The Chinese sponsored ‘BRI’ has reportedly gathered more criticisms and cautions from the Western powers as well as from international financial institutions on the grounds of rising indebtedness among the participating countries without accruing significant benefits to local economy, lack of transparency, disregard for an open and inclusive approach and sustainable financing.
Opposition to ‘BRI’ has also resonated in some of the Asian countries like Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Malaysian government led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad reportedly halted Chinese projects involving around $22 billion including a railway link along the country’s east coast.
The government of Myanmar allegedly scaled down construction activities in the development of Kyaukpyu port. Similarly, when the Sirisena government of Sri Lanka leased out Hambantota port to China for 99 years under debt pressure, it not only led to criticisms from sections of people within the country but provided grist to the brewing western contentions that the ‘BRI’ is not merely an infrastructural and connectivity project rather loaded with military and strategic objectives.
India has expressed its concerns regarding BRI’s violation of sovereignty and territorial integrity particularly with reference to inclusion of Gilgit-Baltistan region into the CPEC project without India’s consent which it considers as its integral part although Beijing later clarified that it was purely a economic and development work and did not alter its stance on Kashmir (a bilateral issue to be resolved between India and Pakistan).
In Pakistan, CPEC has become more as a mysterious project shrouded sometimes by allegations of corruption, opacity, indebtedness and economic crisis and sometimes by applause for its infusion of economic vitality.
Chinese President Xi Jinping not only clearly articulated Beijing’s desire for a larger role in global affairs in his announcement to turn China into a leading nation in terms of national power and global impact by 2050 at the 19th National Congress of the Communist party, his implementation of ‘BRI’ unambiguously became a step in that direction. However, Xi’s vision and the mega project helped put to rest a much nuanced view of China that many Chinese scholars and preceding leaders had engendered.
Xi’s China has made an attempt to build up its image as a peace broker not only by engaging in Afghan peace process but offering a mediating role to arrive at settlement of Rohingya refugee issue between Bangladesh and Myanmar as well. With the world’s largest population, China has greatly contributed to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals worldwide, according to a UNDP report. Meanwhile, Xi has also announced a new package of aid and loans to more than 50 African leaders visiting Beijing for the Seventh Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).
Scholars subscribing to the argument that China was becoming an important stakeholder in international community maintained that once China’s per-capita income grew, China would be able to contribute more towards international peace and stability. Corresponding to Chinese growth rates, the Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to contribute 8,000 troops for a UN peacekeeping standby force and has significantly enhanced Beijing’s contribution from 3 per cent in 2013 to 10.25 per cent by 2018 to the UN peacekeeping budget. But all these Chinese achievements rather than being congratulated have been viewed skeptically.
‘Peaceful Rise’ Claims Need to be adapted and Suspicions Allayed
While it is apparent that in the perception of many western analysts China has become a geopolitical threat, Chinese scholars and politicians alike can allay the negative perceptions by reinvigorating the debate that ‘BRI’ and Xi’s vision correspond to China’s rise as a peaceful player and it would benefit the international community in the long-run.
Zheng Bijian, a Chinese thinker argued that the Beijing’s participation in international institutions increased and its conformity to international norms enhanced in the post-Mao period. He saw in the Chinese move to be a ‘responsible stakeholder’ not any fear from any external power rather its willingness do so.
In a similar vein, Chinese scholars maintained that, China was bound to face problems like scarcity of resources, the deterioration of environment and economic imbalances in its rise and it needed cooperation from the international community to overcome these problems. However, with the onset of ‘BRI’, it was perceived that the argumentative China was gradually losing out to platitudes and the western response was becoming loaded with rhetoric as well.
It has become imperative to explain how China’s rise has been beneficial to the members of the international community as it can contribute not only to their trade benefits along with its own, it can also contribute more toward international peace as well. Beijing needs to work on and adapt the arguments in favor of its ‘peaceful rise’ to the present context.
For instance, Guoli Liu, a Chinese scholar and currently a Professor at the college of Charleston, USA, maintained that there has been a symbiotic relationship between China’s internal socio-economic reforms and peaceful international environment and therefore, successful reforms needed peaceful diplomacy.
Similarly, Bang Quan Zheng argued that China’s peaceful development was based on the stability of current international economic, political and security orders and therefore its rise need not be a threat to the US and the international system.
Meanwhile, the apologists of China’s peaceful rise believed that expectations from a rising China were high and therefore invited more criticisms of Chinese roles in international affairs. The Chinese decision to increase the number of troops to peace-keeping operations, its participation in counter-piracy operations in Somalia by sending naval fleets and its commitment to share intelligence and conduct humanitarian rescue operations in coordination with countries testified to the claim that China was increasingly preparing itself for a role of a responsible stakeholder.
In response to the allegations of Beijing’s less troop contribution to the UN peace-keeping, the Chinese official position clarified that it was more interested in non-combat role in peace-keeping and therefore dispatched higher numbers of technical teams of engineers, doctors and unarmed police forces.
The White Paper on China’s National Defence issued in 2010 emphasized such kind of role in peace-keeping and highlighted the achievements of China’s peace-keepers UN operations in non-combat role.
Another major reason provided for a little Chinese contribution towards international peace and security was China’s low per-capita income compared to the developed states which were able to contribute more towards the same purpose. Though Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of China increased substantially because of its higher growth and population, per-capita income remained relatively lesser compared to the developed states such as the US, Germany and Japan. In the Chinese perception, Beijing has been showing seriousness in protecting intellectual property rights since it joined WTO in 2001.
While China had rejected the western idea of ‘human rights’ in the past, it gradually shifted to a nuanced stance on the issue and subscribed to the standpoint that China respected human rights but prioritized socio-economic rights over legal and political rights.
The Chinese participation in the drafting and its subsequent ratification of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was cited as an example of Beijing’s enhanced participation in multilateral organizations and in norm-setting. The Chinese behavior was belligerent was countered by the fact that China could reach an agreement with Japan successfully for a joint hydrocarbon project in controversial water-ways.
On the liberalization of trade issue, the Chinese perception was that they had fulfilled most of the obligations under the Protocol of accession to WTO.
If they granted any further trade concessions, it was natural that they would expect reciprocity. However, China believed that the countries which were pressurizing China for further liberalization would not reciprocate to Chinese concessions. Chinese scholars argue that China has contributed significantly to world economic growth.
According to the data of International Monetary Fund (IMF), between 1999 and 2004, 21 per cent of growth in the gross world product in purchasing power parity terms (PPP) was attributable to China while the US contributed 18 per cent (PPP) of the growth (B. Pablo, (2005), “China’s Emergence Threat or Peaceful rise”, ARI 135/2005 (translated from Spanish), Madrid, Real Instituto Elcano, p. 5).
On other economic issues like over-consumption of natural resources, the scholars argued that Chinese consumption of energy resources was much lower than that of the US and export of Chinese goods increased along with imports of certain foreign goods. The accusation that China attracted a disproportionate share of FDI was countered by the argument that Chinese share of FDI was much lower than its contribution to gross world product in PPP terms.
It was further argued that China had cooperated considerably with the international community in taking on the East Asian financial crisis and global financial crisis in 2008. China refused to devalue its currency in mid-1998 when Asian financial crisis was at its peak. If China had done so, it would have aggravated the crisis and possibly world recession would have been triggered.
Similarly, China was the first country to buy the bonds newly issued by the IMF to help countries to get over the global financial crisis (E. Amitai (2011), “Is China a responsible stakeholder”, International Affairs, Vol. 87, No. 3, p. 550).
Chinese scholars argue that increasing criticisms from the US emanate from their own insecurity and threat perceptions. The US tries to justify its containment policy towards China on the basis of ‘China’s threat’ argument. Guo Xuetand maintained that it was the hegemonic American military strategy particularly in the Asia-Pacific region which might affect the Chinese resolve for peaceful development (G. Sujian, (2006), “Challenges and Opportunities for China’s “Peaceful Rise” in Sujian Guo (ed). China’s Peaceful Rise in the 21st Century, Ashgate Publishing, London, p. 6).
The Chinese expenditure on defence has increased due to growth in the economy but it is far less than that of the US. From the Chinese perspective, Beijing not only accommodated the concerns of its neighbours through talks and agreements, it also softened its attitude towards Taiwan. Hu Jintao made a statement during his visit to Canada in September 2005 that the Taiwan issue was a complicated one and required patience for resolution (Ibid). It was further argued that China has no history of territorial expansion and does not seek a change in the existing world order or regional supremacy.
While Beijing must build on the existing arguments on its peaceful rise, it must dispel, at the same time, the contentions of neighbors as well as countries with stakes in the Indo-Pacific region that its power is not directed toward assertion of claim over disputed areas in the immediate neighborhood. Many experts viewed Chinese assertion of indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea at the expense of the territorial claims of Vietnam, Malaysia and Philippines being driven by Beijing’s geopolitical interests to gain control over strategic sea-routes.
The western perception as well as the perception of many neighboring countries has been guided by the view that following an era of internal reforms and cultivation of friendly ties with state actors led by the paramount communist leader Deng Xiaoping, Chinese role assumed a hegemonic design during the succeeding regimes. These activities provided relevance to an argument that China was adopting a ‘play now, fight later’ tactic which was explicit in its aggressive moves in the South China Sea following a period of peaceful cooperation when China’s economic penetration enmeshed these countries in a web that neutralized their ability to resist.