Great Power Politics And The Tragedy Of OBOR – Analysis


If OBOR is to be seen as China’s 21st century Marshall Plan, the expanding economic influence would require deeper military commitments.

By Gayathri Iyer

China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative — the mammoth sea and road infrastructure linking Asia, Europe and Africa is being rapidly pursued as an inclusive International Capacity Cooperation initiative. It is pitched as an economic agenda where some of the manufacturing capacity of China is shifted to partner countries, resulting in a ‘win-win’ for all. Its immediate manifestation in South Asia is in the form of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a project Beijing claims could trigger South Asia’s rapid modernisation. The façade of business connectivity, however, shrouds a hegemonic ambition to dominate Eurasia and shape a new world order. China’s gambit is fraught with risk, as it involves contradictions that cannot be easily reconciled. The purported innocuousness of China’s endeavour does not confirm to the nature of great power politics and the contradictions do not bode well for it’s future.

The first of these fault lines expresses itself through the nature of great power politics. Given that, great powers have both varied interests and enormous resources, it is not clear why Beijing will confine its ambition to infrastructure and connectivity. Indeed, to ensure hegemony in Asia, China will need to exert both economic and military power. Regardless of the fact that military prowess has ceded space to economics in post World War-II, hard power projection remains as relevant as earlier.

The United States’ Marshall Plan for reconstruction of Europe was a typical example of an economics-heavy approach underpinned by military strength. Two factors underlie the primacy of hard power.

  • First, states found themselves entering an investment trap, where securing economic investments necessitated the introduction of military force.
  • The second factor was the propensity of great powers to exert economic influence and extract military commitments from partner states.

The same was the case with the erstwhile Soviet Union, where its clientele — whether in Africa or Latin America — involved heavy military involvement. If OBOR is to be seen as China’s 21st century Marshall Plan, the expanding economic influence would require deeper military commitments from China. In fact, a recent Pentagon report signals these possibilities when it highlights the possibility of Chinese military bases in Pakistan. OBOR’s “win-win” formulation runs contrary to historical evidence of the behavior of great powers.

China’s own record in the last couple of decades is proof that it cannot escape this tragedy of great power politics. In fact, its rising economic stakes in the past couple of decades have been concomitant with a shift in its military priorities. The shifting of its industrial manufacturing corridors from Hong Kong to Mainland China was rapidly followed by a near-simultaneous increase in its military bases in the South China Sea and the Arabian Sea to guard its own mercantile fleets.

Post the 2008 recession, when the rest of the world was reducing its international investments, China’s counter-cyclical strategic investment across several countries surged as it quietly started embedding its military capabilities in its infrastructure assets across countries. Though China claims its drivers for the investment in infrastructure assets hinge around economic and energy security, an eventual set up of military outposts in various infrastructural investments is inevitable. This is already underway with naval berthing and docking facilities in Seychelles, Sri Lanka and Gwadar.

A purely economic enterprise like OBOR, therefore, cannot escape its own militarisation; which raises the question if China can sustain OBOR militarily. The US decline as the global hegemon, for one thing, is not as pronounced as Beijing would have liked. Despite growing fiscal problems and domestic upheavals, America still has the naval power that China does not.

China’s lack of maritime dominance in the wider-Eurasian seas bears further emphasis. Historically, economic hegemony has been an inevitable result of naval hegemony: it has always been the most powerful maritime powers, which have ruled the space of global trade. The decline of the Dutch as an economic superpower prior to the industrial era is attributed to the security challenges its merchant vessel faced vis-à-vis Britain’s success in exploiting the sea-lanes with its superior navy. Later, the British acceded that position to the Americans. However, China’s current weak naval power alone may not be able to match the American advantage as the US air wings on the carrier are vastly more capable than China’s.

But such maritime powers also establish their hegemony through what Gramsci called the ‘co-option’ of others: by building strong maritime coalitions. Here again, China lags far behind. China is geographically at a disadvantage compared to the US due to its comparatively limited access to water – it is essentially a continental power. Most of China is surrounded by land and, taking Eurasia as a continental alternative, the geographical limitations of the region come in the way of a strong naval coalition. The southern parts of Eurasia — the countries of South East Asia and the Middle East — have disparate geography limited by mountains, deserts and not very navigable waterways.

India-Pakistan coalition is not visible in the near future nor is the Ganges basin navigable. This then leaves only the countries in the North European Plain, the Eurasian steppe and the Yellow River basin as candidates for meaningful coalition. However, though the Northern European Plain and the Eurasian Steppe are adjacent, they have no warm water navigable waterways connecting them among themselves or the Yellow River Basin to make a strong naval coalition possible at this juncture.

The alternative that China seems to be employing is to emulate the Soviet model during the cold war era. Since Peter the Great, Moscow’s quest for warm water ports has been a constant in its security policy. Vladivostok, on the Russian east coast, was constructed with a vision to establish a major naval presence in the Pacific Ocean and to also help Russia solidify its presence and ties with China, North Korea, Japan and other countries in the Far East.

The port has had a large military base and has been valued for being a diplomatic and economic outpost since the time Trans-Siberian Railway connected it to the west, opening Russia’s eastern coast to the valuable markets located in Europe, just like what OBOR aims to do for China now. However, the continental nature of Russian power did not allow her to be a naval power of global consequence at any period in its history. The same tyranny of geography works to China’s disadvantage.

Notwithstanding the continental nature of Chinese power and the restraints which follow, established great powers constantly endeavor to prevent the rise of any global competitors. The same is the case with rise of China as a great power with the OBOR initiative. In fact, China’s grand plans have already initiated a counter-coalition against it. One can see this in the renewed interest in US-Japan-Australia-India quad formation. The US, increasingly apprehensive of the swift movement of the OBOR and Chinese influence, is striking alliances with India, Japan and Australia to join hands in military cooperation in South China Sea in an attempt to balance the increasing Chinese military muscle in international waters. The US has also freshly revived its major infrastructure projects in Asia — New Silk Road (NSR) linking South and Central Asia and the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor linking South Asia and Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, India and Japan have joined hands to embark upon multiple infrastructure projects across Africa, Iran, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.

China may be bidding to create a new world order as all great powers aspire to do, but in the process, it also cannot escape the unintended consequences of great power politics: its rising economic profile would require a larger military footprint. Militarisation of OBOR, even though unintended, would lead to multiple troubles, exacerbated by China’s relatively modest naval strength, its geographical limitations and necessities of global balance of power. China may attempt to escape these pitfalls but its success is highly doubtful because the process of great power politics creates its own realities and outcomes, which, many a time, are unintended.

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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