The Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group in collaboration with the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung organized two public lectures in Kolkata as a part of their ongoing research programme – ‘Social Mapping of Logistics, Infrastructure and India’s Look East Policy’. The public lectures were delivered by S Akbar Zaidi, an eminent economist from Pakistan currently teaching in Columbia Universiy and Kanak Mani Dixit, an eminent journalist from Nepal. The title of Zaidi’s lecture was ‘Has China taken over Pakistan’, while Dixit’s title was ‘Nepal: Gateway into and out of South Asia’. The recent assertion of China in the geopolitics through multiple initiative such as ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) and China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) made the event timely and significant.
S. Akbar Zaidi and Kanak Mani Dixit with Ranabir Samaddar and Paula Banerjee
Zaidi’s lecture revolved around the multiple levels of opinions, hope and apprehensions over the CPEC in Pakistan and how Pakistan figured in the grand plans of China’s endeavour of connectivity, particularly land to sea access. CPEC has been the most talked about issue in Pakistan in recent times, particularly over the last 2 years. It has been envisaged as an initiative which would bring enormous benefits for Pakistan through Chinese investments in logistics, infrastructure, defense, biotechnology, agricultural products etc. The rhetoric used for the CPEC collaboration and the reception of the Chinese president Xi Jinping during his visit to Pakistan indicate the level of enthusiasm about CPEC in Pakistan. Zaidi apprehended that through CPEC, Pakistan is following the tradition of pandering to foreign support and endorsements like it did earlier with the USA and Saudi Arabia. Zaidi pointed out that China and Pakistan have had a cordial relation in the post 1947 period as Pakistan was the first Islamic country to recognize the People’s Republic of China, the Indo-China war of 1962 further closed the ties between the two nations. A major symbolic gesture was practiced by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, finance minister of Pakistan who made the Mao jacket popular in Pakistan. Pakistan has been the third largest buyer of arms from China and received support from China during its Nuclear Programmes. CPEC is supposed to bring in investments worth $46 billion. However the other details of the CPEC are yet to be divulged in public. A leaked document of CPEC published by a reporter in a leading English daily in Pakistan has given the impression that CPEC would involve Chinese hand in almost every sector of Pakistan and would bring the major cities under surveillance and monitoring system. Disseminating Chinese culture through the intellectual community is a major agenda under CPEC. Zaidi cites the figure that around 10,000 Pakistani students are studying in China which is more than the number of Pakistanis studying in the USA. The benefits which are being doled out to Chinese business firms are not being extended to the Pakistan business class, this has led to the fear in Pakistan that the CPEC can well turn out be another East India Company in the making.S. Akbar Zaidi speaking to the audience
Kanak Mani Dixit’s lecture was based on the recent infrastructural expansion in Nepal, particularly through railways connecting China with Nepal through Tibet, and what implications does it have for the Indo Gangetic plains in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Dixit pointed out that railways certainly has its own benefits, but the pertinent question at the moment is how to contain China? He suggested that examples of Chinese involvement and investment elsewhere would help to make an informed strategy. Nepal has a good knowledge about the Indian state due to its regular dealings; the same however cannot be said with regards to China. Nepal’s internal dynamics would be useful in this regard. The Himalayas have always been considered as a lofty and un-breachable entity, which changed after the 1962 Indo-Nepal War. The economic blockade by India over different time periods forced China to look northwards towards China. While China took the opportunity to increase its sphere of influence in Nepal, it maintained that Nepal should maintain cordial relations with India due to its close proximity. Dixit reminded the audience that prior to the advent of the British, the trading activities within Nepal was mostly carried out with Tibet. In contemporary period the pivot of Nepal’s trade is primarily towards India, however China’s influence is bound to change that scenario. Nepal’s participation in the OBOR will infuse the required funds for infrastructure in Nepal. While China has already established railway connections with 11 European cities, it looks to connect with Lumbini in Nepal, which is the only major Buddhist pilgrimage outside India. While there lies the omnipresent threat of the Chinese goods overwhelming the local market, Dixit is in favour of taking the advantage of connectivity and build the export intensive industries with an eye for the China market. In a collective sense Dixit opines that it is important to find the right balance with China’s connectivity initiative with that of other sub-regional co-operations across Southeast Asia. Kanak Mani Dixit and Ranabir Samaddar during the discussion
Both the lectures gave us an idea about the prospects and challenges of connectivity across Southeast Asia. Borders play a significant role in the whole debate as it is within the cross border flows that nations are looking at to reap the dividends. However establishment of infrastructures also confirms or validates some of the contested territorial ambits which draw sharp reactions. For example, India has protested the passing of the CPEC through what it claims to be Pakistan occupied Kashmir, while China hasn’t been appreciative of the Dhola-Sadiya bridge connecting Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. In a way infrastructure in the borderlands and frontiers increasingly brings the peripheries under surveillance which has been a major cause of political instability across several nations in the region. It is likely through the contradictions of flows and fixities that the envisaged gateways would influence the coming days in South Asia.People listening to the panelists
[Snehashish Mitra is a researcher in Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group]