China: Understanding Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative

By Raffaello Pantucci

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First published in RUSI, May 12, 2017

A great deal of rhetoric is expended over China’s gigantic investment initiatives. Still, many of the economic projects are real, and Western governments will be well advised to understand their purpose.

The Middle Kingdom is asserting its centrality in global affairs by hosting the Silk Road summit this weekend. Aimed at showcasing President Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road’ vision, the conference will bring together leaders, officials and experts from around the world.

Apart from the signing of some large deals and some affirmations about China’s eagerness towards free trade, the summit’s real importance is in the message it sends about China’s place in the world.

First announced in 2013 in a set of speeches in Astana and Jakarta, the One Belt, One Road (now renamed the Belt and Road Initiative) is at its root about putting a new name on a series of initiatives that built on existing Chinese investment and trade relationships.

The decision to first focus the initiative on Central Asia was a reflection of the fact that the region served as a conduit for China’s decades-long approach to investment around the world.

With a model of building infrastructure using Chinese firms deployed to deliver on loans provided by the country’s financial institutions to open up trade and markets, Beijing’s investments in Central Asia since the end of the Cold War provide a model for the globalised Belt and Road Initiative.

For countries along the routes, there is the difficulty of understanding and connecting with the Chinese investments in a manner that is useful to them, so that they are not simply roads passing through their territories.

For outside powers, such as the UK, there is the challenge of comprehending where they sit in the broader vision, as well as how they can connect with these projects along the routes.

To understand these issues better, there are three key aspects to remember. First, the concept is not a monolith. Each of the strands of the Belt and Road are different; at different stages of development, advanced to differing degrees and of variable importance.

In some cases, China is building on a long history of investment, while in others China is starting from a very low base of investment. It is important to distinguish between the rhetoric and the reality in each case.

Second, it is important to remember that this is not a giant aid project; China is making commercial investments in many cases. In some, the loans have been offered at reasonable rates and the implementing partner is contractually obliged to be Chinese. Looking at the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank projects, they are in fact put out to open tender.

It is only in very few cases that the investment being offered acts as pure aid. China is still developing its aid profile, and this is key in understanding what China is doing under the Belt and Road.

The ultimate aim is to develop a series of trade and economic corridors using Chinese companies (thereby helping them go out into the world) to help China develop domestically. This is fundamentally a selfish vision aimed at advancing Chinese interests.

Third, it is important to think of the vision with a longer horizon that we are used to considering. At the moment, there is little economic logic to placing goods on trains from China to go to Europe: the route is far more expensive than going by sea and the highest value goods that need to get across land quicker need to travel by air.

Consequently, the much-vaunted trains which are travelling across the Eurasian landmass bringing goods between Europe and China are for the most part going full one way and empty back.

Furthermore, they are being subsidised by Beijing or the regional governments from where they depart. They do not currently make economic sense.

But it is possible that this is looking at them on too short a timeline. Seen from Beijing, the idea is to lay these tracks and develop these routes so that once China’s western regions become more developed and productive, they can take advantage of these routes.

Over time, what seems a short-term loss may turn into a longer-term artery of international trade. The point is that it is possible that the horizon with which the Belt and Road is currently considered is too limited.

In fact, it is something with a much longer timeline and is fundamentally, seen from Beijing, about re-establishing China as the centre of a global network of trade and economic routes that will help re-wire international trade.

These three elements are essential to bear in mind when outside powers are seeking to connect with the vision. It is important to understand each corridor in detail, to focus on the commercial opportunities that the corridors will create and to think with a longer horizon that most governments usually consider.

Once this learning has been absorbed and considered, it will be easier to understand how to connect with China’s vision – something that is as relevant to countries such as the UK at one end of the route as those that are along the routes.

For the Chinese investments are happening, notwithstanding the hyperbole that will be on display this weekend; money is being spent, and ground is being broken.

Banner image: The first goods train service from China to the UK arrives at DB Cargo’s rail freight terminal in Barking, East London. Courtesy of PA Images

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