The New Silk Roads, formerly One Belt One Road, then Belt and Road Initiative, were launched almost five years ago by President Xi Jinping, first in Astana (the Silk Road Economic Belt) and then in Jakarta (the Maritime Silk Road).
Way beyond the acronym purgatory – and the “lost in translation” factor that neither name sounds sexy in English – the fact is BRI will remain the organizing master concept of Chinese foreign policy for the foreseeable future, all the way to 2049 (the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China).
It took Washington – under the Obama and Trump administrations – almost five years to come up with a response to BRI. And that is now essentially a trade war.
The response increasingly surfs a tsunami of Sinophobia dragging a detritus of malaise: corruption, pollution, real estate bubbles, ghost cities, and last but not least, a “road to nowhere” scheme (just like the BRICS emerging economies and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) relentlessly portrayed as an evil “scheme” destined to condemn unsuspecting poor countries to an endless debt trap and culminating in the takeover of their resources.
The Belt and Road is, additionally, dismissed as just a scheme to bypass the Strait of Malacca, through which transits 75% of Chinese exports and 80% of energy imports. In reality that happens to be only one among myriad vectors of the scheme.
The BRI hotel check-out policy
Let’s contrast BRI-bashing with three different dossiers: Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
The move by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad to suspend BRI-related projects – the $20-billion East Coast Rail Link and two pipelines worth over $2 billion – does not mean they are canceled. This is an economic recalculation.
Malaysia may be virtually bankrupt because of the Najib kleptocracy, but that has nothing to do with BRI. Mahathir, in fact, made it clear he wants to strengthen the partnership with China, and he’s in favor of the initiative. But first, he needs to balance the national budget. Kuala Lumpur will eventually be back in BRI mode.
The same applies to one of BRI’s key connectivity projects, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). New Prime Minister Imran Khan is bent on renegotiating some of its terms. Once again, that relates to bad management by the previous Sharif administration and the notorious corruption of the tax-evading Pakistani elite.
Then there’s the case of the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota. Last December, the port – financed by Chinese investment – was transferred to Middle Kingdom control on a 99-year lease. This has nothing to do with a Chinese takeover, or some mischievous variant of gunboat diplomacy. It is mostly about corruption and bad management inside Sri Lanka’s previous government.
Some of the 60-65 nations participating in the BRI scheme are in fact curtailing Chinese investment – short-term or mid-term – in some projects and industries that are considered sensitive, whatever the criteria employed. That does not prevent rolling Chinese investment in other less sensitive sectors. This has nothing to do with “debt-trap diplomacy”.
The beauty of the BRI concept is that it’s open and inclusive. Unlike Hotel California, you can check in or out anytime you like at the BRI Hotel. But, non-customers complain, how come it has “no clear goal, no detailed plan”? No wonder BRI is incomprehensible for Western myopia.
I have been following BRI in detail for five years now – even before it started. It’s never enough to stress the initial conceptualization, detailed in papers such as the 2014 Silk Road Economic Belt Construction, Vision and Path, by the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University. For all the current BRI-bashing hysteria, we are still in the planning phase. Implementation actually starts only in 2021 and goes all the way to 2049.
BRI principles include the aforementioned openness (“not limited to the ancient Silk Road area but open to all countries”); inclusiveness (“respect for the paths and modes of development chosen by different countries”); and “market rules”.
There’s no question BRI suffers from an acute PR problem; once again, the “lost in translation” element. Let’s assume the scheme had been packaged by a Washington PR firm. The key slogan would be something like “Asia Connectivity 2050”.
Because that’s exactly what it is, a very long-term project to create an ultra-complex web, hard and soft, of six main corridors linking China and Eurasia. It goes way beyond high-speed rail and pipelines. It encompasses financial integration and a new geopolitical paradigm.
It’s absolutely impossible to understand the complexity of BRI without understanding how the Chinese think. Peking University professor Zhai Kun qualified it years ago as President Xi’s “mega-strategy”. That means the finer points concerning details will be adjusted in real time along the way. There’s plenty of time – and it’s a long way.
Integrate or perish
One of those details is the port of al-Duqm, built in a deserted stretch of the coastline of Oman, just outside the Persian Gulf, thus strategically located close to massive Asia, Middle East and Africa trade across the Indian Ocean.
Duqm is a multibillion-dollar rail and shipping warehouse that attracted not only BRI-related Chinese investment (a new port plus industrial zones) but also Indian, South Korean and Saudi Arabian. Way beyond the Chinese scheme, this is all about Eurasia connectivity, and the Sultan of Oman gets it.
BRI does not exist in a vacuum. It’s part of the China-driven globalization 2.0. Belt and Road links up with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the BRICS’ New Development Bank, the International North-South Transportation Corridor, the Eurasia Economic Union (EAEU) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
The integration of BRI and the Eurasia Economic Union soon will be more than visible as China and Russia move to connect both Koreas – territorially, politically and economically – to the Eurasia heartland. South Korea wants to be part of that vast nexus because Seoul has identified the immense potential of a Trans-Korean Railway.
Even Germany and France are starting to question at the highest levels whether they should link up with real Eurasian integration alongside Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, BRICS emerging economies, plus SCO, BRI and EAEU, or remain just a glorified hostage of the hyperpower’s whims.
By 2025, when we will be thick into BRI’s implementation phase, the New Great Game will be all about the integration of Eurasia-wide infrastructure spanning 67% of the world’s population. There will be only one way to stop it …