Tue, May 16, 2017 - Page 9 News List

‘Silk Road’ plan stirs unease over China’s strategic goals

Since 2013, Beijing has financed dozens of projects from railways to power plants, but some worry that it is trying to erode the existing balance of power and assert its political influence

By Joe McDonald, Munir Ahmed and Gillian Won  /  AP, BEIJING

Illustration: Yusha

In a mountain valley in Kashmir, plans are underway for Chinese engineers guarded by Pakistani forces to expand the lofty Karakoram Highway in a project that is stirring diplomatic friction with India.

The work is part of a sprawling Chinese initiative to build a “new Silk Road” of ports, railways and roads to expand trade in a vast arc of countries across Asia, Africa and Europe.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) says the region, home to 60 percent of the world’s people, needs more than US$26 trillion of such investment by 2030 to keep economies growing.

The initiative is in many ways natural for China, the world’s biggest trader, but governments from Washington to Moscow to New Delhi worry Beijing also is trying to build its own political influence and erode theirs.

Others worry China might undermine human rights, environmental and other standards for lending or leave poor countries burdened with debt.

India is unhappy that Chinese state-owned companies are working in the Pakistani-held part of Kashmir, the Himalayan region claimed by both sides. Indian leaders see that as an endorsement of Pakistani control.

“We have some serious reservations about it, because of sovereignty issues,” Indian Minister of Finance and Defense Arun Jaitley said at an ADB meeting this month in Yokohama, Japan.

China has tried previously to mollify Indian anxiety by saying in January its highway work “targets no third country.”

China’s new Silk Road initiative is ramping up as US President Donald Trump focuses on domestic issues, downplaying foreign affairs.

US officials said Washington wants to work with China on infrastructure, but some diplomats and political analysts say Beijing is trying to create a political and economic network centered on China, push the US out of the region and rewrite rules on trade and security.

“China is trying to change the way the political structure of the region works,” said William Callahan, an international relations specialist at the London School of Economics. “We will have to see whether it can achieve this.”

Trump’s decision to pull out of the proposed 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) deprives China’s neighbors of a tool they hoped would counter its rising influence, said former US ambassador to China Max Baucus, who left Beijing in January.

Baucus called the move a “large geopolitical mistake.”

“Southeast Asian countries would tell me ‘We want you, we want the TPP, then we can balance China with the United States. But when you’re not there, there is a void that China’s going to fill,’” Baucus said.

Dubbed “One Belt, One Road” after ancient trade routes through the Indian Ocean and Central Asia, the initiative is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) signature project.

Details such as financing are vague, but since Xi announced it in 2013, Beijing has launched dozens of projects from railways in Tajikistan, Thailand and Kenya to power plants in Vietnam and Kyrgyzstan, financed mostly by Chinese loans.

Countries including Pakistan and Afghanistan welcome it as a path out of poverty. India, Indonesia and others want investment, but are wary of Chinese strategic ambitions, especially after Beijing started building artificial islands to enforce its claim to most of the South China Sea, a busy trade route.

Indonesia’s political elite have a “fear of regional hegemony” by China, said Christine Tjhin, senior researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta.

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