Indian Prime Minister’s visit dominated the local news headlines and spawned intense debates among analysts and politicians to the circumstances surrounding his visit and their implications. Yet the first out of the two key globally captivating events was the sudden removal of the director of the American Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) by President Trump and its aftermath. American media, analysts, scholars all joined in a series of vocal criticisms claiming that the American democracy, American liberalism was at cross roads and may eventually cede to an authoritarian presidency altering the political landscape of the Nation.
The Comey-affair exposed a widening political fault line that many American analysts fear may radically change America’s global role and diminish its global political authority as it gets distracted and entrenched in local political disputes that may have far reaching consequences. The second major event was the massive cyber attack that was launched by an undisclosed hacker group or syndicate targeting global computer networks with the brunt being born by Russia and the UK.
This column highlighted the importance of cyber politics and cyber strategy for national security in last week’s edition, within a few days after the column was published, global cyber security experts are working overtime to trace the attackers, ascertain the level of damage as a result of the most recent attacks. Many experts fear that the key malware code used in this attack originated from a set of malware codes that were stolen from American cyber offensive division allegedly attached to the National Security Agency (NSA) called the equation group. Thus these attacks were based on blueprints of cyber weapons that a State developed as part of cyber war preparations that are now out in the open and affecting civilian networks globally.
"China has identified 65 countries as being part of the OBOR community spanning Asia, Africa, Europe and Middle East. 29 leaders of the 65 countries will attend including the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka"
The more important development that requires deeper insight is the ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) Forum of May 14 – 15 that was held in Beijing. While details of the forum had not reached the public realm when this column was being written, the significance of the forum can still be analyzed. Multitudes of analyses have emerged from Western, Asian and other regional scholars on the ways in which China has embarked on its signature foreign policy shift since its announcement by President Xi Jingping in 2013.
OBOR is not just a foreign policy slogan; it embodies a foreign policystrategy that China aspires to develop as the backbone of its integration and interaction beyond its regional sphere of influence. This analysis has been floating around ever since the unveiling of the policy and China has been implicit about its intentions. The 2017 OBOR forum seems to be the vehicle which China is attempting to play a central role of a global power that other states accept as relevant, as powerful and as important to co constitute a prosperous future.
This was exactly what the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen reiterated at the world economic forum few months ago. He said how vital OBOR has become for the development and progress of his own country. China has identified 65 countries as being part of the OBOR community spanning Asia, Africa, Europe and Middle East. 29 leaders of the 65 countries will attend including the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. All key South Asian States will be represented by heads of States with the exception of India. India’s low level representation and differing with all other South Asian nations highlights India’s concern of rising China and its attempt to be the buffer of the liberal world against a China that does not represent the norms, values or interests of the free world. The strategic costs to India’s defiance are yet to be accounted for. United States under Trump was expected to ignore the forum especially with all the anti China rhetoric Trump garnered during his presidential campaign. Instead the US is being represented by a significantly high level delegation, comprising of an inter-agency representative team headed by Matthew Pottinger, who represents an important node in connecting with the intelligence community who doubles as a top consultant to the Whitehouse.
China maybe missing a significant number of heads of states from countries that are connected through the OBOR yet, the number of delegations, 4000 odd journalists, vast number of global scholars, will definitely provide the necessary exposure that it is seeking to carve a place out for itself as a key player in global governance. Whilst OBOR is projected as the most expansive foreign engagement strategy China has unveiled in its post revolution era, some argue that it is a deeply political tool to create a sphere of influence in the regions of the world where China can create economic dependence leading to political manipulations and become a hegemon in the process
Lindsay Graham, Professor of Politics and International Relations at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, vehemently makes a case for an impending and unavoidable China America war. Graham goes back in history to the great Hellenic war between Athens and Sparta and claims throughout history in most cases when rising powers challenge existing powers, war is the most probable outcome which he calls the Thucydides Trap. Ironically the current president Xi Jingping who is an avid follower of Western developments while acknowledging the dangers of the Thucydides trap, claimed that American and Chinese leadership could work together to avoid such unnecessary conflicts. Thus Xi Jingping managed to take the sting out of this latest case made by Allison in his latest book, ‘Destined for War’, which was just released a few weeks ago.
An economic perspective of OBOR locate, it within a domestic context, where economists argue that China has no option but to engage with global markets and whenever possible to lock onto those markets. As there is a massive surplus of products from industry material, building materials, railway components that the Chinese domestic market is under super saturation. The OBOR is a great economic strategy for domestic economic prosperity and job creation.
The focus on OBOR is intensifying among states that includefriendly nations of China to more cautious States like India. OBOR signifies China’s global ambitions and its intent for global engagement in multiple forms such as loans, to mass scale infrastructure development projects. Yet the world is headed towards policies that are inward looking, a new wave of nationalism, and an anti globalization sentiment.
Yet the only global leader who has sustained and intensified defence of globalization and global engagements has been the Chinese President Xi Jingping. He has managed even to create dependencies among nations that are not part of the OBOR strategies, reaching out to countries as far as in Latin America, the political crisis prone Venezuela has received more than 60 billion US dollars over the last 7 years from China, which made up more than 50% of all loans that went into the region. While Chinese infra structure assistance has grown up to 10 billion US dollars per year making it the leading provider of assistance even to most volatile economies such as Angola, Ethiopia, Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo have become China’s lend seekers.
The OBOR forum of May 2017, despite its critiques and under representation of global leaders, still paves the way for China to be the forum where not just Chinese interests are discussed but has the potential of evolving into a key global space for leaders to meet and hold bi lateral relations. What China is trying to achieve from this forum is not just a utilitarian gain. It is trying to become a venue for global conversations, OBOR as a policy is leading Chinese global engagement while the OBOR forum may bring part of that globe back to China. At a time when many other states are preoccupied fixing local political issues, China’s global engagement will inevitably lead to a global power consolidation.
The Writer is the Director, Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS)