China’s Belt & Road takes wings in Central Asia

Karakorum mountain with Indus river in Gilgit-Baltistan where Pakistan kickstarted construction work on the Daimer-Bhasha Dam, July 13, 2020

To borrow the words of Mark Twain, rumours about the death of the Belt and Road Initiative are greatly exaggerated. The Indian and American analysts living in ivory towers have been in a tizzy with excitement that the infant they would have loved to throttle in the cradle might be about to die a sudden death at the hands of a medieval virus. They refused to be persuaded by Chinese statements that on the contrary, the BRI holds the potential to lead a post-COVID-19 ‘Marshall Plan’ for global recovery. 

The Chinese logic runs like this: ‘The BRI vision is pegged on connectivity and has the capacity to be enlarged and strengthened to help the world economy to get out of the recession. China, as the main sponsor of the BRI framework has strengths such as its vast manufacturing base, organisational excellence, infrastructure capacity and financial markets that are supported by the world’s largest consumer market and connectivity across Afro-Eurasia. On the other hand, the BRI-linked development banks are in a position to play a critical role in financing and mobilising resources for the global recovery. Therefore, BRI can act like the Marshall Plan did, in getting people back to work, getting food on the table, making sure that people are being paid, that they have jobs to do, and that infrastructure to be built.’

The debate over the BRI’s future ended when Pakistan announced last Monday that China is stepping in to fund the Diamer-Bhasha Dam, which comes with an astounding price tag anywhere between $8.5 billion to $14 billion. The 200-square-kilometer reservoir, after an eight-year construction period, would provide 4500 MW of electricity for Pakistan’s national grid. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank had earlier refused to fund the project due to India’s objection that it is located in the Gilgit-Baltistan region.

China will most likely fund the bulk of project costs, as well as provide 17,000 workers from the Three Gorges Dam Project. A Chinese company will likely be in charge of construction. The project has many engineering challenges, including relocating 100 kms of the Karakorum highway. There is a high probability that the project will be brought under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Imran Khan kicked off the construction work. 

Meanwhile, through the past one-month period, Pakistan and China also signed deals under the BRI for two other hydro-power generation projects costing $3.9 billion in the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir region, and another $7.2 billion BRI project to revamp the Pakistani railways. All in all, the project costs being undertaken by China in Pakistan added up to anywhere near $25 billion. Clearly, the CPEC is raring to go after a perceptible slowdown in the most recent years after Imran Khan came to power. 

Against the above backdrop, Beijing has taken a significant foreign policy initiative to create a platform of cooperation between China and the five Central Asian states, which amongst other things will galvanise the BRI projects in the region. The format is called ‘China + Central Asia’ or ‘C+C5’. The first meeting of the C+C5 took the form of a videoconference on July 16. 

In his opening remarks, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed the establishment of “a ‘fast track’ for personnel exchange and a ‘green lane’ for cargo shipment to ensure the safe and stable functioning of regional industrial and supply chains.” Wang said, “To promote regional connectivity, a transportation route running through Central Asia should be gradually put in place. Cross-border e-commerce should also be expanded and the development of a digital Silk Road accelerated.” 

“China calls for the early establishment of a cooperation mechanism to protect the safety and security of major Belt and Road projects to ensure the safe and smooth progress of important cross-border infrastructure projects. Peace talks should be encouraged to advance peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan,” Wang said.  

The C+C5 meeting reached a nine-point consensus on cooperation for peace and development in the region. It decided that “more efforts will be made to synergise the Belt and Road Initiative and the development strategy of Central Asian countries, expand trade and provide more common ideas and concrete actions on the development of a ‘Silk Road of heath’ and the digital Silk Road.” 

Furthermore, China and the Central Asian states will “support building connectivity partnerships. They will further discuss the establishment of more much needed cross-border corridors. They will contribute to Central Asia’s role as an important transport hub for the Eurasian continent.” 

Interestingly, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in a phone conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on July 17 briefed the latter about  the results of the C+C5 videoconference. 

With the Chinese economy’s rebound, BRI is taking wings in Central Asia. One obvious vector of the regional strategy could be that China is preparing for a post-settlement Afghanistan. Significantly, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson remarked on July 16, “China supports the extension of CPEC to Afghanistan, which will bring more BRI benefits to the Afghan people. China is pleased to see Gwadar port plays a positive role in this process and stands ready to work together with Pakistan and Afghanistan in this regard.” 

It is entirely conceivable that China hopes to develop direct transportation routes via the Central Asian region to Iran and the Persian Gulf. Such a regional connectivity grid can provide underpinning to the China-Iran Strategic Partnership agreement that is reportedly under negotiation, where the highlight is Iran’s participation in the BRI.