Comment - Fissures beneath One Belt initiative

AT a time when the West is building walls, the East is constructing gateways to embrace globalisation through the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative.

Retracing ancient silk and spice trade routes, OBOR seeks to reopen economic corridors and re-energise the commercialism that once drew principalities to the Middle Kingdom.

Beijing's endgame is a pan-Asia sphere of common prosperity linked by bullet trains and super tankers.

The integrated economic zone has the potential to positively impact a third of the world's population dwarfing even the Marshall Plan.

This grand vision may be seen as the magnification and internationalisation of President Xi Jinping's China Dream into the Asian Dream. This is as much a dispensation of Chinese soft power as it is a projection of geopolitical sway to restore China's pre-eminence.

For some, the markings of a modern metamorphoses of the ancient China tributary system are unmistakable, as Beijing reclaims the suzerain role, commanding deference and allegiance from the peripheral vassal states.

Clearly this geopolitical reconfiguration is not going unchallenged.

The Obama administration's Pivot to Asia centred on the now debunked TPPA (Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement) was the US containment strategy.

And as the Trump presidency flexes its muscle, this rebalancing of power could take on a military dimension.

Not unexpectedly, a more assertive China is also causing discomfit among Asian countries.

Adhering to its longstanding strategic policy of maintaining equidistance, Singapore for example, is finding it increasingly difficult to stay above the fray.

In the case of Myanmar, a proposed highway traversing the full length of the country, granting landlocked Yunnan province direct access to the Bay of Bengal, has stirred apprehensions over issues of national security and sovereignty.

If unchecked, these concerns can prove to be detrimental to Beijing's aspiration to engineer a pan Asia commonwealth.

Sure, Chinese leadership is vital but will this exact a cost on self-governance and independence? Could the suzerain-vassal relationship become so lopsided as to compromise the latter's autonomy?

Now, these fears also extend into the cultural domain. Will a resurgent China, like the West, seek to impose its values and norms upon the rest of the world?
Lucian Pye, the American sinologist, once mused that modern China is a civilisation pretending to be a state.

Among others, Pye's perceptivity draws attention to the distinct ethnic cultural underpinnings of the Chinese world order, namely, Han Confucianism.

Indeed, as German philosopher Karl Jasper called the Axial Age traditions, the Confucians conceive themselves as champions of the Ways of Heaven, espousing principles that are universal, efficacious for all humankind.

The Confucius Institute project can be taken as contemporary China's cultural outreach to the world. Critics, however, decry these state-sponsored institutions as Trojan horses propagating illiberal Chinese ideologies.

Beijing has reiterated its commitment to a peaceful pursuit of a harmonious co-existence of all peoples and cultures. These idealistic reassurances notwithstanding, the situation on the ground remains complex and precarious.

The OBOR initiative not only covers a vast geography but criss-crosses fragile civilisational terrain, laden with ethnic and cultural pitfalls. Along the Western frontier, the historical Silk Road, once beset by bandits, is today vexed by Islamic militancy.

At the opposite end along the eastern shores, deep-seated animosities between the Chinese and their Japanese and Vietnamese neighbours have often fomented fervid expressions of ethnic nationalism.

Though conferred with strong diplomatic ties, the Sino-Malaysia alliance is not immune from these predicaments. China's engagement with Malaysia calls for cross-cultural and interreligious acumen.

This task is complicated by the presence of a sizeable Chinese minority whose relationship with the Malay majority has at times become mired in antipathy.

It is an edgy co-existence that can have a bearing one way or another upon diplomatic relations.

How China chooses to respond to overseas Chinese affairs in general and the Malaysia episode in particular, remains a matter of international diplomacy and politics.

Any overreach could have transnational repercussions, straining bilateral ties and undermining the OBOR initiatives.

Across continental and maritime Asia are civilisational fault-lines that could unravel China's ambitious vision of common prosperity.

That said, economics is not an utter subject of ethno-cultural vicissitudes. In some instances, the former can transcend and influence the latter, and Malaysia may be a case in point.

If administered judiciously, the inflow of China's capital can generate economic uplifts that could ameliorate the fragile communal fabric in Malaysia. Needless to say, the converse is also true. China's mercantilism, if ruthlessly pursued, could aggravate the intricate race relations.

To recap, China's flagship OBOR initiative – primarily an economic master plan – is also infused with geopolitical significance and civilisational ramifications.

Xi Jingping's dream is an audacious one, with much at stake for China and the rest of Asia.

If successful, this grand vision could herald a golden era of prosperity and harmony, across Asia and beyond.

Any missteps, however, could have transnational fallouts far exceeding mere economics, with reverberations rippling across the geopolitical and civilisational landscape.

Peter T. C. Chang is a senior lecturer with the Institute of China Studies, University of Malaya. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com