Despite Hiccups, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s OBOR Project Making Good Progress | Arabian Weekly

Despite Hiccups, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s OBOR Project Making Good Progress | Arabian Weekly

By Kunal Bose

India’s unreserved opposition to China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative launched across four continents over ten years ago by President Xi Jinping with great fanfare was given vent to from time to time by powers that be, including prime minister Narendra Modi. More recently, India’s external affairs ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi found an occasion to tear to shreds the decade ago minted Chinese policy to win over the global south by promising and also funding all kinds of infrastructure projects – from roads to sea and river ports to new city development.

The provocation for Bagchi to do so in the strongest possible words till date was Maldives’ then president elect (president since) Mohamed Muizzu praising the role of Beijing’s flagship global infrastructure programme in the development of aid receiving countries. Incidentally, China too bears a grudge against India for not only being not a participant in OBOR but also being its one of the most strident critics all this while.

The neighbor India, which is the world’s fifth largest economy and clocking the highest rate of growth among all the countries, not an OBOR participant takes a whole lot of shine off the initiative. Beijing may not agree, but New Delhi’s derision of the grandiosity of Chinese ambition is quite enervating for it. No wonder then, as Bagchi confirmed, unlike on past occasions, Beijing did not send an invitation to India to join the third Belt and Road forum that was held on 17th and 18th October. New Delhi is aware that verbal assault alone from time to time will not be enough to counter China’s attempt to ingratiate itself with the global south.

But India needs the backing of developed countries, particularly the US to offer the global south something that will match the Chinese OBOR, which, however, has undergone radical transformation to become less and less ambitious. Ahead of the recent G-20 summit in Delhi, India was engaged in rounds of discussions with the US to bring it on board concerning this country’s ambitious plan to build a corridor to run through India, West Asia and Europe. Such a corridor requiring unprecedented investments in development of road, rail and ports will be an effective way of economic integration of countries in the three continents.

While presenting the colossal corridor plan, Modi said: “In its development journey, India has accorded the highest priority to this area.” At the same time, he used the occasion where so many world leaders, including the Chinese Prime Minister Li Qiang were present to present OBOR as a way of casting the net of China’s “debt trap diplomacy wide in a bid to establish its hegemony over especially resource rich or strategically important middle and lower income countries.” The truth is China has already spent a trillion dollars to expand its influence in Asia, Africa and Latin America through its belt and road infrastructure programme. At the same time tens of billions dollars of loans have gone sour and many development projects have stalled.

Most of the countries that received loans from China to give shape to infrastructure projects have defaulted in servicing debts. Poor project implementation combined with slowing global economy, high interest rates and high inflation queered the pitch for them. Simultaneously, the slowing of the Chinese economy and Covid-19 battering continue to engage Beijing attention to exercise caution on project selection leading to virtual overhauling of the original OBOR narrative. In fact, as Beijing is pressuring countries to honour the debt servicing and repayment conditions, many African countries facing economic turmoil want China to revise loan terms to their advantage.

Nearly a decade ago China launched a mission to be loved and admired by the global south riding on OBOR initiative. But the enthusiasm with which the initiative was embraced in the beginning has started fading. Xi keeps on claiming that the initiative is on the right side of history and conforms to the centuries old spirit of the Silk Road. But the world did not fail to notice that only 21 heads of state and government were present at the third Belt and Road forum. The presence was much thinner than what was seen in the earlier two forums. Remember Italy is the only G-7 nation to have endorsed Xi’s signature foreign policy initiative. This happened following Xi’s significant investment of political capital to bring Rome into China’s orbit.

Italy endorsing OBOR by signing a memorandum of understanding with Beijing could not have been to the liking of Washington and many European nations. (The MOU signed by Italy provides that an official decision as to whether to renew or cancel it must be taken by the end of 2023.) Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has said on a number of occasions since coming to power that her country wants to exit OBOR. In fact, at the recent G-20 summit Meloni raised the OBOR quitting issue with the Chinese Premier at a bilateral meeting. It was heard in diplomatic grapevine that Li urged Meloni for a ‘silent renewal’ of MOU. But in no case she should go for an exit ahead of the OBOR third forum. Meloni heading a conservative coalition is working to evolve a China policy that is in alignment with that of the US and European Union.

That there is no enthusiasm about Xi’s attempt to bring the global south firmly under China’s influence through OBOR in the EU became embarrassingly clear for Beijing that only the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban from the 27 member EU member countries attended the 3rd forum. This could not have been otherwise considering Orban’s friendly disposition to Kremlin. Italy has seen how famously President Emmanuel Macron of France is doing business with China without having anything to do with Xi’s flagship programme. Then why endorse OBOR to court the US displeasure, seems to be the reason driving Melon not to remain part of global infra development initiative of China. A good development for India.

But the challenge for New Delhi has since the launch of OBOR was to present a an infrastructure development programme similar or near similar to Xi’s ambition. The Chinese President has never missed an opportunity to underline the Silk Road spirit of traders carrying goods on the camel back or by boat and doing business and promoting economies of trade partners peacefully unlike the hegemonic designs of Western colonial powers. This has, however, not stopped New Delhi to see in OBOR designs of ‘debt trap diplomacy.’

What no doubt has emboldened India to propose a corridor encompassing India, West Asia and Europe is Biden commitment: “Together with our partners, we are working to mobilise trillions (dollar) of investments needed to close infra gaps around the world.” Besides economic and practising democracy considerations, there is also convergence of US and India interest in neutralizing Chinese belligerence in the Indo-Pacific region. All this has prompted Biden to support India’s corridor programme. (IPA Service)

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