China and the liberal vision of the Indo-Pacific

Mike Pompeo’s recent speech (titled ‘America’s Indo-Pacific Economic Vision’) at the Indo-Pacific Business Forum hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC, has been carefully observed across Asia. Beijing has understandably paid close special attention to it. Pompeo emphasized the need for greater connectivity within the Indo-Pacific, while also highlighting the role which the US was likely to play (including financial investments to the tune of $113 million in areas like infrastructure, energy, and digital economy). The US Secretary of State, while stating that this vision was not targeted at anyone, did make references to China’s hegemonic tendencies, as well as the lacunae of Chinese connectivity projects (especially the economic dimension).

The Chinese reaction to Pompeo’s speech was interesting. Senior Chinese government officials were initially dismissive of the speech, saying that such ideas have been spoken in the past, but produced no tangible results.

A response article in the Global Times is significant here. Titled ‘Indo-Pacific strategy more a geopolitical military alliance’ and published in the communist state’s premier English-language mouthpiece, what emerges clearly from this article is that Beijing is not taking the ‘Indo-Pacific vision’ lightly, and neither does it rule out the possibility of collaboration. The article is unequivocal, though, in expressing its skepticism with regard to the geopolitical aspect of the Indo-Pacific vision. Argues the article:

[…] the geopolitical connotation of the strategy may lead to regional tensions and conflicts and thus put countries in the region on alert.

The piece is optimistic with regard to the geo-economic dimension, saying that American investment would be beneficial and would promote economic growth and prosperity. What must be noted is that while the US vision for an ‘Indo-Pacific’ has been put forward as a counter to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of China, the article also spoke about the possible complementarities between the US vision for an ‘Indo-Pacific’ and China’s version of BRI. While Pompeo had spoken about a crucial role for US private companies in his speech, the article clearly bats in favor of cooperation between the Indian, Japanese, Chinese, and US governments, rather than just private companies. This is interesting, given the fact that China had gone to the extent of dubbing the Indo-Pacific vision as “the foam on the sea […] that gets attention but will soon dissipate.”

While there is absolutely no doubt that there is immense scope for synergies between the Indo-Pacific vision and BRI, especially in the economic sphere, China’s recent openness towards the Indo-Pacific vision needs to be viewed in the following context.

First, the growing resentment against the economic implications of some BRI projects. In South Asia, Sri Lanka is a classical example of China’s debt trap diplomacy, where Beijing provides loans at high interest rates (China has taken over the strategic Hambantota Project, since Sri Lanka has been unable to pay Beijing the whopping $13 billion). Even in the ASEAN grouping, countries are beginning to question the feasibility of BRI projects. Malaysia, which shares close economic ties with Beijing, is reviewing certain Chinese projects (this was one of the first steps undertaken by Mahathir Mohammad after taking over the reigns as Prime Minister of Malaysia).

Secondly, the Indo-Pacific vision has long been dubbed as a mere ‘expression’ that lacks gravitas in the economic context (and even now $113 million is not sufficient). Developments over recent months, including the recent speech by Pompeo, indicate that the American Department of State seems to be keen to dispel this notion that the Indo-Pacific narrative is bereft of substance. Here it would be pertinent to point out that Pompeo’s speech was followed by an Asia visit to Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.

The US needs to walk the course and, apart from investing, it needs to think of involving more countries, including Taiwan and more South Asian countries like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in the Indo-Pacific partnership.

The Indo-Pacific also speaks in favor of democracy as well as greater integration, but countries are becoming more inward-looking, and their stands on democracy and human rights are more ambiguous than in the past. Japan is trying to change its attitude towards immigration, and is at the forefront of promoting integration and connectivity within the Indo-Pacific. Neither the US, nor India, Japan, or Australia have criticized China for its human rights violations against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang province.

Here it would also be important to state that there is scope for China to be part of the Indo-Pacific, but it needs to look at certain projects beyond the rubric of the BRI. A perfect instance is the Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor, which India was willing to join, but China now considers this project as a part of BRI.

In conclusion, Beijing can not be excluded from the ‘Indo-Pacific’ narrative, but it cannot expect to be part of the same, on its own terms. It is also important for countries like the United States and India to speak up more forcefully on key issues pertaining to freedom of speech and diversity (and ensure that these remain robust in their own respective countries), given that one of the objectives of the Indo-Pacific vision is a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’.

Nightcap

  1. Zombie history: a bleak vision of the past and present Sophie Pinkham, the Nation
  2. Pakistan’s elections and the precarious future of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Andrew Small, War on the Rocks
  3. Populism in less developed countries is somewhat different Pranab Bardham, 3 Quarks Daily
  4. The BRICS hit the wall Guy Sorman, City Journal

Finally, the US is getting serious about the Indo-Pacific

China has not been particularly comfortable with the Trump Administration’s repeated use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ instead of ‘Asia-Pacific’ (of late, it has been quite scathing in it’s criticism). The term ‘Indo-Pacific’, which has been used for a few years, has now gained more attention after a few developments:

First, during Trump’s Asia visit in 2017, in which he visited Japan, Vietnam, and attended the ASEAN Summit, he used this term on more than one occasion.

Before his India visit in October 2017, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson articulated a vision for a ‘Free and Fair Indo-Pacific’. Tillerson, while pitching for a greater role for India in the Indo-Pacific, also highlighted the need for preventing illiberal multilateralism. Said the former US Secretary of State:

We need to collaborate with India to ensure that the Indo-Pacific is increasingly a place of peace, stability, and growing prosperity — so that it does not become a region of disorder, conflict, and predatory economics.

The use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ was followed by the revival of the Quad Grouping (India, Australia, US, Japan). Senior officials of these four countries met on the eve of the East Asia Summit, held in Manila, and discussed ways to strengthen cooperation for promotion of a ‘Free and Fair Indo-Pacific’.

There have been a number of meetings between representatives of Japan, the US, and India to discuss a wide range of issues such as maritime cooperation, connectivity, and strengthening collaboration between these countries

China’s criticism of Indo-Pacific and Quad

China dismissed the Indo-Pacific as an ‘attention grabbing idea’, while the Quad too has been criticized by Beijing. Foreign Minister Wang Yi, while commenting on the Quad, likened the Quad to ‘foam on the sea’ that ‘will soon dissipate’ once the attention due to headlines turns elsewhere.

The Indo-Pacific narrative did lack a vision

One issue on which it is hard to disagree with Beijing, and those skeptical about the ‘Indo-Pacific’, is the fact that countries who have joined hands for promoting a Free and Fair Indo-Pacific (as a sort of counter narrative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative), did not have clarity in terms of enhancing connectivity and economic linkages. They have met on a number of occasions to discuss connectivity projects and a myriad of other issues but nothing substantial has emerged so far. This lack of effort, according to many, has been one of the main reasons for the Indo-Pacific narrative not being taken seriously (even by US allies). The other problem, of course, has been the Trump administration’s differences with allies like Japan and South Korea on economic and geopolitical issues.

US rolls out an economic vision for the Indo-Pacific

At the Indo-Pacific Business Forum, organized by the US Chamber of Commerce, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo articulated a broader economic vision for the Indo-Pacific, while also speaking about the likely role of the US in promoting cooperation.

First, Pompeo yet again reiterated the US desire for a Free and Open Indo Pacific, and how the US was fervently opposed to the hegemonic tendencies of certain countries (in a clear reference to China).

Second, at a time when a number of countries, such as Malaysia and Sri Lanka, are beginning to question the financial feasibility of China’s Belt and Road Initiative-related projects, Pompeo’s words are significant. It may also be pointed out that his address at the US Chamber of Commerce was made days before he began his Asia trip (which included visits to Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore).

Third, Pompeo spoke about the $113 million investment in areas such as digital economy, energy, and infrastructure. Pompeo dubbed this investment as a ‘…down payment on a new era in US economic commitment to peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region’.

Fourth, the US Secretary of State also spoke about the potential role of the US private sector in promoting economic growth, prosperity, and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. In an interview with CNBC, Pompeo stated:

We want private industry with the assistance of the United States government, understanding that we’re going to support this effort, we’re going to have private industry go in and develop relationships. When American businesses come to these countries, they’ll thrive

China’s reaction to Pompeo’s speech

China was dismissive of the US commitment towards Indo-Pacific, and Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang stated that even in the past, there has been talk of cooperation between Japan, the US, and Australia working jointly for developing infrastructure, but so far not much has been achieved.

While there is absolutely no doubt that an alternative narrative is needed to China, the US also needs to be more predictable in terms of economic and strategic relations with key players in the Indo-Pacific. One of Washington’s closest allies in the past, Japan, has been extremely uncomfortable with not just the tariffs, but also on Trump’s handling of strategic issues (such as the North Korea issue).

The example of Indian and Japanese Companies in South Asia

If differences can be ironed out, there is clear space for companies of different countries to work together in the Indo-Pacific. India and Japan have already taken the lead in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh (two countries likely to play an important role in the Indo-Pacific). In Bangladesh, Marubeni and Larsen and Toubro shall work jointly for supplying electrical and mechanical railway systems for Phase 6 of the Dhaka Mass Rapid Transport. In Sri Lanka, Petronet, along with Japanese companies, is setting up an LNG terminal near Colombo (L&T has already been working with Marubeni for setting up a 400 MW gas plant in Habibgant district, Bangladesh). Petronet will hold 47.5 per cent stake in the project while Japan’s Mitsubishi and Sojitz Corp will take 37.5 per cent stake, while the remaining 15 percent stake will be held by a Sri Lankan company.

Conclusion

Pompeo’s emphasis – on the need for greater transparency in investments, US support for areas such as technology in the Indo-Pacific, and a more pro-active role for the private sector in the Indo-Pacific – all make sense. A lot will depend upon Donald Trump’s approach on critical geopolitical and economic issues, and whether he is able to take along key allies such as Japan. A lot will also depend upon relations of countries, especially Japan and India, with China. In recent months, Japan and India have been trying to recalibrate economic ties with Beijing (a number of Japanese companies are in fact participating in the BRI). While this in no way implies that the narrative of the Indo-Pacific will lose its relevance, it does remain to be seen whether Japan and India would put it on high priority.

Pompeo’s speech is interesting, and it remains to be seen how companies from other countries react and whether they explore the possibility of investing in big ticket connectivity projects.

Eye Candy: Shanghai Cooperation Organization

NOL map SCO 2018
Source

First off, Shanghai and Warsaw are two very different cities, and because of that I think the SCO is a different animal than the Warsaw Pact. For one thing (aside from the difference in the two cities, one being selected for its geographical prominence, the other for its commercial acumen), the Warsaw Pact was a military alliance led by the Soviet Union, while the SCO is dedicated to political and economic cooperation as well as military security. Notably, the security aspect of the SCO is dedicated to coordinating state-led efforts against terrorism and separatism rather than against a rival alliance.

I don’t see anything wrong with multilateral efforts undertaken by states other than the US. I don’t see any need to worry, fret, or otherwise suspect the SCO of undermining world peace and prosperity. The fact that the SCO is made up of cooperating autocratic regimes rather than democratic ones does not faze me. The SCO has been making overtures to the democracies of India, Iran, and Sri Lanka (be sure to check out Tridivesh’s excellent take on India and the SCO), and multilateral cooperation among states is in itself an exercise in political participation among equals, albeit not at an individual level.

There is also cause to be happy that China and Russia have bound themselves up in such a prominent cooperative venture, too, given the two powers’ history of fighting each other. The SCO is contributing to peace and prosperity, and while it appears on the surface that the venture is designed to be a rival of the Western-built world order, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization actually contributes to it.

(h/t Nick)

Could free speech have led to overseas empires?

Tridivesh’s recent post on China’s multilateral struggles got me thinking about the difference between the United States and China when it comes to coalition-building and international affairs more broadly.

I don’t think the Chinese are purposely attempting to smaller countries in debt so that Beijing may have a shorter leash for them. I think Beijing simply doesn’t know what it’s doing, and is proceeding apace with multilateral initiatives like the BRI through a trial-and-error process. Unfortunately, trial-and-error processes only work if there is a mechanism to identify the error that takes place during the trial. In the West, we call this mechanism “free speech.” In China, free speech ruins order and is thus discouraged at best and disposed of at worst.

China’s expansionist efforts will probably, as a result of the lack of free speech, end poorly for the regime. Beijing’s reputation will suffer, and it will have to resort to more coercive tactics to secure its alliances and influence over its smaller neighbors.

This thought process, in turn, got me thinking about how the West came to churn out so many powerful worldwide empires in such a short span of time, and how these empires managed to coexist with each other at various points in time. Given China’s troubles with establishing hegemony, the fact that the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, and the United States were able to achieve what they achieved is amazing. Throughout most of history, empires (or wanna-be empires) have sought to expand abroad while keeping order at home, just like China is doing today. In the sixteenth-century West, order at home was rejected in favor of liberty at home, and as a result the few societies that tried liberty ended up being able to afford overseas empires, where order was sought instead of liberty!

The short-sightedness of imperialists continues to astound me. If liberty at home leads to opportunities to establish colonies abroad, why on earth would you try to stamp out liberty in the colonies you’ve been able to establish thanks to liberty? Imagine if the people living in Indonesia, or India, or Algeria, or the Philippines, had all the liberty that Americans and western Europeans had. Alas…

Hegemony is hard to do: China, globalization, and “debt traps”

As a result of an increasingly insular United States, with US President Donald Trump’s imposition of tariffs, China has been trying to find common cause with a number of countries, including US allies such as Japan, India and South Korea, on the issue of globalization.

While unequivocally batting in favor of an open economic world order, Chinese President Xi Jinping has also used forums like Boao to speak about the relevance of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (also known as the One Belt and One Road Initiative, or OBOR). At the Boao Forum (April 2018), the Chinese President sought to dispel apprehensions with regard to suspected Chinese aspirations for hegemony:

China has no geopolitical calculations, seeks no exclusionary blocs and imposes no business deals on others.

There is absolutely no doubt that the BRI is a very ambitious project, and while it is likely to face numerous obstacles, it is a bit naïve to be dismissive of the project.

Debt Trap and China’s denial

Yet China, in promoting the BRI, is in denial with regard to one of the major problems of the project: the increasing concerns of participant countries about their increasing external debts resulting from China’s financial assistance. This phenomena has been dubbed as a ‘debt trap’. Chinese denialism is evident from an article in the English-language Chinese daily Global Times titled ‘Smaller economies can use Belt and Road Initiative as leverage to attract investment’. The article is dismissive of the argument that BRI has resulted in a debt trap:

It is a misunderstanding to worry that China’s B&R initiative may elevate debt risks in nations involved in massive infrastructure projects. Countries are queuing up to cooperate with China on its B&R initiative, but many Western observers claim the initiative will create a problem of debt sustainability in countries and regions along the routes, especially those with small economies.

The article begins by citing the example of Djibouti in Africa, and how infrastructure projects are generating jobs and also helping in local state-capacity building. It then cites other examples, like that of Myanmar, to put forward the point that accusations against Beijing of promoting exploitative economic relationships with participant countries in the BRI is far from the truth.

The article in Global Times conveniently quotes Myanmar’s union minister and security adviser, Thaung Tun, where he dubbed the Kyaukpu project a win-win deal, but it conveniently overlooked the interview of Planning and Finance Minister, Soe Win, who was skeptical with regard to the project. Said Soe Win in an interview with Nikkei:

[…] lessons that we learned from our neighboring countries, that overinvestment is not good sometimes.

Soe Win also drew attention to the need for projects to be feasible, and for the need to keep an eye on external debt (Myanmar’s external debt is nearly $10 billion, and 40 percent of this is due to China).

The case of Sri Lanka, where the strategically important Hambantota Port has been provided on lease to China (for 99 years) in order to repay debts, is too well known.

The new government in Malaysia, headed by Mahathir Mohammed, has put a halt on three projects estimated at over $22 billion. This includes the $20 billion East Coast Railway Link (ECRL), which seeks to connect the South China Sea (off the east coast of peninsular Malaysia) with the strategically important shipping routes of the Straits of Malacca to the West. A Chinese company, China Communications Construction Co Ltd, had been contracted to build 530km stretch of the ECRL. On July 5, 2018 it stated that it had suspended work temporarily on the project, on the request of Malaysia Rail Link Sdn Bhd.

The other two projects are a petroleum pipeline spread 600km along the west coast of peninsular Malaysia, and a 662km gas pipeline in Sabah, the Malaysian province on the island of Borneo.

During a visit to Japan, Mahathir had categorically said that he would like to have good relations with, but not be indebted to, China, and would look at other alternatives. The Malaysian PM shall also be visiting China in August 2018 to discuss these projects.

Conclusion

While Beijing has full right to promote its strategic interests, and also highlight the scale and relevance of the BRI, it needs to be more honest with regard to the issue of the ‘debt trap’ (especially if it claims to understand the sensitivities of other countries, and does not want to appear to be patronizing). While smaller countries may be economically dependent upon China, the latter should dismiss the growing resentment against some of its projects at its own peril. Countries like Japan have already sensed the growing ire against the Chinese, and have begun to step in, even in countries like Cambodia (considered close to China). A number of analysts are quick to state that there is no alternative to Chinese investment, but the worries in smaller countries with regard to Chinese debts proves the point that this is not the case. China needs to be more honest, at least, in recognizing some of its shortcomings in its dealings with other countries.

A note on India’s performance at the recent SCO Summit

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit, from June 9-10, went largely as expected. The Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, met the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, on the sidelines of the summit. New Delhi’s proposal to have an informal summit, in India in 2019, on the lines of the Wuhan Summit (held in April 2018) was accepted by the Chinese. Agreements were also signed between both countries with regard to sharing hydrological data on the Brahmaputra River, and export of non-Basmati varieties of rice from India. Another issue, which was discussed during the Modi-Xi meeting, was the joint capacity development project in Afghanistan, which was first proposed during the Wuhan Summit.

Commenting on his meeting with the Chinese President, Modi tweeted:

Met this year’s SCO host, President Xi Jinping this evening. We had detailed discussions on bilateral and global issues. Our talks will add further vigour to the India-China friendship.

Modi’s meetings with leaders of other member countries

The Indian PM met other leaders of member countries, including the presidents of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. While there was no formal meeting with the Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain, Modi did shake hands with Hussain and exchange pleasantries. Interestingly, Chinese President Xi Jinping, during his address, had spoken about the presence of both leaders, as well as entry of both countries into the SCO. Said the Chinese President: Continue reading