What is China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ Initiative?
The Communist Party of China held its 19th national congress last month. On the opening day, President Xi Jinping gave a historic 3hr 23min speech where he discussed “the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of Chinese nation” among other things. Since Xi took office in November 2012, China has been undertaking a bold program of national revival backed by increasing military power and growing political assertiveness, which has led many in the West to question China’s intentions.
At the economic core of China’s strategy of national revival is the “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative that combines the land-based “Silk Road Economic Belt” and the maritime “21st Century Maritime Silk Road.” Announced by Xi in 2013, OBOR involves a series of infrastructure projects connecting China to Europe via Southeast, Central and West Asia, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. OBOR is historically unprecedented in its geographic scope and economic scale. It includes 65 countries covering 55 percent of the world’s GNP, 70 percent of the global population and 75 percent of the proven energy reserves. The estimated total investment is $5 trillion.
Chinese leadership claims that OBOR is an open and inclusive framework of interregional cooperation. Critics however, hold that OBOR is a geopolitical undertaking, a veiled effort by China to dominate the region and beyond. Some analysts have dubbed OBOR China’s Marshall Plan. Chinese leaders however, firmly reject the analogy. Foreign Minister Wang Yi, for instance, asserted that OBOR is “a product of inclusive cooperation and not a tool of geopolitics” and “must not be viewed with a Cold War mentality.”
What is OBOR then? Is it an initiative of economic development or a geopolitical scheme? The answer is both and then some. To begin with, OBOR is a stimulus package to rebalance the Chinese economy towards a “new normal” of lower yet sustainable growth. Outward infrastructural investment will facilitate the export of excess manufacturing capacity in China. New markets will be opened up for Chinese goods and jobs will be created. OBOR is also conceived to promote domestic political stability. By facilitating internal economic integration, Beijing hopes to address the economic imbalances between coastal and inland provinces, which might in turn reduce separatism in Xinjiang.
OBOR also reflects changes in strategic thinking in China. Chinese policymakers have debated the strategy of “marching westward,” i.e. a partial shift of focus from increasingly contentious East Asia to the West, where non-confrontational expansion is possible. This is not to suggest that China would jettison its critical interests in the Pacific. However, given the escalation of tensions due to the United States’ “pivot to Asia” and disputes in the South China Sea, it would be prudent for Beijing to avoid both containment and confrontation by extending westward. In doing so, Xi would be following Mao’s advice, “The enemy advances, we retreat.”
OBOR is integral to China’s vision to shape the international order in its own image. Chinese leaders often emphasize that their goal is to supplement rather than supplant the current international system. However, given the crisis of the liberal international political order, including the revival of protectionism and the retreat of the U.S. from global leadership, there is an opening for China to assume the role of the promoter of global integration.
OBOR faces various financial and political obstacles. To finance massive projects, the Chinese government spearheaded the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank in 2013 and set up a $40 billion Silk Road Fund in 2014. However, additional capital will need to be raised in the West. OBOR also lacks inter-regional political coordination. It currently operates through existing political organizations including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation and the “16+1” platform. The European Union and India are not on board with OBOR yet, not to mention the staunch opposition it receives from the U.S. and some ASEAN countries.
To overcome financial and political hurdles, China needs to engage in extensive international coalition building. Partners like the EU will require China to credibly commit to the “rules of the game.” If China succeeds in building a coalition around OBOR, it will have accomplished a great deal to legitimize its position as not only a rising power but also as a setter of global order.
Tolga Demiryol is the Vice Dean of the School of Economics, Administrative and Social Sciences at Altınbaş University.