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They’ve got the whole wide world in their hands

1 May 2019

China’s One Belt One Road initiative is the largest infrastructure project in history. So what’s driving china’s expansion and what will the consequences be for the rest of the world? Conor Purcell investigates.

Astana, September 2013. China’s Premier Xi Jinping chooses the Kazakhstan capital to make an announcement that largely goes unnoticed in the Western media. He lays out a vision for a multi-billion dollar infrastructure project that will span countries throughout Asia, the Middle East and Africa. A month later, in Indonesia, he makes another announcement: a maritime route that will open China up to even more markets. The project – the biggest infrastructure plan ever undertaken – is the One Belt One Road initiative. Its goal is as ambitious as its size: to make China the world’s biggest superpower within the next thirty years.

The sheer scale of the project is eye-watering, with an estimated trillion dollars of investment and construction in 152 countries worldwide. From railways in Kenya and Sudanese nuclear power stations to Pakistani highways and hydroelectric dams in Argentina, this is truly a global endeavour – and one that will most likely change geopolitics for the next half-century, at least.

“China sees itself as the pre-eminent civilisation in the region,” says Brian Leavy, an Emeritus Professor in Strategy at Dublin City University. “And it was the pre-eminent power for centuries, aside from 1850 to 1950 which is known in China as the ‘century of humiliation.’ So Xi’s big dream is Chinese rejuvenation, which is something that has happened in stages,” he adds. “The first phase was taking control of its national territory, which happened during Mao’s era. The second phase was the ‘opening out’ in the 1970s, and now this. It’s the centenary of the Chinese revolution in 2049 – so that’s when China wants to be recognised as a ‘fully developed nation’.”

Critics claim the project is simply a way for China to shore up foreign resources by bribing poorer countries: We’ll build and run that port you so desperately need, but in return we want access to your natural resources. China of course disputes this, claiming it’s simply “a bid to enhance regional connectivity and embrace a brighter future.”

The country’s desire to be front and centre of an interconnected world is nothing new – the more you look at China’s past, the more you see parallels with the present. During the Han Dynasty (206BC to AD220), China expanded its borders, pushing as far west as Kashgar, which lies at the crossroads of Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent. China’s expansion, as Peter Frankopan explains in his book The New Silk Roads, linked Asia together. And this expansion was driven by a need for resources – in those days, horses. “[China’s demand] for horses was all but insatiable, fuelled by the need to keep an effective military force on standby to maintain internal order within China, and to be able to respond to attacks by other tribes,” Frankopan writes.

China’s modern needs are remarkably similar. “The project is about a number of things, but mainly it’s about resources,” says Paulo Duarte, a researcher at Instituto do Oriente, Lisbon, and an expert on China’s One Belt One Road project. “China was a big exporter of oil until 1993, but then its middle class grew to a point where it’s bigger than the entire population of the United States, so now China needs to import resources such as oil, in order to keep that growth going,” he says.

Another reason? China’s construction industry has slowed down – witness the countless ‘ghost cities’ that dot the country as a testament to what happens when the drive to keep workers working trumps all else. “China’s construction industry has always been the lever of the economy,” Duarte says. “It makes no sense to keep building in China, so this expansion is a way of keeping Chinese workers working all over the world building roads, railways and ports.”

Trade, then, and the ease of getting goods and resources in and out of China is one of the main drivers of this entire project. Again, this is not a new concept. The Silk Road was first named during the Han era, when the fabric was both a luxury commodity and a currency used to pay troops. It is arguable that the route and the trade it allowed – both economic and cultural – played a large role in the development of societies everywhere from Korea to Persia.

Another reason – and one that the Han Dynasty did not face – is something that will become increasingly important in the coming decades: food security. “More than 28,000 rivers have disappeared in China due to over consumption and the disregard for the environment,” says Duarte. “Seven out of the ten most polluted cities in the world are in China. It needs more land outside its borders to grow food and to increase its food security.”

Not everyone is happy with China’s plans. Chief among those is India, a country that has much to lose from the New Silk Road. It’s neighbour, Pakistan (a country it’s technically still at war with) is set to benefit from US$46 billion in new roads, bridges, wind farms and other infrastructure projects, with the China-Pakistan ‘economic corridor’ to run from Kashgar in China’s far west to Karachi on Pakistan’s coast. That the corridor runs through a part of Kashmir claimed by India is not lost on New Delhi. Prime Minister Modi called the route a “colonial enterprise” that threatens to leave “debt and broken communities in its wake.”

Indeed, the imbalance of power between China and the countries it’s striking deals with is undeniable. “China will say these deals are a win-win for both parties, but it could be a win with a capital ‘W’ for China and a very small ‘w’ for the other country,” Leavy says. Modi boycotted the recent One Belt One Road summit in Beijing. He wasn’t the only one. Nobody from Japan or South Korea made an appearance, nor did – aside from Italy – anyone from the G7 group of nations.

“There’s nothing they can do to stop this,” Duarte says. “It’s normal that they are against it, but you can see how big this has become. China is even in Antarctica, drilling for oil.” China has made no secret of why it’s there. The Polar Research Institute of China estimates there are more than 500 billion tonnes of oil and close to the same amount of natural gas under the ice. “When all the world’s resources have been depleted, Antarctica will be a global treasure house of resources,” it said.

“China is now in every corner of the world,” Duarte adds. “Other countries can choose to join them or not, but they can’t stop them. Institutions such as the World Bank no longer reflect the reality of a BRICs world. China will dominate, and this is a very long-term project, something maybe only my grandchildren will see.”

Stumbling blocks, if they do appear, may well be domestic. “The power of Communist Party support is reliant on the material wellbeing of the public,” says Leavy. “We may see more Chinese wanting more control over the big decisions that affect their lives, although that might not be a Western-style democracy. Key for the Chinese leadership is that ordinary people feel they are better off under the Communists than under any other form of government,” he adds. And that comes down to economic growth. “The Communist Party lost a lot of support after Tiananmen Square, and one of the ways in which they tried to regain support was to drive economic development even faster,” he says. And in order for the growth to be sustained at the pace it has been, China needs to look overseas.

The scope of China’s ambition is indeed breathtaking. “China is considering building high speed rail lines that would connect Beijing and London in 48 hours, as well as high speed rail lines linking the country with North America to via the Bering Strait,” Duarte says. It would effectively put China at the centre of the world.

Even in Europe, more and more countries are buying into China’s vision, with Italy recently signing up to 29 separate agreements that covered everything from satellites to banking and natural gas. Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio said the deals were worth €2.5 billion, but could end up being worth more than €20 billion. China has already purchased a 35-year lease on the Greek port of Piraeus (Europe’s eighth biggest).

Much of the rest of the EU is wary about Chinese encroachment, reflected in a statement by the EU Budget Commissioner Gunther Oettinger last year: “In Italy and other European countries, infrastructure of strategic importance such as power networks, rapid rail lines and harbours are no longer in Euro- pean, but in Chinese hands.”

The US is clearly not happy either, but with Trump’s increasingly isolationist foreign policy, China’s cheque book and talk of global connectivity can be very seductive.

The Chinese state-run media agency, Xinhua, couldn’t help but point out the stark difference between Xi’s project and his American counterpart’s lack of interest in globalism. “As some Western countries move backwards by erecting ‘walls’, China is contriving to build bridges, both literal and metaphorical.”

“China has been very clever and it has got more sophisticated in how it projects power,” says Duarte. “It created its own institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. There’s lot of European countries saying ‘yes’ to China and ‘no’ to the US. Trump has definitely helped China because Europe can no longer rely on the US as before and they can’t serve two masters,” Duarte adds.

While the US would often attach conditions to the aid it gave, whether that be democratic or economic reform, China – at least so far – hasn’t interfered. “China’s main intentions are in its core interests in the immediate area. There is no great ideological mission to convert the world to communism,” Leavy says. “China’s primary focus is raising living standards in its own country and helping the provinces that lag behind in development. So, for example, connecting Western China to the Indian ocean might help inward investment, and it’s things like that which are driving this project, not anything ideological.”

While Trump’s promise to make America great again may have turned sour, few now would dismiss entirely Xi Jinping’s goal of completing the One Belt One Road project and restoring China to what it sees as its rightful place in the world. Make China great again? You wouldn’t bet against it.

Photos: Zhang Kechun