Silk Road plan stirs unease over China’s strategic goals

Silk Road plan stirs unease over China’s strategic goals

The Associated Press

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 says the region, home to 60 percent of the world’s people, needs more than U.S. $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. Governments from Washington to Moscow to New Delhi, however, 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,” said India’s Finance and Defense Minister Arun Jaitley, at an Asian Development Bank meeting in Yokohama, Japan.

American officials say Washington wants to work with China on infrastructure. Some diplomats and political analysts, however, say Beijing is trying to create a political and economic network centered on China and rewrite rules on trade and security.

At a U.S. Senate hearing on global threats, Dan Coats, the U.S. director of national intelligence, identified the Silk Road strategy as part of a pattern of aggressive Chinese investments around the world.

“They clearly have a strategy, through their investments,” Coats said. “You name a part of the world, the Chinese are probably there, looking to put investments in.”

Dubbed “One Belt, One Road” after ancient trade routes through the Indian Ocean and Central Asia, the initiative is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature project. Details such as financing are vague. Since Xi announced the initiative 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. (Pictured: Workers walk past a billboard showing pictures of Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, with Pakistan’s President Mamnoon Hussain, left, and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during a two-day visit by the Chinese president to launch a U.S. $45 billion economic corridor linking Pakistan’s port city of Gwadar with western China.)

“One Belt, One Road” is the biggest of a series of initiatives launched by Beijing in the past decade in pursuit of global influence to match its economic success.

Starting in 2004, the communist government opened Confucius Institutes with universities in Asia, Europe and the Americas to teach Chinese language and culture. After the 2008 global crisis, Beijing lobbied successfully for more voting rights in the U.S.- and European-dominated World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Chinese officials reject suggestions that “One Belt, One Road” is a power play by Beijing.

“The Chinese government has never wished to control any other country’s government,” a Cabinet official, Ou Xiaoli, told the AP. The bulk of Chinese financing will be loans, which Ou said will be mostly on commercial terms based on market principles. That might add to debt burdens in countries where dealing with Beijing can be politically sensitive.

Sri Lanka’s former president suffered a surprise election defeat in 2015 after his challenger criticized him for running up an estimated U.S. $5 billion in debt to China. Villagers protesting a U.S. $1.2 billion Chinese port project there violently clashed with government supporters as recently as January 2017.