Access to commodities and energy sources, control over significant markets and the need to organize highly competitive and cross-border value chains—in all these cases, China is gaining the upper hand. Wherever the West has been retreating, China has quickly moved in. The question is of course whether there will be any space left for India. How will the Indian economy be able to move up into higher-value segments of global value chains if it turns around and sees many of its fast-growing neighbours already incorporated into a China-led economic network?
By investing in the Iranian port of Chabahar, India may hope to prevent an outcome where it finds itself isolated from the growing economies on its doorstep, but the limited scale of the project offers a vivid contrast to the mammoth scale of the Belt and Road. As opposed to Chabahar, the Chinese-led initiative is designed to fundamentally change global networks and move China to the centre of a new political and economic order. Nor is the issue strictly confined to economic power and rivalry. For many commentators in South and Southeast Asia, the Belt and Road is an opportunity for China to entrench its naval presence in the Indian Ocean, as its state-owned companies build dual-use ports that berth its cargo ships and military vessels, and open its first overseas bases in places such as Djibouti, and perhaps Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
In a world where China and the United States will compete for control over key technologies, India risks becoming the market where the outcome of that battle will be in large measure decided, but no more than that. A territory rather than an actor. With its population soon to overcome that of China—and boosting an expanding middle class—India will be a coveted market for Chinese and American companies.
Can it leverage that prize into political and economic influence and, if so, how should this influence be exercised? An awareness of how the United States and China both need India to realise their plans may well explain why Indian decision-makers prefer to dither and delay rather than provide clear guidance as to their role in the great game. Much can be gained by negotiating with both sides at once. But the hesitation is also connected to genuine strategic alienation. It is difficult to think that India could feel at home in the Chinese world order described in this book, but has it ever felt part of the Western order as it was understood for the past seven decades?
It is not surprising, then, that many in Delhi regard the Belt and Road more as an opportunity than a threat. In this scenario, global power would be shared between four or five major powers: America, Europe, Russia, China and, presumably, India. Starting from behind, India would have to play its cards well, but nothing in the nature of things would prevent it from becoming a power at least equal to a declining Russia. Just like Russia, India would come to terms with the Belt and Road. Nations are better seen as intersecting stories and power the ability to determine where the story goes next.
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Even in its formative stage the Belt and Road is an exercise in the opacity of power. There is an exoteric doctrine of the initiative and then an esoteric practice where deals are agreed upon, often with no written evidence, and where hierarchy resembles that of security-clearance levels of access.
The Belt and Road is like holy writ—never revealed completely and all at once, but only bit by bit and over many decades. Rapid change, old-fashioned morality, and secret communication. This will be a world of soothsayers, saints, and spooks. The Belt and Road may well never realize its goals. It may be abandoned as it runs into problems and the goals it sets out to achieve recede further into the distance. But success and failure are to be measured in terms of these goals, so we must start from them.
The new world the initiative will try to create is not one where one piece on the chessboard will be replaced, not even one where the pieces will have been reorganized. It will be a world built anew by very different people and according to very different ideas. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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Sign up here. Most Popular. Greta: the voice of climate activism who says 'don't listen to me' Sean Fleming 23 Sep More on the agenda. What will the world look like after the Belt and Road? There will be new infrastructure, of course, and that will be an obvious and easy metric of success.
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In twenty or thirty years some of the new Belt and Road projects will likely stand as the highest example of what human ingenuity can achieve in its drive to master natural forces. A bridge crossing the Caspian Sea may make road transport between Europe and China fast and easy, changing old mental maps separating continents.
But infrastructure is ultimately a means. Artificial intelligence, robotics, genetic engineering and space exploration. As it expands, the Belt and Road is bound to become increasingly futuristic. Self-driving vehicles on land, sea and air and trillions of connected devices worldwide will be empowered by a Belt, Road and Space fleet of China-centered satellites.
Chinese companies are already planning to engage in deep-space economic activity, like building orbit solar power plants, and mining asteroids and the moon.
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One or more Sputnik moments - when Chinese technology leaps far ahead of what the West can do - will offer the final and most meaningful metric of success for the Belt and Road. The Belt and Road will never become universal—just as the West never became universal—but in some areas of the world it will rule unimpeded and different shades of influence will be felt everywhere.
The problem is to determine the core of the new Chinese world picture and identify the main traits which it will come to impress upon the whole. Many of those traits are already visible in what is but the construction stage of the Belt and Road. Virtues are regularly invoked. Countries have relations of dependence, generosity, gratitude, respect and retribution.
Relations between countries are much more diverse and complex than in the more formal Western-led order. Ritual is important, and so is history. Nations are better seen as intersecting stories and power the ability to determine where the story goes next.