Dr. Narad Bharadwaj, KATHMANDU: Small developing countries of South Asia and South-East Asia are struggling to craft their course of survival and economic prosperity without impinging on the strategic sensitivities of big powers contending for geo-strategic space and alternative visions for peace, security and prosperity of this region.
In this connection, two strategic ideas known to the world as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) promoted by China and Indo-Pacific Strategy sponsored by the US have grasped the attention of scholars, strategists, diplomats and international policy analysts.
BRI has been introduced as a dream project of China designed to expand connectivity along the contours of historical Silk Road helping develop cross-border commercial hubs as the foundation of economic prosperity BRI partner countries of the region. So far, BRI has not revealed any strategic or security baggage which the recipients of infrastructure funds may be required to carry as a cost of economic and humanitarian benefits of the projects.
It is based on China’s experience of utilising historical knowledge in creating wealth and enriching civilisational values kept alive in the cultural memories of the people. BRI represents an attempt to recreate the glorious history of trans-border trade, network of connectivity and interaction of civilisations.
China’s President Xi Jinping has a vision of globalised economic growth through connectivity, promotion of free market and sharing of scientific and technological innovations. If we look back to history, we find no one in the world better able than the Chinese to realise the power of connectivity in globalising human experience, facilitating scientific discovery and linking technological innovations with productive opportunities of the people.
The Chinese invented paper, printing technology, gunpowder and firearms and the Silk Road provided a conduit for transferring the knowledge to Europe and the rest of the world. Through BRI, China appears eager to re-connect the world and create global wealth sharing prosperity through fair and rule-based trade practices and other forms of economic collaboration.
Like China, the US has also come forward with a new competing ideology represented by Indo-Pacific Strategy. Despite attempt of the US leaders to project it as an alternative vision for economic growth for South Asian and Asia-pacific region, it has been hardly able to conceal its strategic and security overtones attached to it.
The Indo- Pacific Strategy was devised in 2006/o7 to address the priorities brought about China’s emerging economic and strategic capabilities and concomitant rise of India as both economic and military power.
Amid consensus opinion about the ‘eastward shift of economic gravity’ following the rise of China and India as global economic superpowers, the US has also readjusted its strategic focus on Asia and the Pacific region.
This area hosts strategic sea lanes- Strait of Hormuz and Strait of Malacca- which constitute vital sea route controlling major commercial and energy lifelines of China, Japan, India and the US. This is also the region through which the US suspects transaction on weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) taking place among Iran, North Korea and Syria.
The security perception of the US is highlighted also by the fact that China has made huge investment to build deep sea ports along the rim of Indian Ocean from Gwadar in Pakistan through Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, Chittagong in Bangladesh to Hambantota in Sri Lanka which are referred to as ‘String of Pearls’. The USA interprets the ‘String of Pearls’ as a euphemism for a strategic alliance of China for the domination of the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.
Over the past decades, the USA has created mechanism called Proliferation of Security Initiative arguably to deal with the perceived or real challenges posed by the rise of China. There is growing conflict of interest between the two powers in South China Sea coupled with deepening hostility in the gulf region and increasing divergence in views on domestic conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Venezuela. This shows that both powers are in a constant need to look over the shoulder as they move along to fulfill their alternative visions for creating a better world.
The US has offered a dominating role to India in Indo -Pacific Strategy which seems to have attracted latter’s attention because of its potential for serving as a platform to showcase its newly found economic and military prowess. India’s’ willingness to be a part of the ‘Quad’ consisting of other three countries- Japan, Australia, the USA- shows that there is more to Indo-Pacific Strategy than meets the eyes.
India’s Act East Policy and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visualisation of ‘security and growth for the entire region’ encapsulated in the acronym (SAGAR) also reveals a discrete alignment in the strategic prospectuses of India and the USA.
Of late, Nepal and other smaller countries of South Asia are facing difficulty in charting out an independent course of national development safeguarding their sovereignty and independence. An unspoken pressure is being brought to bear on them for choosing either BRI or Indo-Pacific Strategy to meet their aspiration for political stability and economic prosperity.
Nepal has been receiving clear hints of disapproval from the US about its endorsement of BRI in 2017. Washington made an overture to Nepal to play a ‘central role in free and open Indo-Pacific’ in December last year. Nepal’s Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali, however, declined to be part of the strategy during his visit to Washington for reason of Nepal being committed to the principle of non-alignment.
The matter should have ended there. Bur in February this year, Deputy Secretary of State for Defense for South and South-East Asia Joe Felter expressed displeasure of the US saying that BRI projects should “server the interest of Nepal not just China”.
On Tuesday another visiting dignitary from US David J Ranz, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia has been reported saying that the assistance package of $500 million earmarked by the US for Nepal under the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), was part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. His remark clearly hints that Nepal will be construed to have embraced Indo-Pacific Strategy if it chooses to use the MCC fund, if it declines to accept the fund it will be understood as being part of China-led alliances.
The unfolding political and strategic imperatives of Asia are putting smaller countries of South Asia including Nepal between a devil and a deep sea. Their diplomatic craft is under intense scrutiny and the world is watching how these countries, especially Nepal, will wiggle its way out of the two apparently intractable choices.
In most cases, diplomatic questions sound tricky but offer multiple choices. If we try to solve the question through the binary view of either BRI or Indo-Pacific Strategy we may antagonize one power at the cost of growing cozy with other.
It is, therefore, time to re-define our perception of both BRI and Indo-Pacific Strategy because both are knocking our door for entry and seeking our role. The best course for us may arguably be to explore ways to dissociate ourselves from the security obligations of the projects and accept economic assistance from both sides.
(Author Dr. Narad Bharadwaj is a freelance writer and holds PhD degree in ethno-history. He writes on history, foreign relations, and contemporary national and international politics)
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