Cheque book diplomacy

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Cheque book diplomacy

Thursday, 03 October 2019 | Bhopinder Singh

Cheque book diplomacy

China’s ability to impress upon nations the benefits of joining its bloc is not unknown. Counter-moves like the Quad need to be strengthened

The Chinese have either deployed “intimidation” or their famed cheque book diplomacy to “win” over other nations towards their own purposes. Both as an undisputed military and an economic powerhouse, the options for Beijing vary from flexing its military muscle (as done in the South China Seas) or by ensnaring nations into economic bondage by pouring billions of dollars. Take the example of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), where a nation-sustaining investment of up to $60 billion has been made to Pakistan, whose economy is cash-starved today. Often, there is a hybrid model in between that entails the overlapping of the commercial-military footprint through strategic investments by China.

The attempt to stitch together Chinese presence along the crucial sea routes, pursuant to the “String of Pearls” policy, is an ostensibly commercial initiative, one that will subsequently evolve into the invariable presence of Chinese military’s boots on civilian ports such as Djibouti. Wherever physical distance still challenges the Chinese “supply chain abilities” to maintain a viable military presence, it can dominate the narrative by out-funding other donor nations or organisations and champion these distant lands, such as in the African hinterland or Latin America.

By punting in these distant lands, not only does Beijing sustain captive sources for raw materials and a ready market for its Chinese end-products but also guarantees invaluable political and diplomatic influence. The importance of having such beholden nations can be gauged from the fact that in the high tables of international diplomacy, like the United Nations, each country’s vote counts as “one.” This theoretically makes the vote of a country like Nauru, that has a population of less than 15,000 people, matter as much as that of China with a population of 1.5 billion.

One global theatre that was spared the Chinese radar of urgency was the island region of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia in the Pacific Ocean. The sheer distance, fragmentation and “non-threatening” idyll of these small island nations ensured an isolated tropical paradise that was bereft of any major geo-political or geo-strategic posturing till now. In an increasingly interdependent and interconnected global waterway of the 21st century, three factors have driven a sudden interest in this region of less than 2.5 million inhabitants.

First, the growing domestic aspirations within these nations. Second, the strategic relevance of individual nation “vote” in multilateral fora. And third, with increasing reach of the Chinese military-economic might, these nations offer a breakout opportunity from the supposed “encirclement” of China, pitchforking these island nations into the competitive calculus of Chinese hegemonic instincts. Even these nations are creatively leveraging their geographical position to “counter-balance” the predominant and historical Australian tilt and influence in this region to extract the maximum attention and benefit of competitive bidding among regional powers.

However, among the foremost considerations for  Chinese diplomacy is also the need to isolate and “compress” Taiwan internationally by “winning over” those nations that still recognise its official status. This ongoing Chinese concern and project to get nations to switch sides on the Taiwan issue has accelerated in recent times.  A record seven countries switched sides since 2016.

These Pacific island nations have historically held a pro-Taiwan position and they had made a sizeable part of the 25-odd countries that recognised it till recently. Today the number to do so is a mere 15 countries. The latest ones to fall prey to the Chinese “buyout” were the Solomon Islands and Kiribati, who were openly assured of “unprecedented development opportunities” in order to grease the deal. The then Prime Minister of Solomon Islands was candid enough to admit that Taiwan was “completely useless to us”, both politically and economically.

As part of the “switchover” conditions, Kiribati had to sever ties with Taiwan and re-establish diplomatic relations with China. Meanwhile, credible  rumours abound in Kiribati about the Chinese largesse in the pipeline, which includes very soft loans and a Boeing 737 to boot. The Taiwanese are left high and dry, fuming at the obvious play of the Chinese cheque-book diplomacy that brooks no moral, historical or positional consideration.

Traditional dominance of former colonial powers, like Australia, the US, France, New Zealand and Japan in the region, is increasingly diminished as the Chinese go about hunting one nation after the other. Beijing’s flush treasury comes handy as does the dispatch of an occasional bomber flying overhead these hapless countries.

The Chinese footprint is visible in the under-developed oilfields of Sudan and as  investment in freight train infrastructure in Bolivia. Now the Pacific Island countries are its new domain of attention. All eyes are now in the neighbouring rim of the remaining Taiwanese allies in Palau, Tuvalu, Nauru and Marshall Islands to see if they, too, would be enticed or coerced into abandoning Taipei and joining the Chinese “bloc.”

That the Chinese “generosity” never comes without strings attached is something that these nation states will invariably discover. The Sri Lankan experience with Chinese investments to develop the Hambantota Port  ultimately led to the surrender of the same to Chinese authorities for a lease of 99 years. The Chinese bankrolling was also able to overturn the Filipino bitterness that had earlier led Manila to lodge a case against China in the International Court of Justice and win the same. Almost immediately, the Philippines Government incredulously embraced the Chinese hand and reneged on its historical relationship with the US.

Expectedly, large sums of Chinese investments were assured and all portents of traditional animosity buried. In recessionary times like now, where cash is the king, the ability of China to impress the benefits of joining its “bloc” via gargantuan carrots like the “Belt and Road Initiative” are immense. This allows it the freedom to indulge in profligate chequebook diplomacy that wins it an ever-increasing kitty of vassal nations to do its bidding.

Counter-moves like the Quadrilateral meet (QUAD), enjoining the China-wary nations like Japan, Australia, India and the US, have yet to go beyond the conceptual framework and discussions as the transactional dragon ensnares all, anyhow and anywhere.

(The writer, a military veteran, is a former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry)

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