The nineteenth century is considered to be the Age of Revolution and Empire, while the twentieth century was the Age of Democratization and Dictatorship (Global China Studies: HKUST School of Humanities and Social Science, 2011). The twenty‐first century is likely to be the Age of the Global and the Local. ‘Global’ here means the enormous rise in global connectivity across multiple areas of activity, including communication, finance, ecology, health, human environment, law, markets, money, political and social organisation, modern culture, production, technology, trade, science and consciousness (Global China Studies: HKUST School of Humanities and Social Science, 2011). ‘Local’ here means the cultural, economic, political, social, welcoming and resistance to consequent global hegemonies. China, a key player in the global economic and political arena, has already recognised the importance of going “Global”(Global China Studies: HKUST School of Humanities and Social Science, 2011).
The “One Belt, One Road (OBOR)” initiative of Xi Jinping (President of the People's Republic of China) was established after he visited Kazakhstan and Indonesia in 2013 (Kennedy and Parker, 2015). However, the phrase “One Belt, One Road” is somewhat misleading. It is the result of a literal translation from a typically concise Chinese phrase “一带一路”, (Yi Dai Yi Lu) which means ‘two corridors’ (Summers, 2015). In fact, the OBOR is a combination of the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and “21st Century Maritime Silk Road”. These two corridors, inspired by historical trading routes, aim at building global networks of connectivity. Spreading from western and inland China through Central Asia towards Europe, and from coastal China through the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and beyond, to East Africa (Swaine, 2015, p. 2; Summers 2015) (Appendix A). According to China's 13th Five Year Plan, an expected $1.5 trillion is to be directed into external investment from 2016 to 2020. A projected $21 trillion of that same foreign investment is going to the OBOR. The launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the New Silk Road Fund (NSRF) with a capital of US $50 billion marks the beginning of China’s mission to re-establish the trade routes (both by land and sea) that connected the civilisations and peoples between East and West across the Eurasian continent for thousands of years. (Dollar, 2015; Kennedy and Parker, 2015; Liao, 2015) (Appendix B). Connecting the Asia-Pacific economic circle in the east and the European economic circle in the west is the longest commercial corridor with the greatest potential in the world. It directly impacts 4.4 billion people, around 63 percent of the world’s population, and deals with an economic aggregate of $21 trillion, or 29 percent of the global GDP. (Swaine, 2015) Analysts claim that the success of OBOR will help China to exert more economic and political influence across Eurasia (Swaine, 2015). Numerous challenges and tensions are appearing in the early stages of the OBOR.
In short, the OBOR is a blueprint for greater regional cooperation and integration through expanding infrastructure networks. It has far-reaching implications not only for economics but also for traditional and international security.
2. Economic and Strategic Opportunities of the OBOR
While China’s economy has been growing at a faster rate than most of the rest of the world, the recent fall in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth has encouraged the government to develop new initiatives such as the OBOR (Dollar, 2015). Within the domestic economic sphere, politicians, policy makers and business elites in China regard the OBOR as encouraging equal growth opportunity across China’s economy. The geographic zones that the OBOR has mapped out also commands 55% of the world’s Gross National Product (GNP) and 75% of the world’s energy reserves (Godement, 2015). Comprising such human and wealth resources, the OBOR is expected to bring a significant economic push to China, as well as to the other countries along the network. The use of the local currencies in cross-border exchange facilitated by the People's Bank of China and banks in other countries will also help in the internationalisation of the Renminbi. (Leverett, Leverett and Bingbing, 2013). Outside the neighbouring countries, the motivation is to expand the eastern market and bilateral trade to the West and Southern part of Europe, the rest of Asia, and Africa. It is expected to be a new economic and financial initiative of China while playing a strategic geopolitical role at the same time (Kennedy and Parker, 2015). The OBOR will help China to coordinate with other Asian countries, provide financial integration, expand trade liberalisation, and eventually bring people-to-people connectivity.
According to Francois Godement, the primary strategy of the OBOR is based on geopolitics and the export of its huge infrastructure-building capacities (Godement, 2015, p. 2). The OBOR also aims to establish and develop infrastructure - high-speed rail lines, maritime routes, road highways, and Internet networks. Simultaneously, maritime infrastructure at the ports will be constructed across the Indian Ocean, Suez Canal, and the Mediterranean Sea (Editorial Board, 2015; Toktomushev, 2015). On 11 November 2015, Chief Minister of Balochistan Dr Abdul Malik announced that China would build an airport of international standards in Gwadar, region of Pakistan. Pakistan along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which runs about 3,000 kilometres from Gwadar to the northwestern Chinese city of Kashgar, an important part of the ancient Silk Road linking China with Eurasia and Africa (Appendix B). Recently in November 2015, China also indicated that it would undertake the construction of 10,000 apartment units in Kabul, as a project aimed to reduce the housing shortage in the capital.
However, the OBOR is not just about infrastructure and economics. The OBOR will not only determine economies of countries along the network but will also boost the cultural exchange between the countries involved (Leverett, Leverett and Bingbing, 2013). Additionally, it will allow policy coordination among the participant countries along the corridors. The Chinese authorities have even aligned the OBOR to fulfil the United Nations Charter's Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence among the member countries (Swaine, 2015).
3. Tensions and Security Issues along the OBOR
The OBOR was started with the intention of bringing the Eurasian community closer, make their geopolitical structure more aligned, and allow their economies to become stronger globally(Godement, 2015). Still, China’s global and regional competitors have raised many issues about the OBOR. Moreover, as political realists note, the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative reflects the symbiosis of China’s soft power prowess and hard power calculations. The initiative will fortify China’s growing stature and leverage in recasting the region’s strategic landscape with China at the epicentre, making it easier for China to wield economic clout to coerce other states. There has been widespread debate as to whether the OBOR will turn out to be advantageous or disastrous for China from neighbouring countries along the network. (Jacob, 2015; Kennedy and Parker, 2015). The OBOR has already created tension among neighbouring powerful countries in Asia and Europe, such as Japan, India, and Russia, which are becoming concerned over China's increasing influence in Central Asia (The Economic Times, 2014; Jacob, 2015). The OBOR ultimately projects the notion that China is challenging Russia's position in Central Asia, and the United States' position at an international level (Godement, 2015). Any slight change in the plan may produce an irreversible impact on China's economy and politics on a global scale as well as at the local level. Within China, there are significant concerns and debates over whether China will be over-reliant on public financing and state-owned enterprises, or whether the country will be able to leverage private firms and investment (Godement, 2015). Since China's construction companies possess a poor track record in their operations, this may constitute a threat to the country's magnanimous initiative (Kennedy and Parker, 2015).
Also, the OBOR will impact on the livelihoods and wellbeing of individuals in Asia and elsewhere. The first major understudied implication of building networks across many areas across of Central Asia, the Middle East and the Indian Ocean is that it may result in a substantial influx of refugees from Syria and other regions to China (Appendix C). Proper road networks across the Middle East and Central Asia would eventually lead to unstoppable human migration as currently being seen in Europe. China, now being a second world power, would also be considered as a favourable destination for many refugees. Moreover, the maritime corridor will create a new route for many migrants from Africa in quest of a new destination (Appendix C). Although being an active member of many international organisations, the refugee issue is still something that is relatively unseen in China, until now. The country and its people are not yet prepared to receive an influx of refugees, and any lack of consideration for human rights towards refugees would eventually result in an international response. The second worst-case scenario of road networks across Central Asia and the Middle East will involve the ease of mobility of terrorist groups such as ISIS to China. A recent survey on 163 countries ranked Pakistan (153rd), Iraq (161st), and Syria (163rd ), as the least safest countries in the world (The Global Peace Index 2016). However, Chinese officials claim that improving the region’s economy through the OBOR could weaken the cause of terrorism and help stabilise Central Asia and the Middle East. The ISIS terrorist group is set to destroy anyone opposing their beliefs, and real road networks could increase the number of ISIS radicals to intervene in the tension province of China; Xinjiang. China has no previous experience in blocking terror attacks from foreign radicals on their land nor in identifying the beginning of such planned attacks. Should terror attacks such as the recent Paris attack of November 2015 and Nice attack of July 2016 happen in China, it would be disastrous for the Chinese Government, which promoted the OBOR. History may once again repeat itself; the above factors might conspire to erode the importance and dynamism of the Silk during the Tang Dynasty in AD 907 and may result in the fall of the until now powerful Communist Government of China.
Overall, OBOR is just one among a plethora of economic and geopolitical motives for China to go global, some of which include the internationalisation of the Yuan, creating alternative options in the international financial system, and finding alternatives shipping routes. But the majority of the road ahead will be bumpy and as far regarding the local, it might bring disastrous changes to the security level in China and a substantial influx of refugees and economic migrants flocking to China. The Chinese however are optimistic of the OBOR success and tend to neglect the consequences it will entail. Only time will tell whether the OBOR will be a success for China or history will once repeat itself where China will isolate itself from the world again like in Ming Dynasty.
by Dr Hans Seesaghur
Appendix A: One Road, One Belt Road – Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road (Summers, 2015)
Appendix B: Corridors of Opportunities: One Road, One Belt Road: Projects completed and Planned: June 2015 (Roman Wilhelm/ MERICS, 2015)
Appendix C: Corridors of Tensions: One Road, One Belt Road: (Map Data @ 2015 Google)
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