China’s Ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. By Farooq Ganderbali


When President Xi Jinping landed in Islamabad in April 2015, he was delayed in his trip by a couple of months. His September 2014 sojourn was postponed because of security reasons, demonstrating the fear of instability in Pakistan. Then again, his visit in March 2015 as part of a three-nation tour which would have taken him to Saudi Arabia and Egypt was called off because of the situation in Yemen. Therefore, there was much relief in Islamabad when President Xi’s aircraft landed in Islamabad on 20 April 2015.
The highlight of the Pak visit was the signing of the agreement on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, for which Beijing has pledged US$ 46 billion. Of course, this in itself is not going to be easy as announcing the grant of funds is one thing.Physically making the connectionson the ground between China and Pakistan is going to be another thing, particularly given the state of internal security in Pakistan. And then there is debate on the route of the CPEC itself, as PM Sharif wants it to pass through the more prosperous Punjab and not through KPK!In the larger context, one could see the CPEC as a microcosm of China’s Belt and Road (B&R) Initiative.
Pertinently, one has to only look at the record of Chinese investments in mega projects like this elsewhere in South Asia to understand the challenges of Chinese overseas investments in terms of aid, grants and project financing. Wherever Beijing has landed it has left a trail of loans and grants with high interest rates. The case of Sri Lanka is illustrative. Chinese involvement in infrastructure projects has piled up debt and some say US$ 6 billion-8 billion are owed to China alone!
When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Central Asia and Southeast Asia in September and October of 2013, he raised the idea of jointly building the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB)and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) (hereinafter referred to as the Belt and Road).The initiative aims to integrate China further into the world economy, reduce its dependence on the Malacca Strait for energy imports and essentially bring in line countries along the way into the Chinese way of functioning. It also aims to improve the Western region of Xinjiang which would then be integrated into the global system.China has multiple reasons to push these initiatives in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe: geo-strategy, access to raw materials such as oil, and new markets. It also creates jobs: tens of thousands of Chinese workers work on projects in Pakistan – up to 20,000 at Karakoram alone.
There are two issues of note here. First, the B&R Initiative envisages land routes to Europe and West Asia, many of which will pass through troubled spots like Pakistan and Ukraine. Second, the Chinese notion of connectivity will have to be brought in line with respective national legal processes of nations who join the initiative. That is still some time away. Therefore, B&R Initiative is at this point in time only an initiative.
The Chinese vision document on the B&R Initiative issued in March 2015 by the National Development and Reform Commission outlines in some detail China’s plans to connect the world. The Belt and Road Initiative has two components: the SBER and the MSR. In the Chinese construct, the SREB focuses on bringing together China, Central Asia, Russia and Europe (the Baltic); linking China with the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea through Central Asia and West Asia; and connecting China with Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Indian Ocean. The 21st-Century MSR, aims to connect China's coast to Europe through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean in one route, and from China's coast through the South China Sea to the South Pacific in the other.
The land part of the Initiative focuses on jointly building a new Eurasian Land Bridge and developing China-Mongolia-Russia, China-Central Asia-West Asia and China-Indochina Peninsula economic corridors by taking advantage of international transport routes, relying on core cities along the Belt and Road and using key economic industrial parks as cooperation platforms.
At sea, the Initiative will focus on jointly building smooth, secure and efficient transport routes connecting major sea ports along the Belt and Road. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor are closely related to the Belt and Road Initiative, and therefore require closer cooperation and greater progress.
This is grandstanding at its best. After all, announcing a US$21 trillion project to reportedly connect 4.4 billion people in the world is indeed a grand design. Sounds ambitious! This is not only going to require a lot of money but also effort on China’s part. It is not as though Beijing is incapable of performing seemingly impossible feats. They did build the Qinghai-Lhasa railway line. Only this time around scale of their ambitionis much larger. It is worth asking who is going to need these new transportation networks the Chinese are proposing. Most goods travel around the globe via sea.It is cheaper and logistically simpler, although much slower, than rail or air transport. Although railways would half the time sea transport takes, there are several obstacles to be overcome in building them;to name just a few, different gauge systems, financial sharing, an unstable security environment. China may make a short-term profit by investing in infrastructure but long-term viability will be questionable if no one dares to use the infrastructure. In addition, more goods travel from China to Europe than vice versa.The benefit of rail transport will thus also depend on the demand on both ends.
There is thus a need to take a deep breath and look closely at the map that China is seeking to construct with its B&R Initiative. It is an ambitious global project by a power that is a developing country wanting parity with the US. That in the long run is the aim, for China to become a superpower. Only time will tell whether the Belt and Road initiative will lead to China’s rise to being a superpower or it will just remain an initiative for improved connectivity remains to be seen in the future.

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