Source: Global Times Published: 2018-3-21
"Creditor Imperialism" has become a new catchphrase created by India to beef up the so-called "China threat," accusing China of "using sovereign debt to bend other states to its will, without having to fire a single shot."
Such rhetoric, typically orchestrated by Western elites, is now India`s new weapon to attack China`s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in an attempt to influence public opinion on Chinese international strategy.
Given that China`s BRI is becoming increasingly popular, India is leading a new round of hype among global media with multiple versions of the "China threat theory."
Brahma Chellaney, an Indian expert from New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, created the new phrase, "China`s creditor imperialism," in the end of 2017 to attack China`s BRI.
In his article, the Indian expert blames China for using BRI to engage in "Creditor Imperialism," by shackling participating states and forcing its partners to hand over domestic resources to repay debts.
The claim was shrugged off by Chinese netizens and scholars. "Again, it is no surprise to hear such accusations against the BRI. I think those economies who truly participated in it and get the tangible benefits from it would be the best people to respond their query," read a comment on Chinese social media Sina Weibo, which received the most thumbs up.
"How interesting it is to hear that so-called `imperialism,` the patent of America, is now taken over by China. We feel rather proud, don`t we?" read another comment.
Seeing the absurdity in India`s updated China threat theory, Wang Wen, executive dean of Renmin University of China`s Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, believes that the "debt cordon" that was used to describe EU countries, as referred by Chellaney, is not suitable for measuring the debt status of emerging economies, stressing complementary advantages and mutual development between China and the countries joining the Belt and Road Initiative.
The BRI is a transparent initiative that follows the "golden rule" of extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at a press conference during this year`s two sessions.
"It is time to lay the `China threat theory` to rest," Wang said later, calling on China to shrug off the accusation during this year`s two sessions. "As China grows, the `China collapse theory` has collapsed and become an international joke. The `China threat theory,` with its various sensational versions, is losing steam," said Wang.
"Those who do not have bias or practice double standards will see in China not a threat, but plenty of opportunities," Wang Yi added.
Mutually benefited partnership
In the Indian expert`s editorial piece, he draws on the case of Sri Lanka`s Hambantota port as assertive evidence of so-called "debt bondage" attached to projects of the BRI at the cost of losing its sovereignty.
"As Sri Lanka`s handover of the strategic Hambantota port shows, states caught in debt bondage to the new imperial giant risk losing both natural assets and their very sovereignty," wrote the piece.
Chellaney depicted China`s tactic of "imperialism" as providing the financial largesse - the huge-project-related loans - to those partnerships caught in capital crisis in exchange for key strategic resources. Chellaney refers to it as a new type of exploitative debtor relationships.
Unscrambling the accusation, Wang Wen revealed that the claim attempted to arouse memories of new colonialism after the World War II, drawing a connection between China and the plundering of resources by some Western countries in African and Asian countries.
"Taking Sri Lanka for instance, China`s 99-year lease on land is subject to Sri Lanka`s general rule equal for any other global companies. Sri Lanka can find a balance in maintaining sustainable economic growth and repaying the debt. It`s fair to say that the project is a good example of complementary advantages and mutual development," wrote Wang in a commentary published in the Global Times.
Sun Shihai, an expert on Sino-Indian relations from Sichuan University, also stressed the principle of "mutual benefit" underlined in the BRI project.
"The participation of many countries is an absolutely voluntary process but not China`s imposed scheme," Sun told the Global Times. "It is unfair to label China as an imperialist, as we neither robbed any resources from our partners nor colonized their lands. We have not any intention to destruct others` sovereignty."
But such explanations hardly dispel misgiving of some Indian experts that Beijing will dictate the terms of engagement in the Belt and Road Initiative.
"Despite the fact that Beijing often says that the success of the Initiative will depend on a partnership with participating countries, this partnership remains unequal and gives rise to questions about the direction of Beijing`s economic policies and ability to control these economies," Professor Madhu Bhalla, an expert in Sino-Indian relations from the Department of East Asian Studies of Delhi University, told Global Times.
But she denied that the fears are unique to China, and rather that "major economies have also been voiced in relation to other dominated economies" in earlier centuries, such as the control and exploitation by EU in Africa.
"In India, given our history of colonial exploitation of natural resources and national wealth, there will always be questions about neo-colonial control of local economies through creating indebtedness and swapping of natural resources in exchange for payments," Bhalla continued.
"Frenemy," a portmanteau of friend and enemy, is an accurate way to describe India`s current mentality toward China. India regards the Sino-Indian relationship as a significant part of its neighborhood diplomacy, but sprinkled with some fear and vigilance.
While New Delhi promises to strengthen strategic mutual trust with Beijing, it repeatedly commits acts underlining indifference and skepticism about the Belt and Road Initiative, which jeopardizes bilateral ties.
"BRI is essentially an imperial project…states caught in debt bondage to China risk losing both their most valuable natural assets and their very sovereignty," as Brahma Chellaney defined China`s Belt and Road Initiative.
India reportedly derived its potential concerns around the geopolitical threat they believe is attached to China`s Belt and Road Initiative.
Wang Yizhi, a professor in international relations at Renmin University of China, noted that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is believed to be one of the key factors to cause Delhi`s hesitation against the initiative. The corridor runs through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, which is considered by India to be Indian territory.
Furthermore, "China`s relations with India`s neighbors (Pakistan to the north, Bangladesh and Burma to the east, and Sri Lanka to the south) makes New Delhi cautious to be alienated and lose its influence in strategically important areas," Sun noted.
Even though the Indian government has never endorsed the term "Chinese Creditor Imperialism," there is much interest in how Chinese investments are being made in the Indian Ocean Littoral and elsewhere, according to Bhalla.
"India has a legitimate interest in healthy economic growth in its neighborhood, given that failed economies generally lead to intra- and inter-state conflict in the region as elsewhere. Hence its interest, and the interest of its strategic community in the future of regional economies, especially given the rising graph of indebtedness with Chinese investments, have become of some concern within these economies," said Bhalla.
Refutation of BRI countries
Similar fears have also been announced by American former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his recent trip to Africa, when he claimed China is entrapping African governments with "opaque contracts, predatory loan practices, and corrupt deals that mire nations in debt" with the Belt and Road project.
Some African top diplomats later responded against Tillerson`s accusations. Augustine Mahiga, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Tanzania, stressed the participating country`s autonomy and their right sense of judgment in an interview with Xinhua News Agency.
Mahiga said he is confident that, with many options for African countries to seek financing in international capital markets, Africa has sufficient freedom and capacity to compare and accept loans that meet their own needs.
Abebe Aynete, a senior researcher at Ehiopian Foreign Relations Strategic Studies Institute, argues that China`s investment in infrastructure projects along the BRI plan have brought about changes in African countries that are "plain to see," as reported by Xinhua News Agency.
Chinese investment in African countries has largely improved the livelihood of locals, including improved living conditions, creating jobs and training workers, which has won praise from the people and governments alike.
"The Chinese investment in Africa focuses on infrastructure, while the United States for a long time has focused on promoting its own values. The choice is for Africans to decide who is a better partner," said Aynete.
In response to concerns, Wang Wen calls for more transparency in reviewing BRI projects, which he regards not only as an encouragement for Chinese firms, but also a powerful response to unfriendly insults and skepticisms from global society.
"In the face of the continued smears and slander, China has to prepare psychologically and strategically to push ahead," Wang concluded.
Wang Wen is executive dean of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.