Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road: a potent symbol of change

Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road: a potent symbol of change

China’s 21st century initiative to revive the ‘silk road’ on land and sea may be the most ambitious development the world has seen

At a time when globalisation from the West appears to be in retreat, the Belt and Road Initiative is a potent symbol of the rise of China-based globalisation.

The BRI, part of Xi Jinping’s ‘China dream’ to ‘revitalise the Chinese nation’, is a two-fold project. The Chinese President articulated the Silk Road Economic Belt in the Kazakhstan capital, Astana, in September 2013, then followed it up the next month by announcing the Maritime Silk Road in the parliament of Indonesia.

Collectively, it was known as ‘one belt, one road’ but the OBOR is usually referred to now as BRI. A belt to link the great Eurasian continent with overland railways, highways, pipelines and other infrastructure, and a road to link China with Southeast Asia, South Asia and even Africa through ports and other maritime linkages.

BRI in scale and scope

‘Stretching from the South China Sea across the Eurasian land mass, it is arguably the most ambitious development plan ever conceived,’ a key book-length study observes.

The primary aim is economic. Late in 2014, the Chinese government set up the New Silk Road Fund and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to promote infrastructure that would support the trade and other economic linkages it involved.

At around the same time, a railway line linking Yiwu, a county-level city in Zhejiang Province, with the Spanish capital, Madrid, had begun operations.

Another major development is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. This includes the link between Kashgar in China’s north-west with the deep-water port of Gwadar in Baluchistan, Pakistan.

The BRI comes at a time when divisions in the world are getting more intense. Diverse nationalisms with the potential for serious conflict are becoming more marked. Economic globalisation and free-trade once seemed so eminently desirable that few dared go against it, yet there is now less consensus about the benefits. It is noted that ‘sizable constituencies have voted in country after country for anti-free-trade policies.’

It is largely aimed at reducing disparities in China, by spurring growth in China’s underdeveloped hinterland and rustbelt

At the World Economic Forum this year, it was Xi Jinping, the first Chinese president to attend, who took the lead in supporting globalisation and opposing protectionism. Xi Jinping stated flatly in the forum’s opening speech that ‘just blaming economic globalisation for the world’s problems is inconsistent with reality, and it will not help solve the problems’.

Some commentators see a primary objective of the BRI as domestic, believing it is largely aimed at reducing disparities in China, by spurring growth ‘in China’s underdeveloped hinterland and rustbelt’.

It is also likely that China sees the BRI as a potential bulwark against Islamist terrorism in Xinjiang and along its western borders. And that the economic development that goes with the initiative is the best reinforcement against political instability.

The foreign policy dimensions of BRI are extremely important.

Investment promised by the BRI is large enough to invite comparison with the US Marshall Plan that revived European economies in the wake of World War II. Less positively, it is suggested that China is trying to take over the countries of Central Asia and elsewhere, in economic terms at least.

Opinion is divided

In May 2017, Xi Jinping sponsored a large conference, the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, in Beijing. Attendees included more than 30 heads of organisations and heads of states such as Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Joko Widodo, as well as then Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

The attendance suggests great enthusiasm for the BRI at government level. Despite a relationship with fraught history, Russia and China have been getting on very well lately and have signed a ‘great Eurasian partnership’ agreement. It is said that ‘Putin hopes that Russia will profit economically, as well as politically and geopolitically, from the BRI and growing Chinese power’.

Another country interested is Turkey. Erdogan has a highly erratic foreign policy, has recently shown himself very fractious in relations with Germany and the Netherlands, and does not always get on well with China. Yet he seems to think he has a lot to gain from BRI.

Late in 2016, to spite the European Union, Erdogan even threatened to join the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a grouping mainly linking Central Asian countries against threats like terrorism and Islamic extremism.

Taldyk Pass, Kyrgyzstan, along the silk road Photo: Gustavo Jeronimo Source: Wikimedia Commons

And Indonesia is also a partner. On the maritime side, the participation of strategically placed Indonesia in a 21st century maritime ‘silk road’ is really significant.

Of all the relationships, the one with the largest potential for ramifications is with Pakistan, traditionally China’s very good friend. The two countries’ leaders have agreed on a large-scale strategy with very significant potential for Chinese economic expansion and growing influence. In agriculture, southern Xinjiang will gain food supplies.

The country that is definitely not enthusiastic about the BRI is India.

There were no Indian representatives at the forum in May. India is wary about China’s increasing ties with Pakistan and Russia, and the advance of Indian troops in June to stop the Chinese building a road in Bhutan has resulted in a serious faceoff, with unpredictable outcome.

Along with several other countries, India is nervous about the strategic implications of China’s access to the deep-water port of Gwadar, opening it and its land-locked territory, Xinjiang, to the Persian Gulf.

In some respects, though, India and China are trying to cooperate. India (and Pakistan) joined the SCO in 2016, while the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) Forum links the two Asian giants in a grouping loosely united against the West. However, long-term rivalry and hostility between China and India continues to make sustained cooperation difficult.

While governments are mostly keen on the BRI, seeing it offering economic expansion and greater prosperity, many ordinary people are less convinced.

Main countries involved not committed or economically competent enough to make it work

China’s image in Central Asia is very mixed, where there are people who view China’s economic expansion as ‘inevitable but pernicious’. They resent the fact that Chinese companies bring their own workers with them, so local people gain little employment.

Chinese representatives counter that their workers are more reliable, harder-working and better trained. This can be taken as an insult to the average Central Asian, and offers little consolation.

As for the West, opinion is highly divided.

While many observers and businesspeople see opportunities in the BRI for profits and growth, others doubt project viability and feasibility. Sceptics regard it as too inefficiently organised to be sustainable; and the main countries involved not committed or economically competent enough to make it work.

Finally, many are very suspicious indeed of Chinese motives, regarding it as a plot to regain China’s traditional power over regions to its west. This is in part fear of China, and anxiety that the West and its interests will inevitably be eclipsed.

It is not clear if the BRI will succeed in the short term. China’s image appears to me to have got worse over the last few years and is now undergoing another serious downturn due to world reaction over Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo’s death.

But what the West thinks may not be the crucial factor in the long term.

Based on what I know of China, I expect the impact of BRI over the next several decades to be huge. In all likelihood, it will transform interchanges across Eurasia and with Africa, and be a major boost to China’s world economic and strategic influence.

Featured image: Chinese cargo trucks awaiting Pakistan customs clearance at Sost, Karakoram Highway Photo: Anthony Maw Source: Wikimedia Commons

Emeritus Professor Colin Mackerras (Officer in the Order of Australia, Fellow of the Academy of the Humanities of Australia) is a specialist on Chinese history, musical theatre and ethnic minorities, as well as Australia-China relations and Western images of China.

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