Chinese gambit: On an ancient route to modern greatness
People’s Daily, China’s iconic newspaper known to the world as the voice of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC), is constructing in the heart of Beijing a 32-storey office tower that will have 140,000 square metres of working space with new-media ventures alone occupying seven of its floors. Its concave glass facade sits somewhat oddly in its steel and terra cotta-girded frame that its Chinese architects proudly proclaim will give the traditional touch to a very modern edifice.
It is one of the latest architectural monuments to China’s mad race to modernisation to keep pace with its ambitions to be a recognised global power in every development metric that counts – from economy, to infrastructure, to information, to militarisation, from culture to sports.
Pointing out to an older side of Beijing that has serried rows of multi-storeyed apartment buildings from an earlier era, the architect tells proudly how “all that” will be pulled down in the next 10 years to make way for gleaming office and apartment towers that dot Beijing’s skyline as far as the eye can see on any side.
China is on a building spree, with dozens of new cities and towns springing up across the country, in each of its 41 provinces and autonomous regions with one provincial (state) and municipal authority competing against the other to urbanise as 60 percent of China’s 1.3 billion population is expected to live in cities by 2030.
Changes that you see in China are not restricted to its big cities alone. Makeover and modernisation are the reform mantras of the CPC as it obsesses with presenting an image of China to the world that is in keeping with its self-image of a power on the rise.
In the northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region that has seen unrest in recent years and where the ethnic Uyghurs, who are largely Muslim, have come under security after a spate of terror attacks in the province and elsewhere, the “ambitous urbanisation goal”, according to the Global Times, the English edition of the People’s Daily, is to ensure that each of its 14 divisions build a city and each of its 175 regiments builds a township.
The CPC considers the building of cities and towns as the “lifeblood functions” of the Chinese economy that has lately come under strain and has created an element of restiveness in the ranks of civil society manifest in growing expressions of disenchantment aired through mushrooming social media that authorities are finding it difficult to control or regulate.
It is in this spirit of providing the building stimulus to the economy, which at 7.5 percent faced its worst slowdown in 24 years, that Chinese President and party supremo Xi Jingping came up with what is being described as the twin “strategic initiatives” of Economic Belt along the Silk Road and the “Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century”. The “Belt” and “Road” seek to revive the ancient trade route to Central Asia and Europe as a modern business and commercial corridor in an interlocking chain of “friendly” countries cutting across the entire swathe of Eurasia.
Officials, diplomats and media representatives from nearly a dozen countries, including Turkey, Russia, India, Pakistan and five Central Asian nations, were invited to a conference in Beijing this month to discuss how media cooperation among these countries can further the goal of the Silk Road Economic Belt.
Besides, having it at the Great Hall of the People, the impressive edifice that houses the National People’s Congress, the country’s highest legislative body, and where the Chinese government usually hosts heads of state and government and has highest-level meetings and conferences, the leadership wished to convey to delegates that this was going to be a major policy thrust in the coming years.
Speaker after speaker lauded the “initiative” as “visionary” and “potentially transformational” and sought the cooperation of the foreign delegates to lend their support. What was interesting to an outsider was the level of provincial participation at the conference and the efforts of Beijing to co-opt its provinces in its foreign policy and strategic initiatives. This was perhaps an authoritarian state’s way to bring about a national consensus on an issue in which it was investing so much of political and diplomatic stake.
“The ancient Silk Road was a major economic and cultural factor in the development of different civilizations. Therefore the Silk Road does not only belong to China but belongs to the world,” China’s Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Lui Jianchao said in his keynote speech.
Although the exact motivations of reviving a 2,000-year-old trade route is unclear even to diplomats stationed in Beijing, one can make some assumptions on the basis of what one would call circumstantial evidence. Primarily, the strategy is devised to counter the current economic slowdown that has hit some of its less developed states, particularly in the western belt, for instance multi-ethnic Xinjiang, more than their counterparts in the booming east.
By seeking to economically integrate this province through the “Belt” with Central Asia, which shares a 2,800 km border with Xinjiang, China hopes to use development to trump social and economic disenchantment which many here fear could seriously undermine social equilibrium and thwart the country’s “peaceful rise”.
On Xi’s trip to Central Asia last year, during which he called for joint development of the Economic Belt, Chinese state media reported that trade volumes with the region topped $46 billion, up 100-fold since the countries’ independence from the Soviet Union two decades ago. China’s growing presence clearly comes at Russia’s expense.
Also, China is facing problems with its neighbours regarding maritime sovereignty in the strategic South China Sea – with the potential to erupt into a major dispute with global ramifications – with most of whom it has had an intense investment and trade relationship. This has made it do some loud thinking on its neighbourhood policies and even question its hypothesis that the higher the economic stakes between nations, the lesser the chances of them indulging in political quarrels and war.
In fact, China used to preach to both India and Pakistan to enhance their economic engagement while keeping their political problems on the backburner because in their reckoning business would trump politics and make conflict resolution easier. But the friction over the sea with Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan has made Beijing revise its doctrine and seek fresher avenues of cooperation. Chinese officials see the Silk Road Belt and Road initiatives as a “revival project” that could involve over 40 Asian and European countries and regions with a combined population of three billion. Through this China hopes to set new benchmarks in “neighbourhood diplomacy” and contribute to “regional stability”.
“China’s opening up in the past 30-odd years has been more targetted to the east and the developed world. Today, as we turn around and set our eyes in the west direction, we see a big market on the Eurasian continent. This is a vast region calling for our vigorous efforts to explore, develop and manage,” said Zhong Sheng, a Chinese commentator in Foreign Affairs Journal.
He said the Third Plenum of the 18th CPC Central Committee decided to expand and accelerate the opening of the inland and border regions so as to build an economic corridor criss-crossing the country which will “serve as a big booster for the shaping of an all-directional opening of China”.
India has not officially responded to the Silk Road initiative as Chinese officials have not spelt out what it expects of each of these countries in this somewhat utopian trans-continental cooperative undertaking. But what is clear is that even though India was a bit of detour on the orignal Silk Road trade route, China sees India (and by default Pakistan) as integral to its global partnership plans and is trying to draw in New Delhi in many of its regional economic associations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (with Central Asia) and the Asia Pacific Economic Community (that has the US, Australia and Japan), not to forget the new economic integration of BRICS nations at the Brazil summit.
India would naturally be wary of any unctuous Chinese bearhug, but given the imperatives of doing business with China, its largest trade partner, it would require some deft diplomacy on the part of the Modi government to be friendly to China and yet not become blindsided to moves on another track to encroach on its sovereignty or erode its pre-eminence in the region. One should not overlook not so subtle moves by China to gain ascendancy in South Asia by wooing India’s neighbours with infrastructure and economic goodies they can’t resist.