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Wang Wen: Camel Bells and Smoky Deserts

2016-03-15

Source: harvard political review    Published: 2016-3-12

 

“As I stand here and look back at that episode of history, I could almost hear the camel bells echoing in the mountains and see the wisp of smoke rising from the desert,” said Chinese President Xi Jinping in Astana, Kazakhstan in 2013. Xi’s poetic pomp voiced a nostalgia for the second century BCE, when the Han Dynasty rivaled the Romans and the diplomat Zhang Qian pioneered the Silk Road. In his speech, Xi announced a vision that seeks to revive Zhang’s legacy via a two-part plan. Part one would involve investing in infrastructure connecting China to Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, and the second would develop maritime trade extending from Southeast Asia to the Mediterranean. Known as the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road respectively, the two initiatives command a name that seeks to carry the weight of history.

 

In an interview with the HPR, Philippe Le Corre of the Brookings Institution speculated that the Maritime Silk Road, a mundane collection of shipping lanes and maritime trade routes, “will work.”

 

OBOR is more a loose confederation of initiatives than a unified agenda of establishing a Chinese world order. And the potential benefits are many. A westward march, Tao Xie, a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, explained, would connect Beijing to Central Asia’s energy reserves and to the Middle East via land, bypassing the Malacca Strait. OBOR’s massive infrastructure construction could also absorb some of China’s industrial overcapacity, according to Anthony Saich of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, who spoke with the HPR. Furthermore, greater involvement in Europe would lessen Beijing’s economic dependence on Washington and diversify its investment portfolio, said Le Corre.


“One Belt, One Road” is far from a groundbreaking grand strategy. China “has invested in ‘OBOR regions’ long before President Xi coined the term,” according to Wen Wang, executive director at the Chongyang Institute, a think-tank based in Beijing, who spoke with the HPR. China’s motives in creating OBOR are not conspiratorial but rather mundane: OBOR is a catchy label for a vision that loosely knits together China’s already-existing economic and political interests.

 

For those worried about a new Sino world order, “One Belt, One Road” is far from a groundbreaking grand strategy. China “has invested in ‘OBOR regions’ long before President Xi coined the term,” according to Wen Wang, executive director at the Chongyang Institute, a think-tank based in Beijing, who spoke with the HPR. China’s motives in creating OBOR are not conspiratorial but rather mundane: OBOR is a catchy label for a vision that loosely knits together China’s already-existing economic and political interests. Vast, ambitious, and grandiose as it is, OBOR is neither focused nor revolutionary, and far from politically alarming. Any fantasized Pax Sina is unlikely to materialize, agreed Szonyi.


The economic impact of OBOR is generally benign as well. For China, OBOR will likely provide healthy returns. Wang estimated that “the proportion of ‘failed investments’—[existing investments in Belt regions, not necessarily Belt-related, that incurred losses]—is about 25 percent,” a risk that he called “average” for overseas investments. He further cited that “for the past 10 years, annual loans from the China Development Bank are in the trillions of dollars, of which only 1 percent went bad.” Since the CDB is one of OBOR’s key financing sources, he is optimistic about OBOR’s future profitability.


Key regions involved in the project, like Central Asia, Central Europe, and Eastern Europe, will also benefit from China-financed infrastructure, which is evident in the regions’ enthusiasm in welcoming Beijing’s cash. Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Massimov has pushed for greater ties with Beijing—a sentiment echoed by Kazakh communities of Chinese descent. Le Corre noted that Central and Eastern European countries also work closely with Chinese leadership in the “16+1 Initiative,” a coalition that coordinates OBOR-oriented development. Infrastructure—roads, railroads, airports, electric grids, and Internet connections—would spark economic growth but cannot be built without massive investment, the money for which most countries in the region lack. Through OBOR, China can supply the capital for these investments.

 

Of course, some observors, like James Evans of Harvard’s Fairbank Center of Chinese Studies, are rightly concerned that these grand, state-sponsored projects will only benefit socioeconomic elites. Saich acknowledged such skepticisms but affirmed the basic economic logic that “a better network of railroads and infrastructure” that connects to markets in China and Europe will boost the economies of all countries involved.


The same goes for Western Europe. Evans believes that EU states, plagued by persistent slow growth, are eager for Chinese investment since their own governments are too cash-strapped.


The “One Belt” collaboration could feature significant political benefits as well. Central Asia and the Middle East, both key players in China’s vision, have long been plagued with extremism. As China marches west, it will inevitably hold a greater stake in security and counter-terrorism. Not only could new economic opportunities help stabilize growing Islamic extremism along China’s own western border, but its heightened interest in security could also lead to Sino-U.S. collaboration that may contain jihadist violence in Pakistan and the Middle East.


Though ambitious, OBOR would not radically alter global politics, much less the world order.

 

Wang Wen, the Executive Dean of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies of Renmin University of China, was quoted in this article.


 

This article is an excerpt from "Camel Bells and Smoky Deserts".

 

Key Words: OBOR   China   political interests  

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