China’s $900 billion New Silk Road
The double trade corridor that will reopen relations between China, Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
photo by Suvcon (Flickr)
by Naomi Haecker
The Silk Road. A key component in the history of trade, an early example of humankind’s determination, used to trade silk and other products such as spices across a vast… No, not that one.
The new one. I’m talking about the Belt and Road Initiative, which goes by many names, but is frequently just described as the New Silk Road. Being what it is, namely a Chinese project, it is expansive, expensive, but not necessarily all that burdened with the concern about funding that European governments display as soon as it comes to paving a sidewalk. The Belt and Road Initiative comprises hundreds of smaller projects. It includes building railway bridges in Kazakhstan and seaports in Sri Lanka. It is set to connect four continents and countless countries within them, from Belgium to Laos, from Kenya to Pakistan. It is mind-bogglingly ambitious.
But even China’s ambitions might be curtailed at some point. Chinese growth is not what it used to be, as many have pointed out. Though imagining it was their own people, it is probably still the happy place of many financial advisors in governments all over the world.
Might this project finally be out of China’s league? So far it seems that resources have not been exhausted yet.
Infrastructure is generally useful and helpful to a country, and many of the countries China connects through this project do not have the resources to finance similarly sized projects. Still, some parts of the Belt and Road Initiative are underused and being sold off, while others are seen as threatening – especially to India, which is against China funding developments on disputed territories India lays claim to.
Relatedly, India’s Prime Minister Modi accused the project of showing neo-colonial ambitions, and who can blame him, with China injecting huge sums into poor countries and facilitating their trade routes with this project? It does not exactly make them seem uninterested in others’ affairs. But then, they would not be the first country looking to boost its economy with some shady investing in poorer countries resources – yes, I’m looking at everyone investing in minerals in sub-Saharan Africa. However, maybe we should leave the moral dimension aside for a minute; after all, precious few, if any, countries are concerned with it. As usual, accusing each other of doing bad things is easier than hiding that you are or would like to be doing the exact same thing. There are definitely problems with the New Silk Road, and it’s not clear yet how they will evolve over time. It is not perfectly obvious how it will impact diplomatic relations between various countries and still in flux.
Is China looking to take over the world and the Belt and Road Initiative is designed to accomplish that? Who knows? I certainly don’t. The simple fact is that, while the Trump administration is imposing tariffs, China is building networks. Whether they are doing it perfectly or morally or financially soundly, I cannot say. At least it’s going in the right direction to establishing the country’s economic dominance even more so in the future. They probably don’t care all that much what we think of it. It looks increasingly like there is a spot opening up for world hegemon, and why should China not try to fill it? Is anyone else looking likely to step up to the plate and take moral leadership of the world? Whether you consider that necessary or not, whether you consider a unipolar world more secure or not, whether you have issues with the implications of any one country or maybe just China trying to take the helm, there is a vacuum there. But even though the project has been going on for five years now, it remains to be seen how successful it will be, what it will enable China to do – and whether it has very much to do at all with China’s increasingly powerful performance on the world stage.
Is this project ethically sound? You can decide that according to your own standards. Is it China taking over the world? Probably not more so than when China does anything else. Is it good business and successful, long-term investments that, had other countries the resources, they would implement just the same? Jury’s out, but somehow I still feel the urge to say; looks like it.