Posts Tagged ‘China foreign policy’

Finally, a short post for the Financial Times Beyond BRICS blog, trying to challenge some of the narrative that we see around the Belt and Road pushback that has become the dominant feature of the public conversation. It is happening, but being mischaracterised at the moment. To also separately catch up on media, spoke to NBC about the US-China clash and to Reuters about the recent attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi by the Baluchistan Liberation Army (which was picked up a few places including in 普通话 for VOA Cantonese).

China’s Belt and Road hits problems but is still popular

US should not oppose the projects but offer alternative solutions
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Chinese construction project in Sri Lanka: countries that criticise the Belt and Road Initiative overlook the real need in developing nations for foreign investment © Bloomberg

There is a narrative of pushback against the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s programme to finance and build infrastructure in about 88 countries around the world. Coming against the backdrop of US-China confrontation, this evidence of pushback is being read as a collective response to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s overarching foreign policy concept.

But this misses the detail of several deals in which the context is more one of renegotiation than cancellation. The fundamental logic of many of the BRI in developing countries neighbouring China remains intact. Such is the need for investment in these countries that Chinese proposals for new bridges, highways, railways, power stations and other crucial infrastructure remain alluring.

It is five years since Mr Xi’s pair of speeches in Astana and Jakarta launched the BRI. Since then, much of what China does outside China has become associated with the BRI. At one stage, this was true of much within China as well, where almost every region and institution sought to associate themselves to the leader’s big initiative.

Five years later, it can come as no surprise therefore that some of the projects that were brought under the broader BRI umbrella have encountered issues. One consultancy, the Washington-based RWR Advisory Group, has estimated this number to be around 14 per cent. This number does not seem too high when one considers the surge in project announcements that followed Mr Xi’s speeches in 2013.

It is also useful to dig into the detail of the projects that are being repeatedly highlighted as problematic. Three prominent cases are in Pakistan, Malaysia and Myanmar. But rather than revealing consistent flaws in the BRI’s design, each of these cases derive in part from a push by local governments to renegotiate some BRI projects.

With both Pakistan and Malaysia, an election appears to have precipitated the change. The election of Mahathir Mohamad as prime minister in Malaysia led to dramatic changes within the country, including a general re-accounting of some of the deals that had been signed under the former government with China.

The most prominent were a series of pipelines and the East Coast Rail Line. After a visit to Beijing, Mr Mahathir seemed to cancel them all, but subsequently, it has emerged that while the pipelines were put on hold until the country was able to deal with the “internal fiscal problems” he had inherited, the ECRL has instead entered a period of re-negotiation as both sides seek to keep the project moving.

Mr Mahathir’s public rhetoric has expressed concern about China, but he has also repeatedly stressed the importance of Chinese investment into Malaysia.

The case is similar with Pakistan, where the election of Imran Khan as prime minister led to a change in public rhetoric in Islamabad. Specifically, it has helped crystallise a series of complaints about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that had been rattling around the Pakistan government.

This was given a boost through public statements by Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, and a bipartisan letter from the US recommending confronting China over the BRI in general and CPEC in particular.

Yet, the reality is that this has not resulted in massive changes to CPEC. Pakistan’s balance of payments crisis has prompted a push by the new government to seek new loans or debt rescheduling between Saudi Arabia and China. Following his inaugural visit to Beijing, Mr Khan agreed to a joint statement in which the two countries “dismissed the growing negative propaganda against CPEC”.

They also announced the creation of a new working group “on social-economic development to assist with livelihood projects in Pakistan”.

In fact, the active pushback on CPEC projects took place before Mr Khan’s election, with the decision to reject a proposal to build the Diamer-Bhasha Dam taking place when Nawaz Sharif was still in power. This was widely touted as evidence that Pakistan was not simply going to take every infrastructure project that China wanted to do in the country.

Finally, there is the case of Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, a massive port project that is in some ways one of the precursors to the BRI, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar BCIM Economic Corridor. Seeing how the international mood was shifting against Chinese investments, Naypyidaw appears to have taken advantage of the situation to renegotiate the port deal.

Part of a much bigger Chinese investment that includes Special Economic Zones and pipelines, the project is one that is clearly important to China. The re-negotiation ended up with the size of the project being cut back considerably (reportedly from $7.2bn to $1.3bn), with Chinese investor CITIC still the biggest single partner on the project holding a 70 per cent stake.

Reflecting the positive tenor of this negotiation, Myanmar officials in September signed an agreement in Beijing to create a China-Myanmar Economic Corridor. While this may appear to dilute the importance of a pre-existing Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar corridor, it certainly does not suggest that Myanmar is vociferously turning against the BRI.

Doubtless, some of this re-negotiating is a product of each other. The press coverage to emerge from Hambantota in Sri Lanka and the reports that the country ultimately signed over a 99-year lease on the port to a Chinese firm, have all become something of a byword for BRI concerns. Leaders in capitals like Islamabad, Kuala Lumpur and Naypyidaw all saw an opportunity to push back on terms themselves.

It provided easy domestic wins, while also being something that they knew they were likely to win given China’s need for the BRI to be seen to be continuing to move forwards. For both the idea of scrapping BRI within their countries was never really on the table. The underlying logic and general trend of Chinese investment in these countries continues to hold.

What has accentuated the negative narrative in the public discourse has been Washington’s attempt to harness this pushback into its broader conflict with China. Donald Trump’s administration has led an increasingly aggressive bipartisan push against China in numerous different fields.

Yet fought on these terms, this is a losing battle for Washington. In many cases the countries in question are developing countries that need investment. As Chinese neighbours, there is a natural logic in them trying to tap the Chinese economic boom, and improving their regional connectivity.

A far more productive response can be found in Washington’s decision to super-charge the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, offering a funding boost for e-infrastructure investment in south-east Asia while encouraging other regional powers like Australia and Japan to focus their efforts on specific projects in developing countries currently considering BRI investment.

This is the sensible response to BRI, as it both understands the logic of the projects in these developing countries and offers a logical alternative that they can choose. This is a response that far more effectively captures the broader logic of re-negotiation that is visible across BRI countries.

Five years since the announcement of BRI, it has grown to become a synonym for China’s outward investment strategy and broader foreign policy. As is natural with any major effort like this in foreign policy by a big power, it is raising concerns in countries impacted along the way.

What is essential to understand is the logic of this pushback which is not part of a broader conspiracy, but rather a set of individual reactions that are taking place at the same time. Keeping this understanding in mind will enable the world to better respond to the BRI and China more generally, while also remembering that the broader vision is one that is appreciated in some parts of the world as much as it is feared in others.

The writer is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute.

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Have failed to keep up on posting working on longer things. Have a few longer pieces which will eventually land, but in the short run a few opinion pieces in the South China Morning Post, looking at the Belt and Road in various incarnations.  First, a piece about South Asia, intended to be in the wake of the Wuhan Summit meeting between President’s Xi and Modi.

How Beijing, Delhi and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor could reshape global foreign policy in Asia 

Raffaello Pantucci writes that a China-India symbiosis stemming from the infrastructure projects being built in Pakistan will force the West to rethink its South Asia strategy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 June, 2018, 8:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 June, 2018, 11:13pm
There is an air of possible change in South Asia. After a positive summit in Wuhan, presidents Modi and Xi both made it clear they wanted the event to be the opening gambit in a rapprochement between India and China.

The modest practical achievements presented from the meeting should be seen as positive, illustrating that both powers are aware of the tensions and limitations of their relationship.

Nevertheless, the decision to focus on Afghanistan as a possible source of Indo-Chinese cooperation highlights the leaders’ willingness to be ambitious in their thinking. In Islamabad, however, there is a sense of concern about Pakistan being the potential loser in this larger regional rapprochement.

This short-sighted logic is founded on the perennial tensions that exist between Delhi and Islamabad. Yet, it misses a few key elements. China is clearly committed to Pakistan. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is the flagship project of the broader “Belt and Road Initiative” concept that Xi Jinping has advanced.

The People’s Bank of China’s expansion of the currency swap between the countries highlights a doubling down of China’s willingness to continue to invest in Pakistan.

The imprimatur given to the project by President Xi highlights the degree to which this part of the broader concept has to be delivered on, notwithstanding the sometimes awkward economic logic that underpins some projects.

For China, the undertaking is an important one and tied not only to its domestic security and prosperity, but also to the strategic assets it receives from its interest in the Gwadar Port.

But the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor sometimes does frustrate and worry Beijing. While Chinese diplomacy is an exemplar of keeping disputes out of the public eye, there are some issues.

Workers have been murdered and various insurgent and terrorist groups around the country have made specific targets of Chinese nationals and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in an attempt to undermine the government.

That the Chinese consulate in Karachi had to issue a travel advisory to nationals earlier this year, dissuading them from travelling to Quetta, illustrates the security concerns China feels in the country.

That the minister responsible for managing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (who is also the interior minister) was injured by an assassin’s bullet does little to inspire confidence in Pakistan’s national security.

None of this is to talk about the awkward economics that exist around some of the corridor’s projects.

And China has proven willing in the past to side with Delhi on security problems. The statement after the BRICS summit last year in which China agreed to specifically single out some Pakistan-based groups for criticism, as well as Beijing’s regular efforts to get Delhi and Islamabad to talk after incidents, highlight the Chinese government’s awareness of the problems that exist.

What Islamabad needs to bear in mind is that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is not the only part of the Belt and Road Initiative. It is one strand of Xi Jinping’s bigger foreign policy concept. It is not even the only South Asian corridor (the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor is another slow burning concept), but rather the first to be implemented with vigour.

The ability of China and India to hold a summit and discuss ideas for cooperation sensibly when hawkish administrations are in both Beijing and Delhi, reflects the underlying direction in which South Asia is moving.

For China and its companies, India is in many ways the bigger game to play. The growing number of tech purchases by Chinese firms in the Indian market highlights an awareness of India’s booming potential. And beyond India, China realises that a more interconnected, stable and cordial community of South Asian nations will ensure the prosperity that will help stabilise China’s immediate land peripheries.

Afghanistan needs stability to be prosperous and not export problems to Central Asia, Pakistan and, ultimately, China. From Beijing’s perspective, this will only work if the country is more connected to its region.

Wang Yi and other officials have talked about connecting the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan, but it is not clear how positively Islamabad views this idea. The corridor will only deliver the prosperity that will help Pakistan grow if it is a truly regional project, and this means it must connect better with its immediate neighbours as well as those in the Khunjerab Pass area.

This is the point Islamabad needs to keep in mind: China and India want to find ways to engage and tap each other’s economic opportunities.

India may be sceptical of the broader belt and road plan, but it remains keen to engage in some aspects of it, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the chance to bring Chinese investment into the country. A nation hungry for investment, Modi’s India is keen to find any way to grow to catch up with its richer Asian neighbour.

For Beijing, this is an opportunity in every direction: a prosperous India would be good for China. A prosperous and stable Pakistan would be a net boon. And a stable and secure Afghanistan would achieve a long-awaited goal for the entire region.

While Beijing is still working out how it will manage to deliver on this vision, the direction of travel is clear – and should be appreciated, not just by the region but the world.

Notwithstanding the tensions that will undoubtedly create some bumps in the road, the ability to hold a summit and discuss ideas for cooperation sensibly when hawkish administrations are in both Beijing and Delhi, reflects the underlying direction in which South Asia is moving.

Islamabad needs to pay attention before casting all its chips in one basket; the West needs to focus on what South Asia’s course means for any attempts to use India as a counterbalance to China.

Ultimately, these Asian giants know their own backyard, and will focus on that over any global ideological confrontation.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Islamabad should not fear signs of Sino-Indian rapprochement

Finally catching up on some very old posting. Here is a piece on China for the Telegraph, was intended after the 19th Party Congress. I will catch up on other posting later.

Can China avoid an armed confrontation with the West?

Chinese soliders

China is moving towards shedding Deng Xiaoping’s famous maxim about hiding its strength and biding its time. President Xi Jinping’s bold statements during his 19th Party Congress speech last week spoke of a China rising to fill its role on the global stage.

The difficult question for the West is: how will this newfound confidence be expressed in China’s posture on the world stage? And how the rest of the world will have to interact with it?

China’s rise as a military and security power is not a new story. From a third-rate military force in the 1980s, the People’s Liberation Army has transformed itself.

Xi Jinping’s administration has stepped this up through an intensive process of reform that is giving it doctrines and approaches that are competitive with some of the world’s most effective militaries.

China is also expanding its military footprint. We can see this from the establishment of new forward bases, like in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, or through port visits, such as the appearance of Chinese submarines in Sri Lanka.

On land, Chinese peacekeepers are being deployed with increasingly dangerous mandates, something reflected in losses on the ground in parts of Africa.

In military sales, China has leapt up the rankings to become the world’s third largest weapons vendor at around $9.1 billion, according to estimates by SIPRI.

But is this surprising? China will soon be one of the world’s largest economies, with investments and interests all around the globe. It makes sense for it to develop a hard power capability to protect its interests and people as they go out under the auspices of Xi Jinping’s keynote “Belt and Road Initiative”, which aims to build a series of land and sea trade routes across Asia.

The dilemma for China is whether this role is one which will complement or compete with the activities of the West – and the United States in particular. The American political scientist Graham Allison believes all rising powers face something called the Thucydides Trap, in which their rapid improvement brings them into inevitable confrontation with an established power which fears replacement.

In reality China’s foreign policy is complex, containing three strands with varying degrees of aggression:

1. China often cooperates with the West

In Afghanistan it has worked closely with the US and Germany on joint training missions, providing training for Afghan security forces, and facilitating negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Kabul. This clearly matches with western interests.

2. China sometimes passively opposes the West

In Syria the US and most of Europe has taken against the Assad regime, against Isil and alongside the Kurdish forces. By contrast, Beijing has thrown its weight firmly behind Assad, and is supporting the fight against Isil only with the proviso that it is ultimately the regime (supported by Russia and Iran) that will bring stability and security back to the country.

The running theme through all of these situations is that China is protecting its own interests. This is quite natural, but an accidental war would be in nobody’s interest. So far, tensions like these re mostly restricted to border countries where China feels it is not being expansionary but merely protecting its homeland.

A bigger dilemma will present itself when China decides to undertake a more aggressive action in some foreign field where it has no direct border dispute but isprotecting its interests or nationals. In this context, what will be the Western response – to support or condemn?

It is not clear we are anywhere near this situation yet, but clearly Beijing has started down a path of preparing itself for such an eventuality. The question at that stage will be whether the West agrees and supports China’s activity, or whether Beijing is seen as an aggressor that requires confrontation.

There is no clean answer to this question. And nor is it clear whether and when it will be faced. But there is no doubt that China is rising as a global power and has a growing military and security footprint to accompany its mighty economic machine. How the world manages this will be one of the defining questions of the next decades.

Catching up on old posting again, this time a piece for the Telegraph after Trump’s Taiwan telephone call and the implications on the relationship for China. Not a title I would have chosen if I am honest.

China has been getting its way with the world for three decades. Thanks to Trump, that’s over

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Donald Trump’s assault on the basic assumptions of international relations continues. His latest broadside has struck China, with the President-elect refusing to bend to the “one China” policy which has governed the US-China relationship since President Nixon visited Mao Zedong in the 1970s. Yet while this challenge is fraught with risks of miscalculation, it also casts a light on the interesting potential that a President Trump administration offers – one where previously ossified assumptions that underlie international relations can no longer can be taken for granted.

The current world order is one that favours China. Sitting in Beijing last year, I watched as one of the senior figures in the party happily recounted the scene at September 2015’s 70th anniversary celebrations to commemorate the end of the Second World War. Looking wistfully into the distance, he recounted how blue the skies were that day and how impressive China’s mighty army looked. Aligned next to him were various world leaders eager to highlight the proximity of their relationship with Beijing. For China, a country that has taken full advantage of globalisation and its massive population to turn itself into the world’s factory, the world order is working very well.

Consequently, the arrival of Donald Trump, a leader talking of scrapping trade treaties and offering a newly assertive America, is deeply troublesome. China’s rise in the world under the shadow of a western-led liberal order focused on open markets had been a steady one. it was one in which China often rejected some of the same open principles that it was able to take advantage of in other markets. While it is relatively easy for Chinese companies to seek out opportunities in western markets, it is often nowhere near as easy for western companies to go into China.

On the geopolitical stage, China has also managed to establish a consensus that asserts its advantages and interests, something most clearly on display with the international community’s relations with Taiwan. While many welcome relations with Taiwan, it is very much on Beijing’s terms. Taiwanese Embassies around the world are called “Representative Offices” while its officials are kept out of international institutions. Yet at the same time, the United States is bound by the Taiwan Relations Act to protect any assault on Taiwanese democracy. The most visible sign of this is arms sales, whereby the United States continues to provide the weaponry to ensure that Taipei is able to protect itself from an attack from the mainland.

And yet, every time the arms sales are advanced, a delicate diplomatic dance is undertaken whereby Beijing complains, the United States refuses to bend, undertakes the arms transfers yet continues to acknowledge the “one china” policy. These past few weeks have started to upend the delicate diplomatic dance that underlies this transaction.

Talking to people in Beijing last week, the overriding sense from President-elect Trump’s statements was one of confusion. Still unclear as to how much his commentary should be taken seriously, Beijing saw him reaching out through the appointment of a new Ambassador who had a personal history with President Xi as well as through messages sent through former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Yet at the same time, he spoke the language of confrontation through his actions with Taipei and running commentary through interviews and Twitter. Beijing is now uncertain where it stands, and has begun to realize that the assumptions that underlay the world order that it was quietly riding to steady growth are increasingly going to be challenged.

It is entirely unclear how this is going to play out. This in many ways is probably President-elect Trump’s intent, aiming to establish a new bargaining point in negotiations with China. Yet the danger is in miscalculation. The Taiwan question for China is not one of international relations, but rather a domestic one. Consequently, the sort of horse-trading that might be possible in other fields will be harder if not impossible.

No doubt this has been considered to some degree in Trump Tower, but it is not clear that these messages are getting to Beijing in the manner they are supposed to. If Donald Trump has miscalculated, it  could mean a confrontation between two of world’s superpowers – with consequences that will impact us all.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

Some belated posting of which I have a bit to do, this one for the Telegraph about the furore around the Hinkey Power Plant deal and China-UK relations. A difficult topic which is still in a very complex phase. Been trying to finish some very delayed writing projects that is keeping me busy and has some angry editors after me. Apologies to them. A spate of China related material which reflects something there is going to be an increasing amount of over the next period.

How to avoid nuclear fallout and become equal partners with China

Last week’s announcement delaying the decision on the Hinkley C nuclear power plant project has turned into a running commentary on the changing nature of the UK’s relationship with China. While Downing Street has been at pains to highlight that the decision is not linked to Beijing, much has been read into statements through the public news agency Xinhua that seem to foreshadow a veiled warning about the UK’s “golden age” with China being under threat. These proclamations need to be tempered by reality, however, and a realization that China is a pragmatic actor which will continue to seek the best deal it is able to achieve rather than pursuing an entirely quixotic foreign trade and investment agenda.

This is not say that China is not prone to publicly punish countries that have displeased it. Norway has faced a barrage of mostly symbolic sanctions since in 2011 the Nobel Prize Committee gave an award to incarcerated dissident Liu Xiaobo. In the wake of David Cameron’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2012, the UK faced a similar slap-down with diplomats’ lives in Beijing made more difficult and the Prime Minister having a number of visits postponed. In 2010, a pair of German researchers undertook a study using UN data from 1991 to 2008 on the “Dalai Lama effect”, whereby they identified an 8.1 per cent drop in exports to China in the two years after a nation’s leader met with the Dalai Lama.

Yet these numbers do not appear to tell the whole tale. During the period of Norwegian “punishment” (which according to some accounts continues today), the majority government owned oil company Statoil was still able to explore shale gas projects in China, and opened a research center in Beijing. In the UK’s case, it is inconclusive whether there was a definitive drop in trade figures during this period, though it is noticeable that in the immediate week after the fateful meeting between the Prime Minister and the Dalai Lama, a deal worth £50 million was signed between the UK and China to export pig offal and trotters for consumption in China.

Some apparent attempts by China to impose economic punishments on countries that have displeased them have backfired. In 2010, there was a spat between China and Japan over a fishing boat captain whose ship crashed into Japanese vessels in disputed waters; China subsequently moved to make the export of rare earth minerals more expensive. It is a matter of speculation whether the point here was to support domestic industry over outsiders or whether this was specifically targeted at Japan, whose high tech industry relies heavily on rare earths which at the time were 97% controlled by China (or some combination of the two). Whatever the case, the result was that other rare earth sources became economically viable, destroying China’s previous market monopoly.

China is in fact a pragmatic actor in international affairs. When its companies have faced pushback due to domestic concerns, often they have continued forwards in other ways. China has quite rigid domestic restrictions about what industries outsiders can invest into, so finds it hard to overtly attack others for doing the same thing. Often the rhetoric does not match the action, and the new government in Downing Street would do well to understand this distinction and calibrate its response appropriately. The decision over a nuclear power plants is an important one with substantial national ramifications for years to come, and it makes sense the new government would want to take time to ensure they are happy with the deal. Going forwards, however, it is important to ensure that a productive relationship is maintained with Beijing, a power that is only going to grow in significance as time goes on.

In order to ensure a smooth engagement with China and Asia more broadly, a number of steps should be taken: first, the UK should be consistent and long-term. Wild oscillations in policy and approach are not appreciated by Beijing (or any other government). We should seek a relationship of working together as partners with China while setting parameters. Concerns over human rights should be raised – as they are already – and pushing back on China’s aggressive cyber activities should continue. As the United States has shown in its relationship with China, these issues can be raised whilst maintaining a productive overall relationship.

Second, it is important to realize why China likes to invest in the UK. As an open market, the UK is an attractive option for Chinese businessmen looking for opportunities overseas. According to figures published by the Mercator Institute for China Studies and the Rhodium Group, between 2000 and 2014 the UK attracted more FDI from China than any other European country. While the status of the UK market’s relationship with the EU is uncertain longer term, for the time being the UK will remain a major financial hub and discussions and deals continue. Reflecting this, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) met earlier this week to discuss how financial products can work between both jurisdictions.

Third, the UK should seek to engage with China in third markets like Pakistan, Central Asia or parts of Africa where the UK has strong historical economic and political interests and China is increasing its presence. In some countries in this category, Britain and China are competitors, but in others, there is an element of complementarity. Exploring these opportunities will help British business going global, as well as improving the quality and effectiveness of Chinese investments in parts of the developing world.

Fourth, the UK should raise its game and attention to East Asian security issues like the disputes in the South and East China Seas, or the ongoing difficulties with North Korea. Currently, Britain is seen as a part-time player, second fiddle to the US in this sphere. Establishing a distinct and comprehensive understanding of these questions, the relevant relationships, as well as expressing informed views about regional problems and backing them with diplomatic heft would go a long way towards balancing the UK’s approach to the region.

Handled badly, Britain’s relationship with China could suffer in the wake of the delay to the Hinkley Point deal. However, if care is paid to engaging China in ways that are of interest to Beijing and that advance British interests, it is possible to find a way forwards in which the UK can express its concerns while continuing to attract Chinese investment and trade. Beijing is seeking partners as much as the UK is, and in the current state of global uncertainty it would seem unwise to cut off relations with another G7 power. The trick will be to establish the contours of the relationship and make sure that both sides are telegraphing each other’s intent with clarity and with a view to the long-term.

Another new piece for my institute’s in-house magazine, RUSI Newsbrief, this time looking at China-Pakistan and some of the problems that China has been experiencing in trying to implement its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. As ever, more on this topic to come and found on the China in Central Asia site.

China-Pakistan: With Great Investment Comes Some Responsibility

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Raffaello Pantucci

China has invested millions into Pakistani infrastructure, but will internal political conflict in Pakistan prove to be the bane of the CPEC’s existence?

The China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has become one of the emblematic foreign policy initiatives of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s broader ‘Belt and Road’ vision. An ambitious and wide-ranging investment project, the CPEC offers Pakistan a way through a number of its biggest problems – including domestic power supply, lack of infrastructure, and parts of the country that are underdeveloped – while giving China strategic port access to the Indian Ocean and creating a corridor to external markets for the underdeveloped southern part of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

Yet earlier this year, the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad was put in the awkward position of having to formally distance itself from acrimonious internal political wrangling within Pakistan around the CPEC. In a pattern that is likely to repeat itself elsewhere as China continues to try to turn the ‘Belt and Road’ concept into a reality, Beijing is finding that it is unable to simply sidestep local entanglements and plead non-interference. Pakistan may prove to be a testing ground to see whether China can avoid local entanglements as the Xi administration seeks to advance its vision for a network of global trade corridors under the ‘Belt and Road’ rubric.

Although it was first announced in May 2013 during the visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to Pakistan, the CPEC was the culmination of many years of steady Chinese investment in Pakistan. A month later, during his inaugural visit to Beijing, Pakistan’s newly elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, signed a Memorandum of Understanding formalising the CPEC project. Two years later, it was given a reported injection of $46 billion when President Xi made a reciprocal visit to Pakistan in April 2015.

While relations between Beijing and Islamabad had always been close, it was mostly based on deep and reactive security co-operation – either in terms of Pakistan responding to China’s concerns about terrorism, or China backing Pakistan in its disputes with India. The announcement of the CPEC changed the relationship: it became supercharged as CPEC was presented as the answer to some of Pakistan’s most pressing problems. For example, the focus on the port of Gwadar in Pakistan’s restive Baluchistan offered the potential to economically revitalise one of the country’s long-troubled regions. At the same time, the emphasis on energy programmes (with investment worth almost $34.4 billion, according to Pakistan’s Ministry of Planning, Development and Reform, which would double Pakistan’s generating capacity) promised to address the country’s biggest shortages. This potential goes some way to explaining the often hyperbolic narratives surrounding CPEC in Pakistan.

Given these excessively high expectations, it might therefore be unsurprising that the project has not been plain sailing. This was not entirely unexpected, with senior officials in China openly expressing their concerns about security and the viability of the overall project from the very beginning. During a meeting in Beijing in August 2013, Lin Dajian, vice director-general of the Department of International Cooperation at the National Development and Reform Commission, the governmental body within China that is steering the CPEC, highlighted ‘the security issues and challenges that could impede the speed of [the] project’. What appears to have surprised China, however, is the degree of pushback and difficulty encountered within Pakistan at a political level.

This came to a head in January, when problems in two provincial Pakistani governments made headlines that even managed to drag in the local Chinese Embassy. The government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) issued a threat through its chief minister, Pervez Khattak, who warned that ‘if the federal government does not address the reservations of KP about the [CPEC] project, then we will take an extreme step.’ Khattak’s concern appears to be that the KP government will not receive its fair share of the CPEC project.

At around the same time, stories emerged in the press that the government in Islamabad was exploring the possibility of changing the constitutional status of its northernmost province of Gilgit-Baltistan in response to Chinese concerns about its ability to build some CPEC routes through the disputed region – since China does not want to find itself spending money and sending people to work in areas whose ownership is legally unclear and therefore subject to aggressive contention or dispute. Claimed by India as part of Jammu and Kashmir, the region was traditionally referred to as ‘Northern Areas’ and controlled directly by Islamabad. In 2009, as part of a measure to turn it into a full province by Pakistan, the name was formally changed to ‘Gilgit-Baltistan’ and a legislative assembly was established. In January 2016 the government in Islamabad started to make noises again about taking this process further by recognising the region in the constitution and going some way towards integrating it into the country.

At present, Gilgit-Baltistan has an opaque status similar to that of other parts of the Kashmir region claimed by Pakistan. Islamabad continues to state that the parts of Kashmir it controls are in fact semi-autonomous and are therefore not formally integrated into the country; this is in line with its position that a referendum should be carried out across the entire region. By taking this step, however, Pakistan risked incurring anger in India as well as in Kashmir itself.

From the perspective of the neighbouring province of Azad Jammu Kashmir (AJK), the fear was that recognising as a separate province a region that had hitherto been treated as part of AJK might lead to India changing its position on the disputed territories. In addition, officials in Gilgit-Baltistan had their own concerns. They were worried that they were going to miss out on their piece of the CPEC pie.

These fierce regional rivalries were also rooted in Pakistani party politics. In KP, the provincial government is ruled by the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), while in AJK the government is controlled by the largest opposition party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Pakistani commentators have long argued that both parties want to see the CPEC fail: if it succeeds on schedule, it will likely be a strong vote puller for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party. This is because the early parts of the CPEC will likely be most beneficial to the PML-N stronghold of Punjab province. Indeed, in November 2015 the leader of the PPP in the National Assembly, Syed Khursheed Shah, wrote to Sharif expressing concern that the project appeared too ‘Punjab-centric’.

All of these opposition parties, however, have been very careful not to alienate China through their complaints to the central government in Islamabad. They all praise China and the CPEC’s potential to change the country positively. In order to reinforce this point, in the wake of the public airing of the KP complaints, a senior delegation from PTI led by former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi visited the Chinese Embassy. The delegation’s stated aim was to give ‘an assurance to the ambassador that we don’t have any issue with China and we are in favour of the CPEC.’ He went on to say:

‘We also assured [the Chinese authorities] that we will not do any politics on this project and will support its completion … [but] we have reasonable doubts about the federal government. The PML-N government is not taking us into confidence on many issues.’

This led to the embassy issuing an unprecedented statement in which China distanced itself from the problems while calling for unity: ‘China hopes that the relevant parties in Pakistan could strengthen communication and coordination on the CPEC to create favourable conditions for the project.’ This message was reinforced at the regular Ministry of Foreign Affairs briefings in Beijing, where ministry spokesman Hong Lei insisted that ‘we stand ready to work with Pakistan to complete the projects under construction and make long-term plans to keep advancing the building of the Corridor.’

The escalation of these domestic political disputes to the halls of power in Beijing highlights how complicated negotiations around the CPEC have become. While Pakistani officials at every level seek to distance themselves from negative comments about China, it is nonetheless the case that Chinese activity in the country has been the immediate source of these problems. And these are not the only problems that China faces in Pakistan. Apart from militancy, either from violent Islamists or separatists, China has to confront the problems of its workers being kidnapped and its nationals becoming embroiled in local criminal networks.

Whilst unsurprising to most observers of Pakistan, these problems nonetheless illustrate a larger problem that China will increasingly face as it pushes its ‘Belt and Road’ vision out across the Eurasian continent. Making considerable financial investments and importing large numbers of Chinese nationals into a region does not eliminate tensions on the ground. In fact, large investments can exacerbate tensions. They can increase inequality, or, as appears to be the case in Pakistan, they can cause local political tensions. This undermines the argument that appears to underpin Chinese investment policy in both the third world and at home – that development will bring with it political stability.

In Pakistan in particular, China is increasingly going to find itself in difficult situations. China is investing in security in Pakistan at a number of different levels. Not only is it helping the country build its big ticket weapons systems such as aircraft and submarines, but it is also helping police forces to improve security on the ground. It is unclear whether these expenditures are included in the approximately $46 billion associated with the CPEC project, but China will find that the expenses on Pakistani police and army will be constant, and China may find itself having to foot the bill for as long as Pakistan continues to face instability at home.

The CPEC has the potential to be game-changing for Pakistan, but it is unlikely to solve all of the country’s ills or to be completed any time soon. For observers of the ‘Belt and Road’ vision, China’s experiences in Pakistan may offer a taster of what it will encounter elsewhere in the world as it seeks to implement President Xi’s ambitious foreign policy vision, a vision that he hopes will be his legacy.

And final catch up post, this time for a think tank I worked for a while ago, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), with whom I am still doing some things. This is a post for their site which focused on some of the issues of the ‘Belt and Road’ strategy and what they need to do to get greater European cooperation on it. This is a topic that is very rich and has lots of work in the pipeline around it.

This aside, to catch up on some media conversations, spoke to The Times, Reuters and La Liberation about the leak of ISIS documents, to Newsweek about al Shabaab targeting aviation and training Boko Haram fighters, to Buzzfeed about Brexit and national security questions, to The Independent about Prevent issues in the UK, to the Press Agency about the attacks in Ivory Coast, to the Associated Press about the latest round of talks in Afghanistan the Chinese are helping with, and a presentation I did recently in Washington on China-Russia in Central Asia got a write up in the Diplomat.

Building Support for the Belt and Road

Xi Jinping has laid out what is going to be the defining foreign policy vision of his leadership in the form of the Belt and Road. An all-encompassing initiative, it is something that repeated Chinese leaders have said they want to engage with foreign partners on, in particular with European capitals given the vision is one that starts in China and ends in Europe. Yet, there is still a lack of clarity around exactly what this initiative actually looks like and how it is that foreigners can engage with China on this project. Beijing needs to lay out more clearly what it needs and wants from the world to implement this vision.

Seen from the outside, the Belt and Road initiative is one that appears to in essence be about building economic and trade corridors emanating out from China. Through the development of transport links – be they rail, road, ports or airports – and the construction and rehabilitation of pipelines, markets, economic zones and more, China aims to open Eurasia while reconnecting China to Europe across the wide landmass they share. The potential impact is a game-changing effect on a wide swathe of Eurasia, something that has not gone unnoticed in Europe where policymakers spend lots of time thinking about how to develop their continent. Yet, connecting on the initiative has so far proven difficult. If China genuinely wants greater cooperation on this strategy, then a number of key things need to happen.

First, Beijing needs to clarify where the routes of the Belt and Road will actually go. At the moment, all of the maps that have been produced are ones that are done by enterprising journalists interpreting official statements. The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the body responsible for the vision, has so far not expressed a view or produced a map. This is problematic as it means people are unable to know exactly which Beijing’s priorities are and what specific routes Europe should focus on developing to support and work with China’s plan. For example, generally it is clear that the Silk Road Economic Belt will pass through Central Asia, but which specific road or rail projects is China going to focus on first?

Second, China needs to understand that if they want to maximise external support on the vision, then Chinese led funding initiatives need to be open to foreign contractors. European investment structures like the EBRD or EIB (as well as international ones like the ADB) are very keen to work with China on this vision, but need to ensure that the subsequent project contracts to emerge from investments are put out to open tender. This ensures that the best possible contractors will undertake the projects and ensures that the vision gets carried through in the most effective way possible. This is something that extends beyond simple financing terms and contract procedures: it needs to be made clearer that there is a role for others in Chinese led projects. The key point here is that China needs to be open to working with others in very practical terms to try to advance this vision.

Third, China needs to find ways to discuss sensitive security questions with outsiders. Through the Belt and Road, China is going to increasingly find itself becoming one of the most consequential players on the ground in large parts of Eurasia. With such power will increasingly come a greater regional role, including on sensitive security questions where Beijing will find itself having to try to broker negotiations and agreements between sides in open conflict with each other. This is already happening in Afghanistan, and as time goes on Beijing will find itself ever more involved in such discussions across the continent. Europeans have some experience and understanding of some of these questions and would be willing to share their intelligence and experience with China if Beijing showed an equal level of openness in discussions. Genuine cooperation and deeper understanding come from a full and frank exchange.

There are clearly a great deal more detailed issues that need to be discussed, but these three overarching points need to be addressed before greater detail can be gone in to. China needs to understand that many in Europe are keen to cooperate on this vision, but they need some greater clarity to able to find practical ideas for what cooperation can look like in practice. By offering a more detailed outline of what this initiative physically looks like and what projects Beijing is prioritising, opening up to the idea of making joint investments, and being willing to participate in more frank and open security discussions, Beijing will find receptive doors across Europe. All of which will be essential to ensure President Xi’s vision turns into a long-standing foreign policy legacy reconnecting the Eurasian landmass along the old Silk Roads.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)