The civilisational fissures beneath China’s OBOR ― Peter Chang

JANUARY 25 ― Just as the Euro-American world grapples with the sombre aftereffects of Brexit and the installation of a pugnacious Trump Presidency, the Asian milieu is becoming transfixed with the anticipations and allures of OBOR. And at a time when the West is building walls in an inward retreat, the East is constructing gateways in an outward advance, to embrace globalisation, through the One Belt One Road initiative, the brainchild of President Xi Jinping.

Retracing the ancient silk and spice trade routes, OBOR seeks to reopen the economic corridors and reenergise the commercialism that once drew principalities near and far to the Middle Kingdom. Beijing’s endgame is to superstruct a pan-Asia sphere of common prosperity, stringing together the celebrated Marco Polo’s adventures and Zheng He’s expeditions, across land and seas, all at once, this time deploying bullet trains and super tankers.

If actualised, the OBOR initiative will become an integrated economic zone unprecedented in scale, with the potential to positively impact a third of the world’s population, dwarfing the often compared to US Marshall Plan.

This grand vision may be seen as the magnification and internationalisation of Xi Jinping’s China Dream into the Asian Dream. To be sure this is as much a dispensation of Chinese soft power as it is a projection of geopolitical sway, to restore China’s regional if not global preeminence. 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, not least by the incumbent superpower, America. The Obama Administration’s Pivot to Asia, centred on the now debunked TPPA was the US containment strategy. And as the newly inaugurated Trump Presidency flexes its muscle, this rebalancing of power could take on a military dimension, to wit, the contested waters of the South China seas.

Not unexpectedly, a more assertive China is also causing discomfit among the Asian member states. Adhering to the longstanding strategic policy of maintaining equidistance, Singapore for example, is finding it increasingly difficult to stay above the fray. In the case of next-door neighbour Myanmar, a proposed highway traversing the full length of the country, granting landlocked Yunnan province direct access to the open seas, namely, 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 an unduly 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 one of what the 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 present day Confucius Institute project can be taken as contemporary China cultural outreach to the world at large. Critics however, especially those in the West, descried these state sponsored institutions as Trojan horses propagating illiberal Chinese ideologies.

Disconcerted with the perceived misconstrue of its motive, Beijing has reiterated its commitment to a peaceful rise and pursuit of a harmonious co-existence of all peoples and cultures. These idealistic reassurances notwithstanding, situations on the ground remain complex and precarious.

As it is, the OBOR initiative not only covers a vast geography but crisscrosses fragile civilisational terrains, laden with ethnic and cultural pitfalls. Along the Western frontier, the historical silk road, once beset by maundering bandits, is today vexed by brewing Islamic militancy. Then at the opposite end along the eastern shores, deep seated animosities between the Chinese and their Japanese and Vietnamese neighbours have often times fomented fervid expression of ethnic nationalism.

Though conferred with strong diplomatic ties, the Sino-Malaysia alliance is not immune from these predicaments. At the outset, China’s engagement with Malaysia, a predominantly Malay and Islamic country, calls for, at best, cross-cultural and interreligious acumen. Now this task is in fact complicated by the presence of a sizable Chinese minority whose relationship with the Malay majority has at times become mired in antipathy. An edgy co-existence that can have bearing, one way or another, upon the Beijing and Kuala Lumpur diplomatic relations.

How the PRC chooses to respond to the overseas Chinese affairs in general and the Malaysia episode in particular, remains a delicate matter of international diplomacy and politics. Any overreach on the part of Beijing could have transnational repercussions, straining bilateral ties and on the subject at hand, undermining the OBOR initiatives.

Indeed, diffused across continental and maritime Asia are civilisational fault-lines that could unravel China’s ambitious vision of common prosperity. That said, economic 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 current 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 already intricate Chinese Malay race relations.

To recap, primarily an economic master plan, China’s flagship OBOR initiative is also infused with geopolitical significance and civilisational ramifications. Though not beyond the bounds, Xi Jingping’s dream is an audacious one, with much at stake for both China and the rest of Asia.

If successful, this grand vision could herald in 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, not excluding the delicate Malaysian terrains.

*This is the personal opinion of the writer or organisation and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

**Peter Chang is a senior lecturer at the Institute of China Studies (ICS), University of Malaya.

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