What is the China narrative on BRI, on Pakistan or the South China Sea (SCS)? SNI caught up in Delhi with Prof. Zhu Feng of Nanjing University, to get a sense of how China sees these issues, shorn of the diplomatic verbiage that accompanies official commentaries.
We began with the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), seen as President Xi Jinping’s landmark vision for China. Prof. Zhu personally believes BRI is not such a big deal as it is made out to be. In his view, the money being spent on BRI projects all over the world could be better spent at home. But he also accepts that BRI is an expression of China’s inherent mercantilist outlook, which sees opportunities in seamless connectivity.
What about BRI and India? Again in his view, China’s security is better served if India is outside the BRI. Why is that? “Because BRI will help India improve and upgrade its border infrastructure, which is not in China’s interest!”
His is a minority view, he acknowledges, and not a very popular one. His views on Pakistan also diverge from the official public stand: Islamic extremism in Pakistan is spreading and is of growing concern in Beijing’s inner circles, he says. This is a change from some time ago when Beijing saw Pakistan as a useful strategic tool against India.
If his view is not that popular, why should the Chinese government include him in an official delegation that was in Delhi earlier this week? Prof. Zhu is a specialist on the South China Sea and at a time when Beijing’s muscle-flexing in those seas is being increasingly challenged by the West, Zhu provides a narrative to counter the Western view that the SCS is not China’s.
“The South China Sea has always been a part of China,” he insists, “Japan occupied the islands in the SCS in the late 19th century but it has always been China’s. There is nothing wrong with the nine-dash-line, this is China’s territory and it will be defended.”
Prof. Zhu says there is no territorial dispute between the U.S. and China in the SCS. “Yet the U.S. Navy has carried out four freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in our backyard. It sees the SCS as a great power game and is using military pressure to scare China off. De-escalation will not happen because essentially, the U.S.-China wrestling is not about trade but U.S. concern that China will eventually put U.S. predominance in jeopardy.”
Trade and technology are not strategic, he argues, but politics has come into technology adding a new edge to the competition.
He accused the U.S. of manipulating the UNCLOS (UN Conference on the Laws of the Sea) to put China in a bad light. China, he claimed, is not a rule breaker but “upholds the rules based order”.
We come back to India and the million dollar question: Which side would India go with? “India is seen as closer to the U.S. because of the English language, political system and so on,” said Prof. Zhu, “but India should come to a decision weighing the geo-political and geo-economic future of the world. India should choose to side with China.”
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