Last year, when China hosted the Belt and Road Forum (BRF) (a meeting of leaders and representatives from over a 110 countries) to create a ‘new era of globalization’ as part of its One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, a chorus of positive sentiments praising China’s contributions to global development emanated from many national capitals.
China’s OBOR, first announced in 2013, involves over 60 countries, 900 projects and an estimated trillion dollars USD. Those who are dismissive of OBOR on account of its grandeur should heed the serious economic expenditures already made by China to support projects planned under OBOR. It has the potential to permanently alter Eurasia’s geopolitical future.
2017 saw China continue to make significant financial commitments to its nascent project as many countries located along the modern ‘Silk Road’ envisioned by China welcomed investments into their domestic economies. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is an example of a project that is only a component of OBOR to China while representing a landmark investment to the host nation, in this case Pakistan. China recently committed over 55 billion USD to developing Pakistan’s infrastructure over the next 5 years, particularly its ports which form a vital link in China’s maritime trade belt. China has not hesitated to similarly invest billions of dollars in other countries such as Zambia, which Western investors see as being fraught with domestic instability and economic uncertainty.
In January 2016, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a multilateral development bank headquartered in Beijing, was established to supplement necessary financial contributions to OBOR projects. To the chagrin of the Washington, close allies such as Britain (who called itself a “natural partner” in this endeavour), France and Germany have also committed themselves to the AIIB. Building up to the recent Belt and Road Forum summit, China announced an additional 124 billion USD to infrastructure and development projects under OBOR. While a joint effort among OBOR countries to finance projects involves the use of local currencies (to lower exchange costs and guarantee financial stability) should mitigate China’s financial burden, Beijing will undoubtedly carry the heaviest burden in implementing its modern Silk Road.
Much emphasis has been placed on the inclusive, global nature of the OBOR and the limited interest of the United States in OBOR till now does not result from obstacles preventing Washington’s participation. OBOR’s sheer magnitude, however, means unless the U.S. begins acknowledging it and developing a strategy for managing OBOR’s consequences, Chinese led growth may become synonymous with an American decline and the U.S. may find itself largely isolated from the economic and political future of Eurasia.
Xi stated earlier this year that OBOR will connect different civilizations in a world where “coexistence will replace a sense of superiority.” While this is only one phrase plucked from a never ending stream of superlatives showered upon OBOR, it is reflective of China’s interest in ensuring its project is viewed through a positive economic dimension instead of a threatening military one. There is no doubt that Chinese leaders would prefer having publicized Western grievances limited to issues such as the lack of transparency and accountability in many OBOR projects instead of the inevitable military consequences of China’s economic growth.
As OBOR continues progressing, it is highly unlikely China will not have to defend its expanding influence—which will come, to an extent, at the expense of the West’s. Minor grumblings from European statesmen have revealed Western leaders are already concerned about the potential military aspects of OBOR, but Narenda Modi, India’s Prime Minister, is the only world leader who has already explicitly expressed his opposition to it. India boycotted the BRF this year, citing concerns that aspects of the CPEC constitute a violation of India’s sovereign claims. The silence of the U.S. on OBOR has not helped clarify what resolution mechanisms, international or otherwise, exist to regulate disputes between OBOR states.
China’s investment in the outcome of OBOR will only grow as more funds are allocated to it. If the objectives of OBOR are realized, the sheer scale of the project effectively guarantees Beijing with economic hegemony over Eurasia. The willingness of many OBOR countries to affirm their participation at the project’s nascent phases is an indication of the ease by which China could expect to accomplish this.
OBOR undoubtedly represents the next eon in China’s extraordinary economic growth, which has been sustained through multiple decades and has unsurprisingly resulted in a corresponding increase in military strength. The security and stability of any economic investment, particularly trade, is a major component of its success. Many investors may even be dissuaded from initially investing in a project if its long term security is questionable. Part two will examine whether China will soon seek resorting to arbitrary measures involving military force to guarantee the security of OBOR.