OPINION: The 'Camelback Silk Road'

DHAKA (The Daily Star/ANN) - Historically, China is more a trading nation, quietly pushing business in global diplomacy.  It worked for 350 years to build the Great Wall to save its people from Mongol barbarians, and now is in the seventh decade of waiting for Taiwan to merge with the mainland. 

The gala ceremony of the Belt and Road Summit held in Beijing on May 14 and 15, in the presence of 29 heads of states and important delegates from many countries, was the firework of a global initiative by China, which is gradually awakening and making her soft presence felt everywhere. With an investment pouch of USD 500 billion, the logo of ancient 'Camelback Silk Route' is the measured paddling for global connectivity.

China's immediate concern remains landlocked Central Asia. China is also strengthening links through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that brings China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan together.

The SCO, however, has not yet developed enough clout. The Belt and Road initiative, along the ancient beaten camel track, will have to address security concerns before embarking on the vast landmass gains momentum. Landlocked and cash starved Central Asian states eager to trade their energy resources can give impetus to this initiative.

Historically, China is more a trading nation, quietly pushing business in global diplomacy.  It worked for 350 years to build the Great Wall to save its people from Mongol barbarians, and now is in the seventh decade of waiting for Taiwan to merge with the mainland. It is willing to wait in 'time and space' without compromising its strategic visions. 

Russia's primary focus will still be Ukraine, the Middle East and the expanding NATO in Eastern Europe. It is under pressure due to its aggressive policy in Ukraine and Syria. Hurt by economic sanctions at a time when energy prices are low, it needs China to ease economic constraints. And China needs both energy and technology from Russia.

A stronger economic corridor in the South East of Russia will allow Putin to bargain harder with the West. The Silk Route initiative by China offers a breathing space in the backyard, in the grand design of President Putin. 

Nothing happens in the globe without the participation of the US. President Donald Trump appears happy to sell beef to China as the US needs its help to tackle North Korea, and thus is refraining from an immediate reaction to the Silk Route initiative.

The US is sending a strong delegation to observe the initiative rather than take any stand. It needs to boost exports to manage its mounting trade deficits. And China is aware and willing. Therefore, the new trade pact worth USD 100 billion comes to play. The Silk Road initiative is still in an embryonic state.

There is a possibility that giant American oil corporations, which have sunk billions of dollars in Central Asian Republics without headway, may get their money back through the Chinese corridor. But the sudden surfacing of warlord Gulbudin Hekmatyar in Kabul and NATO's push to deploy 5,000 additional troops in Afghanistan is mysterious.

The European Union (EU) is embroiled in Brexit and many other centrifugal concerns. Their immediate concern is the German election which will decide the fate of Chancellor Angela Merkel as well as the fate of the EU. Election of President Emmanuel Macron of France is reassuring, but the fate of the EU remains under cloud, until the consequence of Brexit is well managed.

EU members are viewing the Chinese initiative more through an individual window at this stage rather than in a cohesive manner. The United Kingdom is in a precarious condition: on one side, the Brexit negotiation is getting tougher and on the other, Scotland is asking for another round of referendum.

No matter how the Silk Route initiative goes, the UK has quickly realised that China, with a staggering USD 500 billion investment, can energise the fading Great Britain with fresh investments. The visit of the Chinese PM in July next will hopefully be rewarding for the UK.

India raised the concern of sovereignty as an excuse to not attend the summit, as the road linking the port of Gwadar in Pakistan with China pass through the disputed territory of Kashmir in Ladakh region. India's hope for an energy pipeline of Central Asian republics coming down to India via Afghanistan and Pakistan has taken a further dip.

Energy is already diverting towards energy-hungry China from some Central Asian republics. Trade will obviously follow the black gold. That is the immediate concern for India and far-reaching concern of the West.

Pakistan is enthusiastic that the USD 57 billion worth of infrastructure development for economic corridor extended up to the Port of Gwadar in Baluchistan, thereby ushering a new era of cooperation. China is already a trusted friend, collaborating strategically in military and economic fields. Drifting away from western allies due to their conflict with India, China is Pakistan's only hope for military stability and economic cooperation.

Small countries can't design international policy but can participate on a selective basis. Many countries are already trading partners of China, and have gone to Beijing to maintain protocol and enjoy the Chinese hospitality. Rightly so, they need not be unnecessarily enthusiastic in big power play. Connectivity in the name of Silk Route revival, encompassing all modes of communication for goods and services, is the latest sign that China is rising.


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