China’s building roads in South Asia, but can it build bridges?

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Since 2013 Beijing has worked diligently to develop the Belt and Road Initiative as a win-win project capable of transcending adversarial diplomatic relationships. Its success will depend heavily on decreasing regional hositilities.

The BRI is not a one-way street. China has practically fulfilled the high-growth potential of its domestic economy. To prosper further, it must create symbiotic relationships with populous emerging economies in need of the ambitious levels of Chinese-financed infrastructural investment envisioned by the BRI. It must also persuade sceptics that the BRI is not a debt trap or the cover story of a dark strategic agenda.

These dynamics, along with China’s need for stability in its restive southwest province of Xinjiang, has driven its recent efforts to cool diplomatic tempers in South Asia.

China has played an important behind-the-scenes role in persuading India to resume a security-focused dialogue with Pakistan for the first since 2016. The Indian Subcontinent’s nuclear-armed foes have agreed to reinstate a 2003 ceasefire in Kashmir, in order to prevent two years of intense skirmishes from spiralling into yet another conflict.

This tentative but important understanding echoes the detente achieved by Xi and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an informal summit in April, held to resolve the bilateral tensions aroused by a nerve-wracking military standoff in Bhutan last year.

Their sessions in Wuhan coincided with the resumption of informal Track 2 dialogue between Pakistani and Indian representatives, following unannounced talks between the national security advisers of the two countries.

Last weekend, Xi brought together Modi and Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain for an optically important handshake at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Qingdao. By playing the peacemaking host of a major multilateral summit, Xi reinforced his message that common security interests, linked as they are to the economic connectivity of the BRI, could serve as a powerful motivation for regional rivals to behave less provocatively.

By inference, Xi pressed his case that China-led multilateral platforms, whether the BRI or SCO, are a constructive alternative to the confrontational narratives of unilateralist politicians like the US President, Donald Trump.

This was further emphasised by the Chinese diplomatic efforts which last month led Afghanistan and Pakistan to resume full state-to-state relations. Their usually cordial, if strained, ties had descended into hostility after direct peace talks with the Taliban in Islamabad in 2015 were scuttled by Kabul’s lack of discretion.

Encouraged by US President Donald Trump’s administration, the Afghan government subsequently formed a diplomatic tag-team with India to bash Pakistan over the issue of cross border terrorism at multilateral forums.

Amid intense US pressure on key ally Pakistan, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi intervened last December to set into motion a diplomatic process which has yielded the first temporary suspension of fighting in Afghanistan since the US invasion of 2001.

Although only a testing of the waters, the forthcoming Eid-long ceasefire between Kabul and the Taliban has sounded an unanticipated note of optimism about an unrelenting war.

China’s initiative in Afghanistan is remarkable in that has it attracted no opposition. The US has long wanted regional powers to play a role in finding a political settlement there, and it worked with China to co-arrange the abortive 2015 dialogue in Islamabad.

It has also presented Pakistan and Afghanistan with an opportunity to strike a balance in their relationship from which they and other regional partners, including China and India, stand to benefit.

China wants to create a hub in Afghanistan between CPEC and another major BRI route flowing south through the Caspian region into Iran and on to Turkey.

At the Wuhan summit, Xi and Modi rejuvenated the concept of Afghanistan as a trade and energy corridor by agreeing to a joint India-China development project in Afghanistan. It would be executed outside the aegis of the BRI, as a quid-pro-quo for India muting its criticism of the project.

Modi’s softened stance at the SCO summit has fed suggestions that India’s planned trade corridor to Eurasia, via Iran and Afghanistan, could compliment the connectivity of the BRI routes.

This suggests China may succeed in persuading Pakistan that India’s economic involvement in Afghanistan would not threaten its interests if it were to happen alongside an extension of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – the BRI’s showcase project connecting Kashgar to the Arabian Sea port of Gwadar.

This contrasts starkly with the vintage US vision of a corridor which would benefit its giant energy corporations and allied countries, while excluding adversaries like Russia and Iran.

China has made inroads in South Asia by giving its word that the prime motivation for the BRI is economic and inclusive in character. The success of projects like CPEC are crucial to persuading more countries to embrace Xi’s brainchild.

China’s emergent role as an honest diplomatic broker in a highly polarised region entails significant risks, as demonstrated by the Trump administration’s decision to impose harsh unilateral sanctions upon Iran.

But where others see risk, China senses opportunity.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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