one-road vision: Bangladesh\'s one-track outcome
China's one-belt, one-road (OBOR) vision may be considered the economic equivalent of Sir Halford Mackinder's "heartland thesis." In that theory, whichever country controls the Eurasian heartland automatically controls the rimlands (Euroasia's coast), and thereby the world islands (including the Americas). That was a late-19th century vision, when not only was military rivalry rooted on the balance-of-power trajectory, but was also deeply Eurocentric. As we all know, military power shifted to the United States for much of the 20th century, and certainly with the breakdown of the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1993, Europe's heartland fell into deep-rooted disarray, while in the 21st century, Asia is as much at the leadership frontier as any other continent. It seemed an appropriate epitaph for Mackinder's thesis.
At least a robustly resurging Beijing reminds us of that tectonic shift. Even as the Soviet Union was disassembling, China's economic growth rate was already raising eyebrows globally. Here was a still-professed communist country, among the very last of a vanishing breed, hijacking capitalist methods from the west, barging into bourses everywhere in typically Darwinian fashion (the more fit the recipient country, one can argue, the more the Chinese export bombardments), and ultimately scooping up the world's circulating cash, buying high-yielding bonds, scavenging the world's raw materials wherever, then softening the throttle with innocuous developmental project funding for the world, such as with the recently inaugurated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
Having flaunted the world, China added salt to the wounds with a reminder to the world that China's elevation was predestined. The historical evidence that this was forthcoming was the Great Silk Route twenty-six centuries ago: the world markets it then opened up (as opposed to military conquests) could, and would, be controlled from Beijing. If it were not so, Christopher Columbus would not have found the route-blueprint to "discover" the Americans since the Chinese had already done so (Gavin Menzies argues so in his book, 1434, by which time Zheng-He's fleet had already circumvented the world, leaving maps and information in Italy) and only an "insider" western, like Marco Polo could divulge the details. The modern world-information equivalent for China is the OBOR vision. As The Economist noted in its survey of the OBOR "topography" (2016), it is not just a Chinese Marshall Plan, but, as stringently as the Chinese have been with their ideas and visions, also one that does not even supply any funding as the United States did West Europe after 1947: it is largely an infrastructural road-map (or sea-map) in which 44 countries from seven regions of the world (all corresponding to the "heartland" and "rimland" spaces Mackinder had outlined, thus leaving out the "world islands," like the United States and Japan, as  well as the western "rimlands" of Europe). China identifies where infrastructures should be built for a thriving global economy, which becomes the OBOR road/sea-map, along the ancient Silk Route Economic Belt over the Asian landmass to Turkey, and the oceanic String of Pearls (also called the 21st Century Maritime Silk Route). Critical to all of this is the funding: China has the money, those 44 countries need to borrow, and the AIIB becomes the most accessible medium.
To cut a long story short, China disabled contending powers, like Russia, amicably, through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation from 2001, and India within that 44-country OBOR flock, through huge agreements and AIIB membership, even the hawkish China-baiting Modi administration was at least partially inducted, thus leaving only Japan, the United States, and West European countries outside the fold (although many of the "world island" countries have also joined the growing AIIB membership list).
Bangladesh's "part" in the OBOR "whole" comes through the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) highway (the Kolkata-Kunmin, or K-K highway is independent of the OBOR vision, but serves as an Indian sweetener), itself to be accessed from the String of Pearls (SOP), or seaports along the resource-transportation route between Africa and the Middle East, on the one hand, and China, on the other, with Southeast Asian countries also straddling that route, at least one, Singapore, as an actual "Pearl." That, in turn, means one SOP access to China is through the Bay of Bengal, then overland, through either Bangladesh or Myanmar, or both. China's interest in building Sonadia and Payra deep seaports are well-known; perhaps less well-known may be the implicit/explicit Indian and Japanese pressure to not award those infrastructural projects to China. China's acquiescence of India's extra weight in Dhaka does not mean project-abandonment, simply a diversion to lesser projects critical to Bangladesh, such as the Padma Bridge. Since the Padma Bridge will be critical to both the K-K and BCIM highways, China remains an integral part of the big Bangladeshi picture.
Bangladesh's core 21st century interest is infrastructure-building, and there are just too many projects for any interested investor-country to be disappointed. China will get a few of them, as too India and Japan, or for that matter, any "world island" contender. With a 100-SEZ (special economic zone) plan up its sleeve, Bangladesh can bring in any country or corporation of the world without angling one way or another, yet, here is the key: if, for reasons of security fears, "world island" countries delay, defer, or detract in grabbing some of them, China will be ultimately available to pick any of its choice. That is the fine line only India and Japan presently understand; and they do so because, like China, they carry millennia-old civilisations, meaning the patience they can bring to bear upon policy-making easily outlasts the typical western counterpart where instinct gratification has been a more common approach than a long-term outlook.
According to the Nikkei Asian Review (April 7, 2016), Asia will need $6.5 trillion of infrastructure-building/revamping money over the century (the sooner, the better), of which Bangladesh needs $100 billion only in the next five years (James DiBiaso, Finance Asia, September 04, 2015). Not only is the AIIB ready, willing, and able to supply such colossal needs, but since some of our infrastructural projects streamline with India's infrastructural needs (a country whose prime minister campaigned to become the "Infrastructure Leader"), India will also be there to chip in (Modi's foreign minister made a May day-trip to inform Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka of India's willingness to take up the Payra project). India's wariness about China remains unchanged even after its AIIB subscription, but so too Japan's, one of whose dominant trade partners and tourist supplier is none other than China.
In short, the dynamics at play across Asia should be seen in that twin-view, the "instant gratification" western view where civilisation does not go nearly as far back as in the other view which is the protracted, slumberous long-term perspective that ancient civilisations instil: (a) in the short-view, hesitant countries get weeded out, owing to their "conditional" approach, recipient countries prosper the most, and fund-supplying countries can only do what they do the best: await; and (b) with the long-view, the global power-balance will automatically have changed, and since the OBOR vision will have become one of the catalysts of change, the window opens up to return to a military conversion eventually.

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