The new Silk Road

From the February 2017 issue.

Aiming to restore the country’s old maritime and overland trade routes, China’s One Belt initiative has the potential to create the largest platform for regional collaboration in the world.

In late 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched what could be the nation’s most ambitious economic and diplomatic program since the founding of the People’s Republic: Harking back nostalgically to the ancient Silk Road, he revealed to the world a US$1 trillion project aimed at connecting China with the West, the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) plan.

Comprising of a physical Belt linking China with the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea, and a maritime Road connecting China with Europe and the South Pacific, the two-part infrastructure development project will enable the People’s Republic to reach some 65 per cent of the world’s population, representing about one-third of the world’s GDP and about a quarter of all the goods and services the world moves, according to McKinsey.

Following the ethos of Chinese author Lu Xun, who said, “the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many men pass one way, a road is made”, both Belt and Road won’t follow a preconceived geographical route, though. Rather, Xi’s strategy seeks to make paths where they will have the most potential for China to strengthen its influence, with infrastructure investments running through the continents of Asia, Europe and Africa.

As such, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been selling the OBOR project as a very organic process until now that is focused on creating new opportunities as the path is taking shape*: “The connectivity projects of the Initiative will help align and coordinate the development strategies of the countries along the Belt and Road, tap market potential in this region, promote investment and consumption, create demands and job opportunities [and] enhance people-to people and cultural exchanges.”

OBOR’s highly amorphous character initially puzzled many Western policymakers it has no official list of member countries – the rough count is around the 60-nation mark – and because most of the projects that sport the label would probably have been built anyway.

Three years into the project, however, OBOR’s global importance is slowly starting to manifest itself, according to The Economist. “The projects [started under the OBOR mantle] are vast. Official figures say there are 900 deals underway, worth US$890 billion, such as a gas pipeline from the Bay of Bengal through Myanmar to south-west China and a rail link between Beijing and Duisburg, a transport hub in Germany. China says it will invest a cumulative US$4 trillion in OBOR countries, though it does not say by when.”

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