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BRI: The Infected Project of the Century

The closely guarded bilateral BRI partnerships are either with autocracies or economically weak and politically fragile nations. Financing is through enticing loans convertible into debt traps. No elements of grant or aid. No free lunches.

LT GEN PR SHANKAR (Retd)

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The BRI envisaged infrastructure and construction projects at a mega scale — Railways, Highways, Ports, Energy Projects, and Industrial Estate Developments across 70 odd countries. The crown jewel being the CPEC. The Chinese ambitions are to displace the US from the top. Engage countries in bilateral economic partnerships. Deploy excess Chinese capital and capacity overseas to boost the economy. Chinese merchandise was to flow in outbound streams. Inbound traffic ensures food, energy, and resource securities for China. BRI consolidates Xi Jinping’s role in perpetuity in creating a Sinocentric world.

The closely guarded bilateral BRI partnerships are either with autocracies or economically weak and politically fragile nations. Financing is through enticing loans convertible into debt traps. No elements of grant or aid. No free lunches. Execution by Chinese contractors. Locals excluded from even trickle-down employment.  All BRI projects are opaque, overpriced and tainted with corruption. That is par for the course and known. 

 The BRI, dubbed as “The Project of the Century”, has been infected by the “Wuhan Virus” and is in standstill mode. It was the main instrument to make China a superpower. In this context it is interesting to see how some similar economic corridors of the past have fared. Each is an interesting story. When seen alongside the BRI they show you the future. 

The Basic Model

Fundamentally, the BRI is a mega copy of the British Empire which was founded on trading posts and colonies. The British mercantile system established it with a strong Navy in the 16th17th centuries. The Empire was built over a century. However Xi Jinping wanted BRI in a hurry. The other superpower model is the US with its global network of military bases, strategic alliances, and reconstruction efforts of the post WW-II era. China lacked the sea power of the British, or the military might of the US. Hence it used cheque book and debt trap diplomacy as hard power currency to establish the BRI. As BRI expanded, its overseas military power could simultaneously grow to eventually consolidate China as the sole superpower.

The Panama Canal

 The Panama Canal (83 km), one of the seven wonders of the modern world, began operations in 1914. It was built by the US to connect its eastern and western coasts and avoid sailing around South America. To build and control the Canal, the US created Panama by carving it out from Colombia in 1903. The US has “as if it were sovereign” rights to the Canal “in perpetuity” though it is being run by Panama today. The traffic has grown from 1,000 ships in 1914 to approximately 14,000 annually. Its annual revenue of $2 billion is the biggest element in Panama’s GDP.

 Despite constantly increasing revenues, Panama went through political and economic turbulence. By 1983 it was in economic ruin under Manuel Noriega’s dictatorship (set up by the US). Noriega ran a parallel economy of drugs, money laundering and human trafficking. He supported guerrilla uprisings in neighbouring countries. Political opponents were assassinated.  Finally, he turned coat in the US too. Retaliatory US sanctions destroyed Panama’s economy. Ultimately the US invaded Panama in 1989 to safeguard its interests. The invasion pushed many people back into poverty. Later, Panama stabilised due to US intervention. In a loose sense, Panama can be termed as an “Independent” state of the US with limited sovereignty. In some sense it is a colony. Despite an economic boom and an upper-middle per capita GDP, more than 25% of Panama’s population live in poverty. Many debt-trapped BRI countries could end up as tomorrow’s Panamas including Pakistan. 

 A century after commencing operations, the Panama Canal has benefitted USA and the rest of the world immensely. Has it benefitted Panama as much? It continues to be a mosquito and insect infested tropical country with bouts of economic ruin, civil strife, and political instability. Its sovereignty is questionable.  Without the US, it might collapse.   

 Berlin-Baghdad Railway

 The 19th century Europe saw great opportunity in the resources of a weakening Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman agricultural system could whet European food requirements. Minerals (Chrome, antimony, lead and zinc mines and some coal) and abundant oil of the Middle East were on offer. Hence a transcontinental rail link through the Ottoman Empire was conceived with Britain, France and Germany competing. Ultimately, the Germans won out. Work began on the Berlin-Baghdad Railway in 1903.

 It was built from 1903 to 1940. It was approx 4900 km long, traversing modern-day Turkey, Syria, and Iraq to Basra, in the Persian Gulf. Germans wanted to counter the British Empire by bypassing the Suez Canal to threaten its dominance in colonial trade. Turkish interest was twofold. Firstly, countering its Russian rivals. Secondly control of Arabian Peninsula and expansion across the Red Sea into Egypt, then under British control. Expansion into Egypt was through an offshoot called the Hejaz railway (Aleppo to Damascus to Medina). The Hejaz Railway was targeted through guerrilla warfare by Lawrence of Arabia. He never let it function fully.

 The Berlin-Baghdad (and ultimately Basra) Railway would enable German goods to reach the warm waters of the Gulf. From there trade could be extended to German colonies farther. The return journey would bring oil. Axiomatically, economic interests would expand political influence. The Railway was to strengthen ties between the Ottoman Empire and Germany to shift the regional balance of power. Similarities to the CPEC are eerie though predated by a century. 

Funding, engineering and construction were mainly German. The Railway became a source of international disputes. It was one of the leading causes of WW-I. When WW-I broke, the Railway was still 960 km short of its objective. By 1915, the Railway was still 480 km short. It had limited utility during WW-I. Baghdad was captured by the British. The Hejaz Railway in the South was sorted out by Lawrence of Arabia.  Construction resumed in the 1930s. The last stretch to Baghdad was built in the late 1930s. The first train from Istanbul to Baghdad departed in 1940.

 Did it serve the purpose for which it was envisaged? Clearly no. By the time the Railway was built, empires and nations ceased to exist the way they were. Colonial contours had changed. Technical difficulties, funding issues, cultural outlooks, geopolitical alignments, and divergent interests stretched construction time to breaking point. The project was so contentious, and ambitious that it was bound to fail on all fronts. It failed — never to meet any one’s aspirations. Fits the infected BRI well? Of course it does.

Suez Canal

 The Suez Canal, constructed between 1859 and 1869, connects the Mediterranean to the Red Sea.  It opened on November 17, 1869. It has been operating for nearly a century and a half. In 2012, 17,225 vessels traversed the Canal. Initially the Canal was British owned. Nasser nationalized it. Suez Canal Authority of Egypt now owns it. Expansion and canal widening commenced in August 2014, to double its capacity from 49 to 97 ships a day. The “New Suez Canal”, was opened on 6 August 2015. In the fiscal year 2014-15, the revenues of the Canal were $5.7 billion.   

A highly profitable Suez Canal should have given stability and progress to Egypt over the past century and a half.  However, the opposite is true. President Nasser ran an inefficient Soviet style centralized economy. The Arab-Israel wars debilitated growth. The 90s saw a series of IMF arrangements once fences with Israel were mended. Egypt received external debt relief due to participation in the Gulf War coalition. Since 2000, structural reforms helped Egypt move towards a market-oriented economy and prompted increased foreign investment. The reforms and policies propelled growth, which averaged 8% annually between 2004 and 2009. However, the trickle-down effect was poor. Wealth distribution was inequitable. Economic conditions worsened. Unemployment burgeoned. After the 2011 revolution, Egypt’s foreign exchange reserves fell from $36 billion in December 2010 to only $16.3 billion in January 2012. Egypt’s long-term credit rating was lowered in 2013.

 Egypt has seen peaceful growth only for about two decades. It has been involved in strife – externally or internally. After the Arab Spring, growth rates have plummeted to 2-3% with double digit inflation. The economy is in poor shape. The stark lesson is that if successful projects did not guarantee growth of nations or people, the largely unsuccessful BRI projects can destroy nations. Have doubts? Examine Hambantota. 

 Analysis

 When seen in the overall context, the BRI has shades of all previous corridors but with its own defining characteristics. Old models had investors and invested nations. In BRI there is one creditor nation and a host of debtor nations. The creditor has been indemnified and guaranteed profits irrespective of the outcome of the projects. The host nations in BRI will end up with non-performing assets and a non-repayable loan with partial loss of sovereignty. The host countries need to see which model they fit in.

Pre pandemic indications itself were clear. All completed BRI projects were economically, politically, and socially unviable. They were being dubbed as “Roads to Nowhere”. Ever since the Wuhan virus has infected the BRI, the projects are firmly on the back-burner. As the virus rages, economies have shrunk. Tax revenues plunged, and expenditure is up. Supply chains from China are disrupted. Migrant Chinese workers have been quarantined, repatriated, or banned. BRI infrastructure lies unfinished. Upstream manufacturing has declined in China. Some projects are into legal problems. This will only magnify.  Many nations are seeking debt write offs/rescheduling. The status of the flagship CPEC is too well known. China is now shifting focus to concentrate on two nonphysical components of BRI namely “Health Silk Road (HSR)” and “Digital Silk Road (DSR)” which are only sops to save its image.

  The longer the Virus lasts the greater the effect. Even if a vaccine is found, the poor host nations are not high priority to get them. So BRI projects will languish to deteriorate. Restarting them means refinancing. Poor nations cannot afford it as they recover from the Virus. In case of defaults, China will own an asset which has no value. In the meanwhile Governments can change and politics winds can turn. The unfinished Chinese projects dotting the global landscape will constantly remind people of the Wuhan Virus.

There is a larger issue. Chinese investment in BRI is estimated to be anything between $1.5 Tn and $5.5 Tn. That is between 15- 40% of its GDP and at risk. As per reports $200-520 Billion have already been sunk with no tangible return. See this against the historic backdrop of fate of corridors analyzed above. All one can foresee shuttling in the BRI are bats and pigs carrying viruses up and down. Does the infected BRI seem to be an instrument to propel China to superpower status? In my opinion if the bats do not kill it, the pigs will.

Lt Gen P.R. Shankar was India’s DG Artillery. He is highly decorated and qualified with vast operational experience. He contributed significantly to the modernisation and indigenisation of Artillery. He is now a Professor in the Aerospace Dept of IIT Madras and is involved in applied research for defence technology

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Defence

‘ARMY CAN MEET ANY CHALLENGE TO SAFEGUARD COUNTRY’

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The Army is fully prepared to meet any challenge like the use of drones and social media by adversaries to safeguard the country, said Commandant of Chennai-based Officers Training Academy (OTA) Lieutenant General M K Das. Lt Gen Das, who is also the colonel of the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry (JAKLI) regiment, said the situation in J&K is getting better with the Army and other security agencies working together to stamp out terrorism. Speaking to media on the sidelines of the maiden attestation parade of 460 new recruits of the 126th batch after a successful 40-week training period at Dansal here, he said the Indian Army is aware of the challenges and prepared to give a befitting response to the enemies of the nation.

Talking about the need to introduce special training courses for soldiers in the aftermath of the developments in Afghanistan, he said, “Our training is very contemporary as it caters for all the contingencies and unforeseen situations. My young soldiers, who have taken the oath to defend the constitution and the country, will live up to all the challenges. One of the unique things of this regiment (JAKLI) is all our troops hail from J&K and Ladakh. They have ingrained quality to be security conscious much more than others.” Lt Gen Das said, “All the situations unfolding in the country or in our neighbourhood, the JAKLI regiment will continue to excel and be the lead agency in the fight against terrorism.” Asked about the challenges posed by the use of drones to hit targets and deliver weapons and narcotics from across the LoC and International Border, he said a capsule course on anti-drone measures has been introduced. “On Army Day on 15 January, our chief took the threat seriously and our soldiers are being prepared to deal with the challenge in a better way.” During recruitment training, Lt Gen Das said that besides the arms handing and exercises, thrust is also given on science and technology, cybersecurity and other new challenges. He said the misuse of social media by “anti-national” elements is a reality and the new recruits are being trained in cybersecurity during their basic and orientation courses.

On attempts by Pakistan to mislead the youth of J&K, Lt Gen Das said, “The youth of J&K is showing keenness to be a part of the regiment which is a message to those who think they can mislead our youth. Joining the regiment is the best way to serve the nation, the youth live like a family and there is complete communal harmony.” He said the regiment is increasing the number of local youth from Ladakh and would also go for recruitment in J&K to provide an opportunity to the local youth to become part of this regiment. Asked about his message to the misguided youth, he said, “J&K is the crown of India but if I focus as a soldier, I feel they (misguided youth) have not understood their country… the situation has not gone out of hand and the Army has kept its window open to allow them to surrender and join the national mainstream.”

He added, “We have a unit of 162 Infantry Territorial Army who are former militants but have become upright soldiers.” Lt Gen Das said the Army and other security agencies are working in close coordination and the situation in J&K is getting better and the “day is not far when this region will make our country proud.”

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SOUTHERN NAVAL COMMAND OBSERVES INTERNATIONAL COASTAL CLEAN-UP DAY IN KOCHI

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The Southern Naval Command observed International Coastal Clean-up Day on Saturday with a focus on mangrove plantation and clearance of plastic/non-biodegradable waste along with waterfront areas in and around Kochi, said a press release from the Ministry of Defence.

Pursuant to the global campaign of keeping coastlines clean, more than 600 Naval personnel and the families of Southern Naval Command undertook clearance of plastic and non-biodegradable waste at different locations spread across the city, coastal areas such as Fort Kochi beach, Thevara waterfront, Willingdon Island, Cherai beach, Bolgatty and around 2 km stretch of the Venduruthy channel while restoring around 1 lakh sqm of mangroves to the pristine condition. In addition, 80 mangrove saplings were also planted along the Venduruthy channel. Similar coastal cleanup drives and lectures/webinars/competitions emphasising protection of the coastal and marine environment were undertaken with the enthusiastic participation of the Naval community at other outstation Naval units located at Lonavala, Jamnagar, Chilka, Coimbatore, Goa, Ezhimala and Mumbai.

Being the Training Command of the Indian Navy, the Southern Naval Command has always been at the vanguard in promoting environmental conservation activities both at the Command Headquarters, Kochi as well as at Naval stations spread across the country.

Mandated to oversee naval training, the Southern Naval Command has conceptualised and implemented a variety of green initiatives. Keeping environmental preservation as one of the Key Result Areas, the Command has constantly endeavoured to motivate young officer and sailor trainees of the Indian Navy to imbibe the habit of protecting mother nature as part of their grooming efforts in preparing them to become responsible future Naval leaders and dependable citizens of India.

Particular attention has also been given to create more awareness among the families and more importantly the children.

During the last three years, the Command has adopted a multi-dimensional approach towards conservation of the environment and implementation of energy conservation methods.

To highlight a few, the personnel of the Command were actively involved in the rejuvenation of 4.5-km-long Venduruthy Channel near Kochi Naval base, creating awareness in and around Naval establishments.

Efforts were undertaken to enhance green cover by conducting mass plantation drives which included planting more than 75,000 trees, using the fast-growing Miyawaki forestation method. In addition, regular coastal clean-up drives, mangrove plantation drives, in-house handling and recycling of bio and non-biodegradable waste, adopting efficient energy and water-saving methods etc were also undertaken. The Command has also earnestly endeavoured to continue all the efforts for protecting and conserving the environment and natural resources. Towards achieving the same, the Command has implemented a Green Initiative and Environment Conservation Roadmap with a prime focus on Carbon footprint reduction.

With the personal involvement of Vice Admiral Anil Kumar Chawla, Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Southern Naval Command is committed to creating a clean, green and healthy environment in line with the visionary environment conservation policies of the Govt of India. On the occasion, Adv M Anilkumar, Mayor, Kochi Municipal Corporation and staff also participated in Kochi.

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IAF TO HOLD AIR SHOW OVER DAL LAKE IN SRINAGAR ON 26 SEPT

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An air show will be held here on 26 September where IAF’s skydiving team Akash Ganga and Suryakiran Aerobatic and Display Team and paramotor flying will manoeuvre the skies over the famous Dal Lake, officials informed on Saturday.

The air show will be organised by the Air Force Station Srinagar and the Jammu and Kashmir administration as part of the ongoing celebrations commemorating ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’, they said. The main aim of the exercise—under the theme ‘Give Wings to Your Dream’—is to motivate the youth of the valley to join the Indian Air Force (IAF) and to promote tourism in the region, the officials said.

The event will be flagged off Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha at the Sher-e-Kashmir International Conference Centre (SKICC) overlooking Dal Lake.

More than 3,000 college and school students are expected to participate in the programme to witness the impressive manoeuvres of the IAF, which will motivate them to dream about a career in the force and in the aviation sector, the officials said. “The show will also develop passion among the students to give wings to their dreams. Along with the students, 700 teachers will also be present at the venue,” they added.

During the demonstration, students will also be familiarised with the new technological advancements achieved and incorporated by the IAF while flying aircraft in the sky over the world-famous Dal Lake, the officials said. Stalls will be established at SKICC where students will be familiarised with the achievements of the Air Force, employment opportunities in the IAF, recruitment rules and eligibility criteria, they added.

Srinagar-based PRO Defence Col Emron Musavi said the display will include flypast by various aircraft of the IAF. The spectators would also get to witness paramotor flying and IAF’s skydiving team Akash Ganga in action. ‘Ambassadors of IAF’, Suryakiran Aerobatic Display Team, will be performing in the valley after a gap of 14 years, he said. Col Musavi said the symphony orchestra of the IAF would also be performing at the event. The event would also consist of a photo exhibition depicting the history of the

IAF, he said. 

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ARMY ORGANISES EXHIBITION IN JAIPUR TO COMMEMORATE INDIA’S VICTORY IN 1971 WAR

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JAIPUR : South Western Command of the Indian Army on Saturday organised an exhibition showcasing defence equipment at Chitrakoot Stadium in Jaipur to mark the 50th anniversary of India’s victory over Pakistan in the 1971 war.

Speaking to ANI, an Indian army official said, “We have displayed the defence equipment in this exhibition to make people aware of the Indian army achievements. We want to motivate the youth by showcasing these types of equipment.” “Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, these events had been started to make people aware of Indian Arm Forces. So, we are also continuing the move by organising these kinds of events,” he added.

Further, he said that India’s victory over Pakistan in the 1971 war is memorable for all the Indians, so, every citizen should be aware of this war.  

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BRO makes history, appoints woman Army officer in-charge of road construction unit

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The Border Roads Organisation (BRO) has appointed a woman Army officer for the first as the Officer Commanding of its 75 road construction company (RCC) in Uttarakhand, the Defence Ministry said on Sunday.

The three platoon commanders under Major Aaina, Captain Anjana, AEE (Civ) Bhawana Joshi and AEE (Civ) Vishnumaya K became the first women RCC. The appointments were made on August 30.

BRO on Sunday recalled the list of women officers who were assigned higher leadership roles in the organisation in the current year.

According to a statement issued by the Defence Ministry, BRO has inducted a large number of women into its workforce over the years, right from officers to the level of commercial pilot license holders. “In this regard, a General Reserve Engineer Force (GREF) officer EE (Civ) Vaishali S Hiwase took over the reins of 83 Road Construction Company on April 28, employed on an important Indo-China road connecting Munisairi-Bughdiar-Milam, in an area full of adversity and challenges. The lady officer has taken control and is leading the charge with meticulous execution of her tasks,” the statement said.

“The BRO created history again on 30 August when Major Aaina of Project Shivalik took charged as Officer Commanding, 75 Road Construction Companies (RCC) at Pipalkoti in Chamoli district in Uttarakhand. She is the first Indian Army Engineer Officer to command a road construction company. Not only this, all three platoon commanders under her, Captain Anjana, AEE (Civ) Bhawana Joshi and AEE (Civ) Vishnumaya K are lady officers and they have together created a first-ever women RCC. The Border Roads plans to make four such all women-led RCCs, two each in North Eastern and Western Sectors.”

As India celebrates 75 Years of Azaadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, it also celebrates the ongoing efforts of our Nation towards women empowerment. Women today have started assuming their rightful, equal place as the frontrunners in nation-building and representatives of our strong national character, the statement read.

Over the last six decades, in a graduated and steady manner, the BRO has increased the number of women employed in various roles and duties of road construction. A consolidated effort is being made to empower them by giving them authority and responsibilities to undertake work independently. These women have become symbols of Nari Shakti in their respective areas.

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IN FIRST FOREIGN VISIT AFTER TAKING OVER AS CDS, GEN BIPIN RAWAT TO VISIT RUSSIA, US

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In his first visit abroad after taking over as the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat will be visiting Russia and the US.

Rawat took over his new office as CDS on 31 December 2019, and since then has been declining foreign invitations for focusing on the new assignment of integrating the defence forces as a combined fighting force. “There is a conference of the CDS-rank officers of the Shanghai Cooperation Agreement member countries. China and Pakistan are also part of this grouping,” senior defence officials said.

The CDS conference would be focusing on addressing the regional security issues and Afghanistan is also likely to come up for discussion, they said.

The CDS would also witness the activities of the respective armed forces taking part in the SCO peace mission drills being held in Russia. Indian Army and Air Force are also taking part in the exercise there.

The visit will take place in the coming week and soon after return from Russia, Rawat would be leaving for the US for meeting his counterpart and other American military leadership at the Pentagon.

The two countries have been coming closer militarily in the last few years and have been holding multiple military exercises and hardware cooperation.

The Indian military saw a major change in senior-level structures under the Narendra Modi government as the focus is now on the theatrisation of the fighting forces and bringing in more capabilities and jointness among the three services. 

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