With the rebound of the Chinese economy, Belt
and Road Initiative (BRI) is on the march again. An Associated
Press report from Beijing last
Thursday said China is the first major economy to grow since the start of the coronavirus
pandemic, recording a 3.2% expansion in the latest quarter following the
reopening of factories and stores. Experts expect a "continuous expansion" in
the period ahead.
In this context, BRI is returning as the flag
carrier of Chinese diplomacy. But there is an added dimension insofar as the
BRI is also transforming as a key tool for China to take the lead role in the
post-pandemic recovery of the world economy. A recent Chinese commentary
claimed that the BRI has "the potential to drive the post-COVID-19 global
economic recovery and reconstruction in somewhat the same way that the American
Marshall Plan rebuilt devastated Western European economies after World War
It is a breathtaking scenario. The Chinese
commentary added, "The process is also likely to hasten the emergence of a new
world order." The narrative, based on expert option, is that the concept of
connectivity that the BRI highlights - especially, among the emerging economies
across Afro-Eurasia - can be enlarged and strengthened 'to get people back to
work, get food on the table, making sure that people are being paid, that they
have jobs to do'.
Thus, BRI should step into the health,
education, digital and certain services sectors where "immense growth" potential can be expected in a near term. Overall, BRI hopes to pick up steam
in an international environment where the severely battered and weakened US
economy will not be able to fund the post-COVID-19 recovery plans of developing
countries and emerging economies.
To be sure, there is renewed activism. The
proposed 25-year China-Iran Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreement is
almost entirely riveted on the New Silk Road. Its central pillar is a $280
billion Chinese investment in Iran's oil, gas, and petrochemicals sectors, and
another $120 billion investment in upgrading Iran's transport and manufacturing
infrastructure, which could be front-loaded into the first five-year period.
The strategic partnership between China and Iran
becomes a game changer for the BRI. The pact enjoys the backing of Supreme
Leader Ali Khamenei, and no matter the propaganda by the US and Israeli
outlets, Iranian Majlis will ratify it. In the fullness of time, the BRI can
provide a common thread to bring together Iran, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
In such a backdrop of high expectations,
Pakistan announced on Monday that China has agreed to fund the Diamer-Bhasha
Dam in Gilgit Baltistan. The estimated cost of the project could be anywhere up
to $14 billion. Last Friday, the prime minister hastily kicked off the
construction work on the project.
Again, on June 25 and July 6, Pakistan and China
signed deals for two hydro-power generation projects costing $3.9 billion in
the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir region, and another to revamp the Pakistani
railways for $7.2 billion. Islamabad is breathing new life into the BRI after a
long period of hibernation since Imran Khan came to power, with an eye on
China's massive commitments in Iran that may eclipse the CPEC as a sideshow.
China is yet to comment on the Diamer-Bhasha Dam
in Gilgit Baltistan. Interestingly, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson
instead remarked on July 16, "China applauds the endeavours of Pakistan and
Afghanistan to overcome difficulties caused by COVID-19 and resume trade and
personnel exchange recently. As a neighbour and friend of both countries, China
looks forward to improvement of relations between and economic development in
Pakistan and Afghanistan, and stands ready to play a constructive role to this
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"China supports the extension of CPEC to
Afghanistan, which will bring more BRI benefits to the Afghan people. China is
also pleased to see the Gwadar port, among other CPEC projects, plays a
positive role in this process and stands ready to work together with Pakistan
and Afghanistan in this regard."
These tidings have coincided with Beijing's
initiative to create a new format with the five Central Asian states at the
foreign-minister level - 'China Plus Central Asia' (C+C5). Clearly, the
leitmotif is the expansion of the BRI in the Central Asian region, keeping in
view the likelihood of peace settlement in Afghanistan as well as the China-Iran
strategic partnership agreement.
The C+C5 is an exclusive format, although it
overlaps the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Indeed, with the
induction of India and Pakistan, SCO has somewhat lost its gravitas for Beijing
(and Moscow). Besides, China already has a trilateral format separately - the
China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Foreign Ministers' Dialogue (which is due to hold
its 4th round in the near future.)
On July 16, the C+C5 held its first meeting via
video link. Unsurprisingly, the BRI figured as a focal point. In the opening
remarks, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recalled that "The two sides have
worked together to advance Belt and Road cooperation." Wang proposed four
priority areas of cooperation, including BRI-related areas.
As he put it, "To promote regional connectivity,
a transportation route running through Central Asia should be gradually put in
place. Cross-border e-commerce should also be expanded and the development of a
digital Silk Road accelerated… China calls for the early establishment of a
cooperation mechanism to protect the safety and security of major Belt and Road
projects to ensure the safe and smooth progress of important cross-border
infrastructure projects. Peace talks should be encouraged to advance the peace
and reconciliation process in Afghanistan."
In geopolitical terms, C+C5 is Beijing's riposte
to the US-led format known as 'C5+1', which was kickstarted by former US
Secretary of State John Kerry at Tashkent during a Central Asia tour in
November 2015. The C5+1 remained lacklustre and episodic, but this year, Washington
dusted it up and already sponsored two meetings under the rubric (February and
June). Beijing would have sensed that state secretary Mike Pompeo is up to
mischief in the steppes.
At any rate, Wang Yi was rather explicit in his
speech on July 16 that C+C5 will have an anti-US orientation. He emphatically
cautioned his audience against "attempts by external forces to provoke colour
revolutions and play zero-sum games in the region, and meddle in the internal
affairs of Central Asian countries under the pretext of human rights".
Interestingly, on July 17, Wang called up his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov
and, inter alia, briefed him on the results of the C+C5 event.
Indeed, the C+C5 meeting reached a nine-point
consensus, which amongst other things, noted that "China and Central Asian
countries will further enhance their cooperation against Covid-19 and create
travel bubbles and green corridors for goods as soon as possible… more efforts
will be made to synergies the Belt and Road Initiative and the development
strategies of Central Asian countries, expand trade and provide more common
ideas and concrete actions on the development of a 'Silk Road of health' and
the Digital Silk Road."
To be sure, these fast-paced events of the
recent weeks would underscore that, to borrow from Mark Twain, the rumours of
the death of the BRI from a virus infection have been greatly exaggerated.