Has Democracy Lost Its Charm?

Determining the success of the Belt and Road Initiative in South Asia boils down to two key questions: Do recipient countries see it as beneficial, politically or economically? And, has the BRI helped these countries advance their own domestic agendas?

5 mins read
Wan Chai, Hong Kong SAR [Joseph Chan/ Unsplash]

HAS BIPOLARITY REPLACED MULTIPOLARITY?

The world appears to be preoccupied with the loss of multipolarity and the division of bipolarity between the “limitless” friendship of Russia and China. This bipolarity, some critics think, is to demonstrate the superiority of authoritarianism over democracy. To understand the reasons for the attraction to authoritarianism even those countries understand its evil connotation many emerging economies have embraced it mainly because of the quick delivery of essentials to the needy compared to the promise of democracy.  

ROAD AND BELT INITIATIVE OF CHINA

A case in point is the Road and Belt Initiative of China. In an article, Franziska and Elizabeth Kaufman spoke of the initial stage of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In 2013, they said, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a major undertaking, named initially as the One Belt and One Road Initiative and later referred to as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), to support better connectivity in the Asian, European, and African continents. Often referred to as the ‘New Silk Road’, the BRI revives the idea of the ancient Silk Road, which describes traditional trading routes spanning across China, the Asian continent, the Middle East, and Europe.  They added that The BRI is not a single megaproject but a continuously growing initiative with a large portfolio of projects for (1) rail, road, sea and airport infrastructure, (2) power and water infrastructure, (3) real estate contracts and, more recently, (4) digital infrastructure. For these projects to be realized, the BRI builds on an increasing institutionalized, contractual, and structured cooperation between China and other states. The research provides a comprehensive overview of the influence the BRI already has in Europe and the diversity of these bilateral relationships.

ROAD AND BELT INITIATIVE AND SOUTH ASIA

The Council of Foreign Relations in ( June 2022) elucidated that  China and the Belt and Road Initiative in South Asia China and the Belt and Road Initiative in South Asia.  To support its allies and partners in South Asia, the United States should assist South Asian countries in assessing the Belt and Road Initiative’s risks and benefits. The Council added that Over the next decade, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) became a gigantic infrastructure, trade, and connectivity project, spreading beyond Eurasia and Southeast Asia to regions such as South Asia, the Middle East, and many parts of Africa. Some China watchers argued that the BRI is China’s updated and planned grand strategic vision of its historical Middle Kingdom hierarchy—China centered on a global network of connectivity where all roads (territorial and maritime) lead to Beijing.

SHOULD COUNTRIES EMBRACE OF CHINA  BEWARE OF THE “CHINESE DEBT TRAP”?

 Others worried that the BRI is China’s strategic plan to gain geopolitical power by making smaller and weaker countries beholden to it indefinitely. Still, others cautioned that the BRI, far from being a monolithic and well-planned-out vision, is deeply fragmented by domestic interests, diluting its effectiveness as a unified grand strategy. These arguments evaluate whether the BRI is a success or failure for China—that is, whether the BRI strengthens China’s geopolitical status and brings it economic benefits. Those factors are important, but they are China-centric. In the end, success also depends on a more neglected consideration—the recipient countries’ perceptions of China and their reception of the BRI. The success or failure of the Belt and Road Initiative in South Asia can be determined by asking two questions. First, do recipient countries view the BRI as a positive Chinese initiative that brings significant benefits, either political or economic? The BRI and China are seen as synonymous, so positive views of the BRI can not only boost positive views of China but, in theory, also make recipient countries amenable to further cooperation with China. Second, has the recipient country been able to manage the BRI to advance its own domestic agenda? If recipient countries see the BRI as advancing their stated political or economic goals, then they are likely to continue to welcome expanded Chinese investment.

Conversely, if they view the BRI as either not delivering on the promise of economic benefits or as leading to significant political side effects, then it can give recipient countries pause. In the long run, this could affect further cooperation with the BRI and China. In South Asia, even if a recipient country sees the BRI and China positively, it has not necessarily also been able to manage the BRI to its satisfaction. Pakistan is one example. Then again, even when the BRI and China are viewed negatively, such as in India, the government has been able to use the specter of the BRI to advance other interests. The lesson for the United States is that if it seeks to curb China’s influence in South Asia, it should pay attention to how potential recipients of this largesse respond to China and the BRI.  

CAN THE US MATCH CHINESE BRI INVESTMENT IN SOUTH ASIA?

The United States cannot match the BRI’s investments in South Asia, but it can support South Asian countries choosing to cooperate with China, as well as India, the dominant power in the region. The Council added that to support its allies and partners in South Asia, the United States should assist South Asian countries in assessing the Belt and Road Initiative’s risks and benefits.

Over the next decade, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) became a gigantic infrastructure, trade, and connectivity project, spreading beyond Eurasia and Southeast Asia to regions such as South Asia, the Middle East, and many parts of Africa. Some China watchers argued that the BRI is China’s updated and planned grand strategic vision of its historical Middle Kingdom hierarchy—China centered on a global network of connectivity where all roads (territorial and maritime) lead to Beijing.

Others worried that the BRI is China’s strategic plan to gain geopolitical power by making smaller and weaker countries beholden to it indefinitely. Still, others cautioned that the BRI, far from being a monolithic and well-planned-out vision, is deeply fragmented by domestic interests, diluting its effectiveness as a unified grand strategy. These arguments evaluate whether the BRI is a success or failure for China—that is, whether the BRI strengthens China’s geopolitical status and brings it economic benefits. Those factors are important, but they are China-centric. In the end, success also depends on a more neglected consideration—the recipient countries’ perceptions of China and their reception of the BRI. 

DETERMINANTS OF BRI INITIATIVE IN SOUTH ASIA

The success or failure of the Belt and Road Initiative in South Asia can be determined by asking two questions. First, do recipient countries view the BRI as a positive Chinese initiative that brings significant benefits, either political or economic? The BRI and China are seen as synonymous, so positive views of the BRI can not only boost positive views of China but, in theory, also make recipient countries amenable to further cooperation with China. Second, has the recipient country been able to manage the BRI to advance its own domestic agenda? If recipient countries see the BRI as advancing their stated political or economic goals, then they are likely to continue to welcome expanded Chinese investment. Conversely, if they view the BRI as either not delivering on the promise of economic benefits or as leading to significant political side effects, then it can give recipient countries pause. In the long run, this could affect further cooperation with the BRI and China.

HOW BRI RECIPIENTS LOOK AT CHINESE STRATEGIC POLICY

In South Asia, even if a recipient country sees the BRI and China positively, it has not necessarily also been able to manage the BRI to its satisfaction. Pakistan is one example. Then again, even when the BRI and China are viewed negatively, such as in India, the government has been able to use the specter of the BRI to advance other interests. The lesson for the United States is that if it seeks to curb China’s influence in South Asia, it should pay attention to how potential recipients of this largesse respond to China and the BRI. The United States cannot match the BRI’s investments in South Asia, but it can support South Asian countries choosing to cooperate with China, as well as India, the dominant power in the region.

Kazi Anwarul Masud

Kazi Anwarul Masud is a retired Bangladeshi diplomat. During his tenure, he worked in several countries as the ambassador of Bangladesh including Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea and Germany

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