Jim Stoopman on China’s “One-Belt-One-Road” Initiative
Q:Based on your judgment, how many people in Europe or Brussels are interested in China's One-Belt-One-Road (OBOR)? Who are these people?
A:Despite the fact that China’s Belt and Road Initiative has been widely covered in European media, I believe that the general populace is still rather unaware of its exact scope, meaning and potential implications, and might see it as just a new policy slogan coming from the Chinese leadership. Amongst academia and think tanks there is increased interest in the topic, but the group of researchers and think tank representatives that cover the Belt and Road initiative is still rather small. Even amongst academia, one can also see that many are still trying to come to grips with the initiative and are not entirely sure what the concrete implications will be for Europe.
Amongst those that do focus on elements of the Belt and Road, the main focus tends to lie on security implications and trade and investment related issues. In addition, a group that must, and in fact is curiously awaiting the practical implications of the Belt and Road are European policymakers and governments of Member States.
In fact, the Belt and Road and the numerous funds (AIIB, Silk Road Fund, BRICS-bank) that could finance projects provide a wealth of opportunities for countries that are in dire need of infrastructural upgrades, whether highways and railways or the enhancement of digital connectivity. In addition, European policymakers are also looking how the Belt and Road initiative can be linked to the Juncker Plan which similarly aims for the creation of employment through infrastructural projects.
Q: In your view, what is the motivation of China to put forward OBOR?
A:I hold there are a couple of reasons for China to initiate the Belt and Road initiative.
First, one can witness that in a number of industries of pertinence to the Belt and Road (e.g. infrastructure, transport) China maintains domestic overcapacity, and the hardware projects along the Belt and Road can provide a solid platform for China to put this overcapacity to good use. I also see some merit in the argument that it is a venture to ensure profits for China’s State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), however that alone cannot suffice in explaining China’s motivation.
Therefore, secondly, I am convinced that the Belt and Road should be seen as an attempt of China to showcase its renewed position as a global leader. The Belt and Road is congruent with its perceived new regional and global status, and I believe it is public diplomacy in its purest form. China will aim to convince (this will also be one of the main potential hurdles for China) the rest of the world that China can be a constructive partner for development, securing win-win outcomes along the road, that fill the gaps that were left by the EIB, ADB and World Bank, and aspire for a connected Eurasian continent in trade, infrastructure and spirit.
Q:What is the most difficult part of OBOR?
A: It is evident that the Belt and Road will not be a straight out success, and it is likely that the Chinese government and governments of countries along the road will encounter a number of setbacks and difficulties in the years to come. I am convinced that in order to make it in to a true triumph, it is important for all participants to elevate the importance of the civilizational aspect of the Belt and Road, in order to ensure better understanding and create mutual benefits that outweigh the mere financial and tangible profits (roads, railways, ports).
In order for this to happen, China needs to carefully read the context in which the new Silk Road should develop. At the moment it seems that China does not have much knowledge about the culture and general environment, perceptions and security contingencies of the other countries involved, and a proper risk assessment is truly warranted.
Q:China has expressed its interest of integrating the OBOR with the Juncker Investment Plan. Specifically speaking, what should be done to achieve this target?
A: Initially it seemed that European countries were rather hesitant when it comes to the Belt and Road, and/or AIIB. However, given the similar focus, one can increasingly see that policymakers are exploring the potential to link the Belt and Road to the EUR 315 billion European Fund for Strategic Investment (a.k.a the Juncker Plan). This is the likely result of the augmented awareness that Europe cannot possibly do it alone.
Implementing the Juncker Plan will require the mobilization of billions of euros of both private and public funds and capital from the European Investment Bank (EIB), and, of foreign investors such as China. In practice, projects in Europe should open-up prospects for Chinese enterprises and simultaneously projects along the Belt and Road should provide investment opportunities for European companies.
It is important for Chinese partners and funds to be fully aware of the terms and conditions that apply and under which they can participate in the EFSI, conduct proper risk assessments, and gain awareness on the public perceptions that prevail to ultimately mitigate potential cultural and legal problems. In the end the success of linking both initiatives is for a large part dependent on China creating a genuine image of cooperation and interested in mutual, equal gains.
Q:According to your understanding, when it is completed, what would OBOR look like? And, how can China make it a success?
A: Ideally the Belt and Road will turn out to become a project of a unprecedented global scale, that will change regions, societies and trade links in a positive fashion and will move the Eurasian continent in the words of Xi Jinping towards a ‘community of destiny’. As is often the case, this is easier said than done.It is of crucial importance that the OBOR initiative (or remains) inclusive, rather than exclusive, and that it remains a rather fluid concept that allows for the extension and inclusion of new geographic areas that want to enjoy the fruits of increased connectivity.
To make the project into a true success, as was the case for the ancient Silk Road, civilizational dialogue (e.g. P2P exchanges, cultural exchanges, protecting of Silk Road heritage and tourism) must have a fundamental role in the Belt and Road. These exchanges and dialogues should be the basis from which infrastructural and transport projects take place. It is a challenge for the Chinese government and other stakeholders along the Belt and Road to act in the interest of the people, clearly communicate and prove that the Belt and Road is not just a political slogan, but actually means and achieves something in practice. If China can truly create a connectivity project in which a process is enabled that can open and courteous exchange of views between nations, groups, and individuals with different ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic backgrounds and heritage across different continents, on the basis of mutual understanding and respect, I have good hopes for the future of the Belt and Road.
(Jim Stoopman is Programme Coordinator and Researcher at the European Institute for Asian Studies in Brussels.)