At the end of April 2019, heads of government and ministers from 150 countries stepped in front of Xi Jinping in front of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. One after another, the President of China shook their hands. This was a great sign of respect given that, at first glance, the event was of no great importance for foreign or security policy. On the contrary, it was a conference about transport, called the “One Belt, One Road” summit.
“One Belt, One Road” is a slogan that has been haunting the Western media for some time now – sometimes as the abbreviation “OBOR”. But it is rarely very clear what it actually boils down to: It is a gigantic package of various transport projects, all of which are aimed at better linking China with Asia, Europe and Africa. With the expansion and financing of international railway networks, airports, port facilities and motorways – be it in Kazakhstan, Kenya or Sri Lanka – Beijing wants to create its own version of the ancient Silk Road.
What doesn't sound particularly tragic at first has been provoking divided reactions abroad for five years now. In some places the project is lauded as a successful measure of globalisation “made in China”. Elsewhere people tremble with fear, concerned that the OBOR initiative could mark the first step into a Chinese century in which Beijing pulls the strings and establishes itself as a new world power. And especially in a Europe plagued by Brexit and populism, decision-makers are asking themselves how to deal with this monumental project.
What is strange is that the excitement surrounding OBOR is much more modest within China itself. The official economists of the Communist Party (CP) wonder whether the project makes any sense at all. Can it really help to get rid of the overcapacity that has plagued Chinese industry for years? And isn't China doing the world too much of a favour by expanding the global transport network at the expense of its own currency reserves? If you look around in China, then in April 2019 the world might have paid respect to the right man (by shaking hands with Xi Jinping), but not to the right project. Within the Middle Kingdom, The New Silk Road remains controversial.
At the very least that reluctance is probably because around seventy percent of the documents already signed are nothing more than vague declarations of intent, while only around half concern real infrastructure projects. If you take a closer look, the picture gets confusing: one is an agreement to improve school education in Africa, another agreement seeks better environmental protection in Central Asia – and in between there is a whole series of non-binding agreements on the exchange of commercial goods and services. Does the OBOR initiative make a lot of noise about nothing? Is the project perhaps not a visionary strategy at all, but only business as usual?
In reality, the very history of the project is somewhat bizarre. The plan to revive the ancient Silk Road was first talked about by Xi Jinping during a state visit to Kazakhstan in September 2013. About a month later, China's Prime Minister Li Keqiang repeated the same idea in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, but spoke of a “maritime silk road”. Shortly after, however, there was radio silence. More than nine months passed and the Chinese propaganda machine remained silent. Nothing more on the “New Silk Road”, no sign of any thought-out communication strategy.
It was not until August 2014 that Beijing began to stir again, albeit with a completely new vocabulary: Now the CP leadership spoke of a “Chinese Marshall Plan”. The plan was intended to help export China's own surplus goods abroad and diversify China's continental supplies of energy and raw materials.
In addition to these economic ambitions, however, geopolitical considerations suddenly also seemed to play a role. Yan Xuetong, a professor at the renowned University of Beijing, argued, for example, that China could protect itself from competition from the East by expanding the New Silk Road to the West. This primarily referred to the USA and its Asian allies – from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan to the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Beijing probably feared that this alliance could quickly checkmate China in the event of war, as almost eighty percent of China's production capacity is located on the country's eastern coast. Accordingly, the initiative, which was adopted by the CP at the end of 2014 under the name “Top Designated State Strategy ‘One Belt, One Road’”, was not just a transport and information initiative.
And there was yet more confusion about what the Chinese government wanted to achieve with the New Silk Road. In January 2015, fifteen risk analyses for the project became public, all of which stated that the OBOR initiative would not only mean “enormous risks” and “wasted money” for the participating countries from Central Asia, Southeast and South Asia, the Middle East, the Balkans and East Africa, but also for China itself. Moreover, both “
domestic political distortions” from within China and “geopolitical resistance” from abroad are to be feared.
In response, the CP changed course once again. In August 2015, exactly one year after the start of the officially decreed debate on the New Silk Road, the CP abruptly changed tack: All state media were instructed to remove comparisons between OBOR and the Marshall Plan from the reports. It was suddenly said from Beijing that China was not planning such an initiative, nor was the Marshall Plan a suitable benchmark for the Silk Road Project: after the Second World War, it was rather an imperialist conquest instrument of the USA. OBOR, on the other hand, was an expression of Chinese generosity and served the whole world. It had long been forgotten that all three original goals – the export of surplus capacity, the diversification of supply routes and the securing of a strategic retreat for China in the event of a major war – served exclusively national goals.
Now China began to deny objectives that it itself had announced. The state news agency Xinhua reported that nobody intended to flood the world with Chinese surplus goods, while agencies in Beijing continued to create new euphemisms to show the project in a better light. Instead of talking about the “export of overcapacities”, people were now talking about “channeng duijie”, which means “connection to production capacities”. But even this language rethink did not last long and was quickly banned, just like the expression “diversification of supply routes”.
At the end of 2016, the CP even deleted the word “strategy” from its official vocabulary. All diplomatic missions of China were instructed to define OBOR softer and not to advertise the project any more. In April 2017, Shi Mingde, China's ambassador in Berlin, said at a public event: “OBOR has never been a strategy, but was an open platform from the beginning”. At the same time, however, the original version of the “Top Designated State Strategy ‘One Belt, One Road’” was still available on the homepage of the Chinese Ministry of Commerce.
It can be assumed that most slip-ups until the end of 2016 were merely propaganda tricks that were supposed to hide the geopolitical dimensions of the large-scale project. Meanwhile, even in China, nobody seems to believe in the strategy's chances of success any more. In 2017, the Chinese leadership changed the title one last time – OBOR became “BRI”, the “Belt and Road Initiative” – but apparently did not remember why, as it reverted to the old abbreviation for the OBOR summit in 2019.
In the meantime, the goals of the project have been watered down further and further and remain as vague as possible: Together with international partners, trade and transport projects are to be planned and global infrastructures financed. For the rest of the world this probably means the following: China may be forging a strategy for its rise to world power, but the OBOR initiative will not succeed – and even if the New Silk Road in the West is a popular topic for discussion: It seems not unlikely that the Chinese mega-project will end up being just as implausible as the “strategies” currently emerging from the White House.
translated by Jess Smee