On 25th September 2020, Takshashila Institution hosted the fifth #DeepWebinar in the China Challenge Series in partnership with Hudson Institute. The session focused on the implications of the #BRI for Asia’s future. It included Ambassador Vijay Gokhle, former Foreign Secretary of India and Dr. John Lee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute as panellists. Aparna Pande, Director, Initiative on the future of India and South Asia at Hudson Institute, anchored the discussion as the host. Bhim Subba(Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Univ. of Hyderabad),Chitra Muthumani(Alumna GCPP) and Nishant Rajeev(Alumni GCPP) joined the #DeepWebinar as discussants, posing thoughtful questions and providing insightful comments.
The conversation began with deliberation on China’s Sino centrism in regard to Belt and Road and its impact and implications for Asia’s future.
First of the panellists to speak Amb. Gokhle remarked that the Belt and Road Initiative is both an economic and strategic project from China and that India’s concerns about the BRI should not be conflated with its concerns about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. He further said that the spread of China’s influence in South Asia is not solely due to the BRI. The Chinese economy is 5 times the size of India, Therefore, China’s rise in influence was to be expected.
Amb. Gokhle elaborated that India provides an alternative model to South Asian nations, that is participative and democratic, unlike the authoritarian, debt-driven Chinese model. COVID-19 has changed the BRI and that China cannot have the same approach to BRI in 2020, as it did in 2019.
The second panellist Dr. John Lee then remarked that the Obama administration was willing to sacrifice American strategic interests in order to secure Chinese cooperation on climate change and other issues. In the process, the US ignored China’s influence in South and Central Asia.
He further elaborated that China does not use just coercion to expand its influence. China provides economic guarantees to smaller, South-East Asain nations, which a liberal world order cannot assure. Thus, despite their scepticism of China, these nations buy into the BRI model.
As opposed to the west’s championed Free and Open Indo-Pacific model where free and fair trade doesn’t guarantee benefits to these countries.
He further opined that RCEP is not a high-quality trade agreement and that Australia doesn’t expect much from the agreement. It joined RCEP because everyone else was joining it.
In response to the first discussant Chitra Muthumani’s question about the role of the quad as a response to BRI. Amb. Gokhle remarked that the Quad is a mechanism like BRICS and that Chinese propaganda is painting it as an Asian NATO in order to justify continuing its naval expansion.
In response to the second discussant Bhim Subba’s question regarding the role of ideology in India’s opposition to the BRI. Amb. Gokhle remarked that India looks at BRI purely economically and strategically. He elaborated that In fact, it is China that looks at India ideologically and sees Indian democracy as a threat.
In response to a question by the third discussant Nishant Rajeev about emerging domestic constituencies in some countries for engagement with China and how can their influence be countered. Amb. Gokhle remarked that it is natural to have them in a democracy, as china gets more economically involved they will also encounter further problems. The only way to deal with internal constituency advocating engagement with China is to do things on the ground and provide a better alternative to what China brings to the table.
In response to a question by the host on the military significance of the BRI, Dr. John Lee remarked that what China is trying to do by building military ports in not unlike what Imperial Japan tried to do. The BRI tries to use economic projects to exert military influence.
The discussion was then concluded with Dr. John Lee opining that there is a need to tailor the Free and Open Indo-Pacific message to highlight resilient economies and supply chains in a post COVID world.
About the Takshashila Institution
The Takshashila Institution is an independent center for research and education in public policy. It is a non-partisan, non-profit organization that advocates the values of freedom, openness, tolerance, pluralism and responsible citizenship. The Takshashila Institution seeks to transform India through better public policies, bridging the governance gap by developing better public servants, civil society leaders, professionals and informed citizens.
About Hudson Institute
Founded in 1961 by strategist Herman Kahn, Hudson Institute challenges conventional thinking and helps manage strategic transitions to the future through interdisciplinary studies in defense, international relations, economics, health care, technology, culture, and law. Hudson guides public policymakers and global leaders in government and business through a vigorous program of publications, conferences, policy briefings, and recommendations.The video of the #DeepWebinar can be assessed on Takshashila Institution’s Youtube Channel.