The Pathfinder Foundation in collaboration with the National University of Singapore organised a one-day joint symposium on “The Belt and Road Initiative: the Politics, Potentials & Partnerships” in Singapore Orchard Hotel yesterday (29th). Here are the introductory remarks by Bernard Goonetilleke, Chairman, Pathfinder Foundation.
Eighteen years ago, I was based in Beijing. Like other diplomats, who were based there, I was amazed at the rapid pace of development. However, the Chinese leaders saw a serious contradiction in their development model. That was, Western China lagging behind the Eastern seaboard. The remedy prescribed by the Chinese leaders was to ‘Go West’ to provinces like Gansu, Yunnan, Qinghai and autonomous regions like Xinjiang, Tibet and Ningxia.
Thirteen years later in 2013, the Chinese President concluded that Chinese prosperity lies beyond its borders and China needs to spread its wings and move farther West. They realized that their plan for prosperity could be achieved by reviving the ancient silk roads, both land and sea, covering Asia, Africa and Europe.
The railroads laid since then across Central Asia and Levant, provided access to many cities in Western Europe, and investment made in ports and other infrastructure along the maritime silk roadmade it possible for Chinese companies to own, or co-own, numerous ports all the way to Europe. Five years ago, it may still have been a distant dream, but not so, today. Recently, China invited South American countries to join BRI. It appears that BRI is now poised to circle the globe, and countries stand to gain by joining the Chinese caravan.
We are living in a world immersed in politics and politics permeates every aspect of our lives. So, it is not a surprise that BRI being politicised. I recall some years ago in a western capital, I was asked: “Are you not afraid of China making inroads in to your country”? I did not think it was an expression of concern about the well-being of my country.
Being westerners, who had the world wrapped around their fingers for over five centuries, they were worried about reawakening of China. They were aware that as China advances, they should retreat. This is not a happy prospect for those who controlled vast regions of land and equally vast stretches of oceans for centuries.
And there are others, who oppose BRI over bilateral issues. Non-participation at the BRI summit held last May by some major countries demonstrates how politics come to fore. On the other hand, what happened in Sri Lanka in 2015 is a good example, how political intrigues play critical roles, either in favour or against projects of this nature.
The Silk Road Economic Belt, 21st century Maritime Silk Road and economic corridors connecting China’s Xinjian with Pakistan’s Gwadar port, and Kunming with Bangladesh, India and Myanmar, are estimated to cost app. US$ 900 billion to Chinese financial institutions, including the Silk Road Fund, AIIB etc. Details of projects listed as deliverables under the BRI cover areas such as policy, infrastructure, trade, finance and people to people connectivity. Granted, all these projects may not see the light of day and some may even fail at some stage or other, as the case with any project. Yet, even if part of these projects eventually succeeds, we could witness transformation of economies of at least one third of the countries in the world, which will not be a mean achievement.
If we were to take ports of Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Kyauk Pyu in Myanmar as examples, associated with those ports, there will be massive special economic zones, which would bring large number of industries to those under-developed regions with resultant positive andnegative consequences. The situation in other countries will not be any different. Such is the potential of BRI.
Partnership building through BRI appears to be the expectation of China. Importance of BRI to China could be understood by the recent decision taken to amend the Constitution of CPC to include promotion of BRI as one of China’s major future objectives. The stated objective of China is to ‘build a community of shared interest’ and achieve ‘shared growth’ through ‘discussion and collaboration’.
It is quite clear that China is preparing itself to assume global leadership, economically as well as politically. Partnership building appears to be a priority to succeed in their quest.
In this context, what comes to my mind is whatthe Prime Minister of Singaporewrote on the Special ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit held in Delhi on January 25. He said, “Major global trends are reshaping the strategic outlook, presenting both challenges and opportunities. The strategic balance is shifting.”
Negotiators would confirm that the Chinese are hard bargainers. Myanmar was reportedly planning to have a 50/50 deal over the strategic Kyauk Pyuport. However, reports indicate that eventually Yangon had to yield to Chinese demands for a 70 percent stake. Sri Lanka too, had to bargain hard and what they ended up with, may not be a bargain.
The morale of the story is that proponents should come up with projects that would provide a reasonable return on investment and seek to minimize negative consequences such as degradation of environment. Above all, they should also learn to bargain hard and not fall victim to corruption, so that the Belt and Road Initiative will be a win-win situation for both China as well as the participating countries.
Pathfinder and future
In conclusion, I wish to say that the Pathfinder Foundation is happy tobe associated with the Instituteof South Asian Studies (ISAS) of the National University of Singapore,to take part in this symposium along with the historical Sichuan University.
I would also wish to express appreciation of the PF delegation to Chairman of ISAS, Ambassador Gopinath Pillai and his efficient staff, who have taken much trouble to make this Symposium a success. Having seen the enthusiastic participation, I am confident that the participants would conclude the symposium served its purpose by connecting Singapore and Sri Lanka, two significant hubs of the Maritime Silk Road. Pathfinder Foundation looks forward for similar joint events with ISASin the future.