Consistent political will is needed to ensure one belt, one road initiative succeeds

Geopolitical tensions place the strategy aimed at strengthening connectivity between the economies from China to Europe in jeopardy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 June, 2016, 1:33pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 June, 2016, 1:33pm

China’s one belt, one road initiative is one of the most expansive and complex political and economic undertakings ever attempted, and inherent to such a large-scale and long-term project are some very formidable challenges.

Political, economic, and social factors all have major impacts on how thoroughly the strategy can be instituted throughout the 65 countries it touches, and working out all of these various elements is key to its success.

Consistent and concentrated political will is perhaps the greatest challenge for the initiative. As many of the countries along its various routes have democratic governments, which can be prone to radical changes in policy with the regular revolving of elected officials, sustaining focus on the initiative’s projects and positive Chinese relations from regime to regime is essential.

Political changes have already presented numerous disruptions to the initiative’s projects, one of the most noted examples being the very pro-China Mahinda Rajapaska being ousted in Sri Lanka for a much more lukewarm candidate, which caused major delays in the development of China-backed projects such as the Colombo Port City and the Hambantota Deep Sea Port.

The geopolitical influence of major world powers on less powerful one belt, one road countries also cannot be underestimated. Bogdan Góralczyk, a former Polish ambassador and sinologist, called one belt, one road the biggest geostrategic project and vision since at least 1945, and the initiative has likewise been a major disruptor of the reigning geopolitical status quo throughout Eurasia.

Major routes of one belt, one road traverse parts of the world where Russia, India, the EU, Japan, and the United States exert large amounts of influence.

While the initiative aims to increase connectivity between the economies from China to Europe, leveraging the particular advantages of each, it can also be seen as a competing strategy with pre-existing geopolitical partnerships, trade pacts and customs unions.

The suspicion that some of China’s commercial projects across Eurasia could also serve potential military purposes has caused no small amount of trepidation among the region’s geopolitical heavyweights, who often use their influence on less powerful countries to steer them away from choice one belt, one road undertakings.

“The low-profile strategy of taoguang yanghui has gone, and the new assertiveness of Beijing is seen by many abroad more as a challenge than a chance to have another ‘honest broker’,” Góralczyk says.

Another challenge to the future success of the initiative is that in some countries along its routes the tides of public sentiment against Chinese-backed projects occasionally flare up into visible discontent.

There is an omnipresent, although often unfounded, fear in some countries that one belt, one road participation will open the floodgates to an influx of Chinese labourers and cheap Chinese products, which could displace the local workforce and have an adverse impact on local manufacturers.

In 2010 and again in April of this year, protests erupted across Kazakhstan over fears that Chinese investors were going to be permitted to buy up large tracts of land, which the protesters felt could lead to the marginalisation of the local population.

In Kyrgyzstan, public demonstrations against Chinese companies operating in the country have been inter-mittent since 2011, while occasional flare-ups of anti-Chinese public sentiment have happened at various times in other countries along the routes of one belt, one road.

“The biggest challenge for [the initiative] will arise from the public opinion in Europe, the US, Africa and Southeast Asian countries,” explains Dominik Mierzejewski, a Chinese studies professor at the University of Lodz in Poland. “The governments in democratic countries need to follow public sentiment, and now we see more negative feeling against China than before.”

The biggest challenge for [the initiative] will arise from the public opinion in Europe, the US, Africa and Southeast Asian countries
Dominik Mierzejewski, Chinese studies professor, University of Lodz, Poland

The long-term stability of the countries that many of the routes of the initiative pass through is also questionable, and increasing political and economic confidence in this region has been another major challenge for the initiative.

One belt, one road includes many countries, such as Georgia, Ukraine, Pakistan, Iran and Kyrgyzstan, which have either recently undergone tumultuous political and economic transitions or have potential security issues.

“Stability in Eurasia is the Achilles heel of the ... initiative,” says Moritz Rudolf, a China studies researcher. “Beijing is currently neither willing nor able to protect its investments abroad or to guarantee stability in the region.”

An additional challenge for the initiative is in the realm of financing. Former Singapore ambassador Ong Keng Yong points out that even with the US$1 trillion that China has pooled together for the initiative’s related projects it still may not be enough over the long term.

Not only does necessary infrastructure need to be built but also maintained. As returns on infrastructure investment often don’t materialise for many years, how long it will take one belt, one road to become solvent is a very vital question.

Geopolitical relations, national-level politics, public sentiment and sources of financing for development projects are always shifting, which presents shaky ground for a long-term initiative such as the one belt, one road to be built on.

China will need to overcome these challenges if the initiative is to mature into a powerful force for international cooperation and mutually beneficial economic exchanges across Eurasia rather than a mere moniker for Chinese foreign diplomacy.